Times are changing. We are not.

I saw the subject line of this post on a billboard north of Houston some time ago, advertising a local church, and I’ve continued to think about it since, in terms of the differences between the labels “conservative” and “liberal.” These terms are incredibly loaded, of course. But I want to discuss them first before remarking on the sign further.

I tend to think of “conservative” as a philosophy that rejects change for change’s sake, a sort of “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” variant. Certain ideals, government structures, cultural values, etc. are seen as needing preservation in their present state. This philosophy is not opposed to ANY change – just change seen as unnecessary, destructive, or rushed. Change is recognized as inevitable, but in need of careful management and review. This philosophy naturally leads to a brand of individualism that ironically undercuts itself; you are free to be an individual as long as you toe the value line.

Likewise, I tend to think of “liberal” as a philosophy that sees certain kinds of change as being artificially slowed by conservative stances when they need to be sped up, even in the face of majority rule that disagrees. It’s not a ‘change for change’s sake’ philosophy, either, but change is viewed as less of a threat and more of an opportunity. This philosophy naturally leads to egalitarianism, which favors the whole over the individual.

I should note that neither of these philosophies is inherently democratic (and both are vulnerable to charges of utilitarianism.) Democracy is yet another philosophy that insists issues should be resolved through some kind of majority vote that is determined through representatives of the people, whether by election, lot, or some other method. Democracy, in other words, is built to subsume conservatism and liberalism.

Back to the sign – “Times are changing. We are not.” This is beyond conservatism, which recognizes that change is ok if controlled, and into the realm of fundamentalism. As Karen Armstrong and others have noted, fundamentalism is an inherently modern philosophy; it does not try to preserve the past as much as demand a return to a past that may or may not have actually existed. As such fundamentalism requires the presence or perception of liberal-style change or it has no casus belli. Fundamentalism sees itself as an island preserve trying to hold the line against a jungle of chaos. It professes, even, a special, timeless, immunity to change. Change may even be characterized as cyclical and passing, something to be weathered until a future time.

The reason I like the sign so much is that it’s so vague and yet simultaneously quite specific. It’s a church advertisement, complete with a black and white photo of a white-haired man I assume is a leader in the church; therefore, the change referenced is almost certainly religious/theological in nature, even though it is not identified. As such, it is ALL religious/theological change of any kind. Furthermore, the verb in the second sentence, ‘are not,’ is also curious. It is not ‘will not’ or ‘can not’ or ‘have not’ or even ‘are not changing’ or ‘are not going to’ – it is the non-specific present ‘are not’. The verb in the first sentence is progressive, describing a process still occurring; if ‘changing’ is simply reduced from the second sentence, the sentence has the irony of having a progressive verb describe the absence of change.

Someone decided – a minister, a group of deacons, a church support organization, etc – to put up this sign and pay for it. Its message is therefore not trivial to them. And yet it is independent of history. Assuming it’s a Protestant organization of some sort, by definition the congregation’s values stem from the Reformation, which certainly qualifies as a pretty big religious change. So the sign’s claims must be more historically short-term, namely “Times are changing. We are currently advocating a religious worldview dating to year X that holds Y and has no current plans to deviate from its beliefs, unlike everyone else.” The colorful history of Christianity does not allow the sign’s claim; churches can seem to be bastions of non-change, but the plethora of versions of the religion that have exploded in the last few hundred years undercuts this claim. Religion is not immune to changes, whether temporary waystations want it to change or not.

However, the appeal of the sign remains to those who want to believe change can and should be held off, which is where fundamentalism and conservatism start to blend together. I could critique liberalism in the same way, as it can be pushed into a ‘change for change’s sake’ mode that is equally illogical.

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