Linguistic and Grammatical Reflections on the expression “Post-Conservative Evangelical”

English as a third language is always the most difficult.

As for myself, English certainly qualifies as a third language: I am French, and I am trying to learn bits of Elven languages while studying Tolkien. English is then, well, just another language. But still, I know English well enough to do a bit of reading in this language … from time to time. As I was preparing a class for a French theological seminary, I was reflecting on the expression “Post-Conservative Evangelical,” and on how this could sound in French. First discovery: it sounds awful and you don’t want to know. Second discovery (in fact a discovery logically following the previous one): this expression is void of any real meaningful content. “Post Conservative Evangelical” does not need any translation, and in fact cannot have one, because the concept is so broad as to become utterly empty. Let me explain. I do not mean that to be Post Conservative Evangelical does not mean anything. Clearly it does, and it is precisely why, beyond the grammatical charges I have against the expression, I also have strong theological objections to it. But the expression “Post Evangelical Conservative” is far from conveying the theological positions of its adherents. In fact it is probably does not help the “Post-Conservative Evangelical” cause to be labeled that way. So again, I do not mean that the phenomena of “Post-Conservative Evangelical” does not exist but that, in order to be meaningful, it should receive a different name. In this context, let us then turn to the expression “Post-Conservative Evangelical.”

First, the term “Evangelical” is itself becoming increasingly difficult to define, as all student of modern church history knows. Not only is “evangelical,” in the American theological tradition, rather vague, but it is also precisely distinctively American—or to be fairer Anglo-Saxon, since we have to include our British friends.

That is, the expression “Post Conservative Evangelical” is itself incomplete, too restrictive, being relevant, at the moment, only to a portion of the Anglo-Saxons (that is, those who distinguish themselves by contrast to the theological “conservative”) world. Evangelical, even when we take into account related elements like “fundamentalism,” and “Bible-believing,” remains notoriously difficult to define. Of course Evangelicalism is the belief that the “faith in Christ’s atoning work as absolutely central” (Tomlinson, 27) but is also a cultural and socio-political tradition, embodied in different cultures and societies. But let’s face it: we cannot avoid using the term. After all, whether it is the best term or not, we are bound to define ourselves as Evangelicals, for better or for worse. but the point is that to be accurate, this movement should acknowledge its Anglo-Saxon identity, not its mere evangelical identity.

If we are stuck with a problems about etymology and definition regarding the term “evangelical,” there might be a greater problem with the second term, “conservative.” The Merriam Webster dictionary reports several uses of “conservative”:

1. “preservative,” that is, product used in aliments to “conserve” them. 
2a. of or relating to a philosophy of conservatism. 
2b. when capitalized : of or constituting a political party professing the principles of conservatism: as  (1) of or constituting a party of the United Kingdom advocating support of established institutions  (2) progressive conservative. 
3a. tending or disposed to maintain existing views, conditions, or institutions : traditional 3b. marked by moderation or caution <a conservative estimate> 
3c. marked by or relating to traditional norms of taste, elegance, style, or manners. 
4. of, relating to, or practicing Conservative Judaism.

Obviously theological tradition does not add chemical products to make them stand longer, so we can forget about (1). Even with the strong political tradition hidden behind all forms of Christianity in the United States, it is difficult to believe that (2a) and (2b) are the meaning ascribed to “Conservative” in the expression “Post Conservative Evangelical.” (3b) is also out of the question here [after all we should all practice caution shouldn’t we?], as is (3c). Let us also forget about (4) since obviously none of us is a conservative Jew.

So we are left with (3a): “tending or disposed to maintain existing views, conditions, or institutions : traditional.” You begin now to see the problem with the term “conservative.” What would it mean to be “post traditional” ? Probably its use in the expression “Post Conservative Evangelical” is meant to isolate two opposing elements, namely, the traditional Evangelicals—by what is meant (to speak politely) “narrow-minded”—and the progressive, open-minded Evangelicals. The opposition is thus within the Evangelical world between Evangelical who are open to others, and those who are not. Between traditional people and evangelical Christians who are open to the world, and open to God because he is open to the ever moving truth, a truth he cannot hold in his hands because it belongs to God. Certainly, my PCE friends do not want me to believe that they are drawing such a basic dividing line within the Church. But the expression itself goes that way.

In this context, the use of “conservative” is politically significant since it is one of those terms that is, today, the vehicle of negative feelings—either politically, economically, or theologically. And thus, to define oneself as non-conservative, or here, post-conservative, is an emotional way to stigmatize those we disagree with. I will not comment much longer on the uselessness of the term. The point is just this: the adjective “conservative” is probably not the right one to use here because it does not say much about the position of those who are “post concervative” evangelicals ! And it certainly does not do justice to the theological position of those who are not “Post Conservative Evangelical.” In other words: not to be “Post Conservative Evangelical” does not make one “Conservative Evangelical.”

Third, the term “post” is also ambiguous and certainly the most problematic of all the terms of the expression “Post Conservative Evangelical.”  From the Latin postis, it can refer to: 1. a temporal indication. The Greek adverb corresponding can be used with the accusative, denoting a spatial expression, “behind” or temporal, “after”. Obviously, “Post Conservative Evangelical” cannot denote a spatial distinction. After all you can be “Post Conservative Evangelical” and be anywhere in the U.S.A. or the U.K. ! In which case, the expression “Post Conservative Evangelical” could designate a temporal relationship between the two movements. We are then arguing that “conservatism” is a past, dead movement, and that the Evangelical tradition is on its way to evolve into a different, and implicitly more “evolved” form of theological expression. In theology, especially since the early twentieth-century, “post” invariably convey the idea of an evolutive and qualitatively superior tradition over another. In this case, maybe “Post Conservative Evangelical” denotes a tradition that sets itself in an evolving temporal movement, out of traditional Evangelicalism into another morphe of the Evangelical shape. There might be some truth in this, in the sense that a rising tradition necessarily grows out of another one, but it does not entail the temporal evolutive superiority that is usually involved in the use of the term “post.”

2. a hierarchical relationship, something that is “subordinate to.” This makes of “post” an essential indication, conveying the idea of “degree.” In this case, we are actually arguing that “Post Conservative Evangelical” is somehow qualitatively, or essentially, “above” conservatism. In this latter definition, “Post Conservative Evangelical” would refer to evangelicals who are essentially not conservative—the latter being mostly understood by the negative terms of “narrow-mindedness” and “dogmatism.” Not only that, but it makes “post conservative evangelical” better “evangelicals” than their conservative counterpart. Such a use implies a “standing above” on the part of the “post conservative evangelicals.” This is certainly one of the meanings adopted by Dave Tomlinson in his famous book, The Post-Evangelical in which he describes the movement as the desire of many Evangelicals to “outgrow” traditional Evangelicalism. As I said previously, “Post Conservative Evangelical” can very well be a tradition growing out of a previous one—but a tradition nonetheless. significantly, “outgrowing” conveys a slightly different meaning—a more qualitative one—than merely “growing out of” —which conveys more of a temporal meaning.  Further, if really “Post Conservative Evangelical” is a movement that tries to solve the shortcomings of the previous and older, more narrow-minded, Evangelical tradition, this new tradition should not be qualified by post but as anti. In fact a true “post conservative evangelical” should live on the basic assumptions of his “conservative evangelical” brother. He should take “conservative evangelicalism” as a fact he cannot live without. What a true “post conservative evangelical” should do is radicalize the positions of his “conservative” brethren. Something along the lines of the relationship between “modernism” and “postmodernism.” So, the expression “Post Conservative Evangelical,” cannot qualify a superior, more balanced, broader and healthier movement, if it even exists. To suppose that such a label will do the job is mere wishful thinking.

Moreover, being “self-consciously” post-conservative does not make oneself un-conservative, it just makes oneself reactionary, that is, it leads one on the way of the making of another tradition—of another conservatism. And this in itself is not a problem: one can perfectly be in reaction against a previous tradition. But things must be called as they are. To be “post-conservative” merely makes oneself the leader of another upcoming conservative tradition. Tomlinson, in the first edition of his book, talked about “Post Conservative Evangelical” as being at odds with some prevailing attitudes within the Evangelical churches. Ten years later, the prevailing tradition is about to become this precise reactionary movement including other forces than just the “Post Conservative Evangelicals.” Out of the 25-35% (or more) of Evangelicals who describe themselves as “Post Conservative Evangelical,” it would be interesting to know how many of them do so merely because it is “the” counter-theological-tradition of the moment. How many describe themselves in such terms only because it is the reactionary theological tradition within the Evangelical movement? At the end, “Post Conservative Evangelical” is in danger of becoming a demeaning expression used against those who are not so.

The expression “Post Conservative Evangelical” is an great example of how we use language and our grammatical skills, in order to define ourselves over against those we think are traditional, weak, culturally blinded, or “narrow-minded.” The point here is that to define a movement over against a previous one within the same theological “tradition” should always be considered very seriously and not taken so lightly. Schisms have happen for much less.

Maybe as good and vague an expression could be “Post/hyper-modern Counter-Traditional Reactionary Anglo-Saxon Evangelical.” At least this takes into account (1) the philosophical context in which “Post Conservative Evangelical” is born, (2) a specific geographical setting, (3) a socio-political context, and (4) the theological reactionary nature of the movement. But again, this was only the grammatical ramblings of a “post-Socialist ante-modern non-American French Reformed.”