Religious conservatism plays an interesting role in how societies expand social inclusion, equity, and justice. Religious conservatives determine what emergent norms and values within the larger society are in conflict with the standards of their religious tradition. They use the norms and values of their tradition as the foundation of their resistance to the emergent social changes. Even when the social changes expand inclusion, increase equity, and reduce marginalization of members of the society, if the changes are heretical or contradict the dogma of their religion, these conservatives can feel duty bound to oppose them.
There are many examples of this phenomenon in the United States. The Klu Klux Klan (KKK) began as a protestant Christian movement to oppose emergent ethnic equity and equality. Religious conservatives have opposed gender equity between women and men and transgender/gender non-confirming and cisgender people.
Why? Is there something intrinsic to religion that fosters hostility toward social justice progress?
Clearly, there are examples of people using religion as the basis for their commitment to social justice. Liberation theology is an example of the religious foundation many people use to motivate, inspire, contextualize, and support their social justice work. But liberation theology is not as widespread as religious conservatism or religious indifference toward equity and complicity in maintaining social injustice.
One reason for the popularity of religious conservatism in certain traditions is their orientation–past, present, or future, undoing or cultivation, management or liberation.
Past, Undoing, and Management Orientations
Religious traditions that are oriented toward a past–like an origin story or genesis–that must be undone or fixed require adherents to be preoccupied with humanity’s past–even at the expense of attending to what is happening in the moment or realizing a desired future for humanity. To practitioners of religions that require them to maintain the spiritual status quo, change is an enemy that threatens the work of keeping things as they are. In both cases, the attempt to change the status of marginalized people, ideas, actions, and practices can feel selfish, petty, and in direct conflict with the natural order. For them, if certain people, ideas, actions, or practices are marginalized, it is because they are supposed to be marginalized. The marginalization is a necessary feature of the way the universe works–i.e., the existence of the marginalization is justification of its existence.
Future, Cultivation, and Liberation Orientations
Religious and spiritual traditions that are oriented toward creating a desired future for humanity and/or liberating us so that we can experience true freedom embrace change. Frequently, these traditions are oriented toward the cultivation of our intrinsic Divinity. Within those systems, change is a expression of growth, which is a moral/ethical/karmic good. And changing conditions are opportunities for growth. Consequently, practitioners within these systems tend to embrace the opportunity to have their preconceived understanding of reality challenged and past knowledge deconstructed. That’s because of them, such instances signal that they have reached a new level in their consciousness and are closer to their goal of achieving complete Divinity.
Religious conservatives need society to remain static (within a specific era of idealized purity) and they need individuals to change only in the direction of greater adherence to the dogma of their religion. Such a world, to them, is a holy, moral, and righteous world. Practitioners of religious and spiritual traditions that are invested in the cultivation of human Divinity need society to continue to embrace evolving consciousness and the circumstances that inspire or catalyze such evolution. They need individuals to actualize their personal potential Divinity. In their worldview, such a world is a proper manifestation of the Divine and Sacred.