conservative kən-ˈsər-və-tiv adjective: tending or disposed to maintain existing views, conditions, or institutions

In Why I Support Same-Sex Marriage as a Civil Right, But Not as a Strategy to Win Structural Change, I got into trouble for using the term “conservative” to refer to “Christian” and to “marriage.” Because the post went viral, this was no small issue. A big bunch of you were offended.

Because writing and putting my ideas before the public to critique is a big part of my learning process, I read all of the comments I get from readers, both on Race Files and the sites that re-post my articles. If you include those other sites, I’ve read literally thousands of comments over the last year, many of them critical. I learn from you, especially when we disagree.

But for the sake of time management I don’t usually respond to all of the comments. In this case, I made an exception. I went through and responded to nearly every comment expressing frustration over my use of those words – Christian and conservative – in that post.

I responded because I believe we should be careful when speaking about religion and identity and I wasn’t. And, I responded in order to work out a political vocabulary that I’ve used for so long, I sometimes slip into it without explanation, forgetting that most people don’t speak that language.

Here’s how that language works, in brief. When I use the term Christian in reference to marriage, I mean marriage under U.S. law. That institution and set of laws is no doubt rooted in a Puritanical interpretation of marriage. That interpretation isn’t representative of Christianity writ large nor of all Christians. Christianity, after all, is the philosophy of Dr. King, Desmond Tutu, Dorothy Day, Monsignor Romero, and many others whose faith inspired movements for human rights and dignity.

Over the last forty or so years, right wingers have taken over the use of the word conservative and imbued it with the stink of bigotry and trickle economic theories that put the rich before the rest of us. Because of this, when we use the word, folks think Ted Cruz or Newt Gingrich. But when I use the word, I mean it differently. To me, conservative just means one who wants to keep things pretty much the same. In other words, those who wish to maintain the status quo, which is not what Newt and Ted stand for.

Now, to be clear, in a society in which status quo politics includes racial profiling and mass incarceration of black and brown men for petty crimes that whites commit regularly with impunity, I have a problem with conservatives. However, I have an even worse problem with radicals in conservative clothing manipulating our ideas about tradition in order to force women to have transvaginal ultrasounds before exercising a constitutionally protected right. In a political world in which folks like that are lurking in positions of power and even controlling the political debate on critical issues like abortion, conservative isn’t always a bad thing.

For instance, I’m hoping for a SCOTUS ruling on the Voting Rights Act that will reflect a preference for preserving Section 5 over the radical action of striking it down. When the court rules on Fisher v. University of Texas, I again hope they will take the conservative approach and allow Texas and the rest of us to retain admissions standards that allow for racial and gender diversity.

Yes, I get that in a broad, historical sense, conservative means, as Michele Bachmann loves to say, the original construction and intent of the founders. And, yes, I’m aware that those founders were white and male supremacists who imposed a minority rule government on us by excluding women and people of color from voting rights. At a time when the Bachmanns of the world seem to be leaning back in that general direction, I think we forget this history at our peril.

But, in our contemporary politics, we need to flip the script. I propose we take back conservative and define it so that it refers to those who want to keep things pretty much as is, even when in instances when we believe that’s a bad thing.

So, what does that mean for marriage rights? Well, marriage defined under our currents laws will change little if we allow the two people involved to be of the same gender but alter nothing else. It may have a radical impact on our culture, but I have some doubt about that, which is why all of this came up in the first place.


Avatar photo

By Scot Nakagawa

Scot Nakagawa is a political strategist and writer who has spent more than four decades exploring questions of structural racism, white supremacy, and social justice. Scot’s primary work has been in the fight against authoritarianism, white nationalism, and Christian nationalism. Currently, Scot is co-lead of the 22nd Century Initiative, a project to build the field of resistance to authoritarianism in the U.S.

Scot is a past Alston/Bannerman Fellow, an Open Society Foundations Fellow, and a recipient of the Association of Asian American Studies Community Leader Award. His writings have been included in Race, Gender, and Class in the United States: An Integrated Study, 9th Edition,  and Killing Trayvons: An Anthology of American Violence.

Scot's political essays, briefings, and other educational media can be found at his newsletter, We Fight the Right at He is a sought after public speaker and educator who provides consultation on campaign and communications strategy, and fundraising.