A tip for Conservatives in 2017: Tell a Story For Goodness Sake

2016 has proven yet again that when it comes to wooing and winning the hearts of the public  with a good story, conservatives are completely outclassed by progressives.

And Christian conservatives?  Don’t get me started!  You would think that with the best narrative in the world at their fingertips, full of highs, lows, dramas, intrigue, angst, pathos and joy, we would have a better handle on how to present our case.

But not a bit of it.  Once again progressives have provided the narratives that capture the public imagination, push the political agenda forward, and win friends in high legal places.

And it’s no good conservatives whining and moaning about it.  That’s what they’ve been doing all year!

A friend of mine posited two theories this week as to why the progressive movement has been so good at story:

1. Stories are about change, and so the progressive world has been better able to capture their use than conservatives

2. Progressive theology is built on a truthless empathy, which will always win against empathyless truth

Theory one stands up, especially in terms of the exception that proved the rule in 2016; Brexit.  Progressives suddenly found themselves in the unfamiliar position of having to defend the status quo, and they did it poorly.  When they lost they presented a churlishness that has never defined their victories. They were exceptionally bad losers simply because over the past forty or fifty years of progressive politics in the West they have lost so rarely.  Mind you, the Trump debacle gave them an opportunity to redeem themselves, an opportunity they subsequently squandered.

I’m more interested in the second theory.  “Truthless empathy” versus “empathyless truth” is a delicious juxtaposition.  And a valid one.  As an orthodox Christian I am committed to words either revealing truth and exposing lies, or hiding truth and propagating lies.  Empathy that is truthless is neither morally neutral nor a place of safety.

The primary reason I am opposed to the new sexual ethic and gender theory agenda is not because it threatens my position, nor because it particularly turns my stomach, but because it’s a lie, and lies destroy.  Sexuality done outside the framework for which God intended will wreck a person, whether in this life or the one to come. That’s not all that will wreck a person, but the biblical narrative speaks about it so much that it’s hard to ignore.  And when the lie is presented in the exact opposite terms of what it is, then it’s all the more destructive.  It’s a lie that began in Eden when the serpent beguiled Eve with a story that she could be like God, and, coupled with how good the fruit looked, it was a killer story – literally.

The manner in which the sexual story has been crafted by progressives is proof that enough glitter, enough smoke and mirrors, enough of a well-crafted tale all have a potency for which humans are suckers. And progressives tap into this really well.

And conservatives?  Well, we’re pretty rubbish at story by and large.  “Empathyless”(a neologism?) is never something you want to be labelled.  But put together with the word “truth” and it’s shameful.  How did we get here? How did our responses to the progressive agendas sound so dry and unappealing? Here’s why: because we rarely frame truth in relation to actual people.  We get before the public and we don’t paint word pictures, we reel off lists.

So conservatives, tell a story for goodness sake.  Do it for the sake of goodness.  And if you can’t, then try to encourage the younger members of the tribe to do so.  Don’t push them away, or exasperate them with dry rationales or grumpy lists.  And don’t be suspicious of them.  Many a conservative story teller has been pushed into the arms of the progressive cause simply because they feel they’re a second class citizen in their town.

Think about Marilynne Robinson’s celebrated novel Gilead.  It is perhaps the best text on pastoral work I have ever read, followed closely by the creative genius of Eugene Petersen’s books on pastoral ministry.  Both are brilliant.  Robinson’s work does what all good novels do: it tells true things through an untrue story.  And Petersen just has that knack of painting an image so vivid that it clings like Velcro to your imagination, regardless of whether you agree with every jot and tittle of his exegetical method or not.

This is my 400th blog post on stephenmcalpine.com, and this year the stats have proven that when I tell a story the number of readers goes through the roof.  It was true of my ten part missional series, and it’s been true when I have told other stories too.  Why?  Because these stories resonated with people’s hearts.  They got through the Maginot Line rationale defences people put up.  In other words it’s hard to argue against them.

So, conservatives, don’t just write your blogs or your essays or your articles.  Tell us a story for goodness sake!  Let Truthful Empathy be our 2017.


  1. Steve I think there is a lot of helpful reflections here, but sometimes conservatives do tell stories (like stories about how other conservatives are being persecuted for having a different view if of sex in England, Massachusetts, etc…) These stories just seem to be ignored.

    Do you think its because these stories are negative and defensive rather than positive? Progressives do tell negative stories, like LGBTIQ people being traumatised in schools as an example of why Safe Schools is a good thing. Do you think their negative stories gain more traction?

  2. That’s a good point and worth thinking through. Getting MSM to give airplay is the hard thing. Not impossible, but much more difficult than the other story. I think the theory of my friend “truthless empathy” kinda sums it up. We also live in a milieu in which emotions override rationality on just about every debate, so we’re pushing water up a hill with a rake from the get go

  3. So even when conservatives do tell stories they get silenced?
    Makes it a very tough arena to operate in!

    I was comforted today by Christopher Ash’s book when he reminded me that we don’t need to defend marriage, because it is an ontological reality. our right motivation for getting involved in public debate on SSM, etc… is out of love for other people, not defending our rights.
    It was a helpful and wise reminder.

  4. I find the whole progressive vs. conservative rhetoric incredibly unhelpful, especially the idea that either side can win. As a contest we all inevitably lose. It would seem that at a practical level the progressive side is all for exchanging one sin for another, while the conservatives prefer pre-existing sin.

    What a powerful thing a label is. What if instead of progressives and conservatives we had innovators and maintainers and a deep understanding of how society needs both (even if not in equal measure). It is the mindset of change that removes slavery and brings health and education to those in suffering. It is with the backing of an army of the patient workers that keep these institutions humming and ultimately delivering on the initial promise.

    What an amazing world if the conservative cheered reform, and the progressive gave thanks for their daily bread.

    The unheard story of recent years is the moderate. The progressive story is exciting. The conservative story at least has nostalgia. But who wants to read the story of negotiation and compromise. I can see it now. Huge political rallies as the speaker shouts to everyone:

    “I am prepared to listen”

    or the incredibly popular:

    “The other candidate has some fairly reasonable ideas, but a few I don’t really agree with. Maybe we can discuss it further.”

    In the meantime we can praise an unchanging God, and pray for deep personal change.

  5. Absolutely agree! And ironically, regardless of Robinson’s progressive lenses, the truth that is in Gilead comes blazing through in still, quiet solemnity. And for the moments we are in her story we are reverent of that truth. Whatever our politics. Reclaiming the story is on us and may God help us do it for the sake of His kingdom.

  6. I was going to write a response, but Kevin’s post above was so eloquent and good he has saved me from doing it! Save to say that what does Steve mean as ‘conservative’ and ‘progressive’? There are plenty of Christians (myself included) that are ‘conservative’ in bible and theology, and ‘progressive’ (or ‘liberal’ or even ‘left wing’) in politics. Great names in this tradition are, of course, John Stott, Vinoth Ramachandra (well worth reading), and Tim Keller (who has taken on in many ways John Stott’s mantle).
    Having given much thought to the ‘conservative/progressive’ Christian political debate, I tentatively suggest that the bigger the English speaking western country (and the bigger states in those countries), the more natural it is to be ‘conservative’ or ‘right wing’. I think it is a case of space, countries and states with more space are individualistic, more frontier minded, gung-ho and ‘conservative’ than smaller countries and states (where people rub up against each other and come across diversity in closer spaces).
    The USA has always been more ‘conservative’ than more crowded Europe, and within the USA large Texas has been far more ‘conservative’ than crowded ‘progressive’ Massachusetts. In Australia big and spacious Queensland has been more ‘conservative’ than crowded (in an Australian context) Victoria. In Britain and the rest of Europe, spacious rural areas have always been more ‘conservative’ than the crowded cities which have been (and are becoming even more so, as they are in the USA as well) heavily ‘progressive’.
    The election of Sadiq Khan as the first Muslim mayor of London, was in my books, one of the bright spots in a very dark year – that Khan won the mayoralty of the largest city in the western world (within city boundaries) – and in the face of appalling race and Islamophobic baiting from the Conservative candidate – and that he won in style, the biggest mandate of any politician in Europe bar the French and Russian presidents, was a great achievement.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.