Friday, March 2, 2012

Toward an Unapologetic Christian Conservatism

If you remember the "Why I Hate Religion" video, and surrounding controversy, from a few months back, in my critique of it I ignored one line which I found to be dumb, because it was minor compared to the other flaws of the video. Near the beginning of the video there was a cheap shot at Republicans, saying something along the lines of that Christians don't have to also be Republicans. While it's trivially true that Christianity is not synonymous with, or inextricably married to, Republicanism or conservative politics, this line betrays a false equivalency that becomes more and more glaring to me with time, and which I feel the need to rage against now.

Because Jesus' project was -- as He told us time and time again -- about the the Kingdom of God breaking into history, and was not a "worldly" political kingdom of any character, deriving specific political programs from his teaching is treacherous. Surely nothing like that is my aim here. But just as surely as Christ was not a political Messiah primarily (despite the ultimate political consequences his Kingship over Earth entails), political policies can be more or less in line with Jesus' vision for the Kingdom. They can be more or less in line with His injunction regarding the distinctness of the spiritual and political realms (Mark 12:17, Matt. 22:21). They can be more or less in line with his teaching about the just role political authorities have (Romans 13).

For example, a thoroughgoing anarchism would not be compatible with Romans 13. Similarly, but for opposite reasons, a totalitarian worldly authority which forces its subjects to do things that are contrary to God's law would be an illegitimate authority that ought to be opposed, and probably fought and overthrown. These are some of the obvious extremes where our response is clear and determined for us, but within the much more subtle shades of our liberal democracy, being a follower of Christ leaves a considerable degree of freedom for the types of political policies and agendas that are acceptable for us to support. And this is legitimate for Jefferson Bethke to point out.

But freedom doesn't mean that anything is on the table. On certain issues, there are stances that are highly compatible with Christian teaching and stances that -- at best -- strain compatibility wildly. For example, on whether or not to support laws which outlaw abortion, the dictates of Christian premises are difficult to avoid. Even if someone has some doubt about the point at which a fetus should attain the right to have its life protected by the state -- as irrational, and not particularly in line with Christian teaching or doctrines such doubts are -- still, it's difficult to avoid the Bible's relentless affirmation of the inherent worth of human life, and at worst one would have to choose to err on the side of defense of life on the question.

By contrast, when the left attempts to make similar cases that conservative beliefs on the poor or on war are also at odds with plain Christian teaching, the attempts fail rather laughably. Christians on both the left and right believe caring for the poor is of utmost importance for a Christian, they only disagree as to the role the federal government ought to play in that -- a subject on which Christ had nothing to say. As for war, this is closer to being a legitimate "inconsistency", if you will, at least as it relates to extreme hawkishness or imperialism, but not as it relates to support of any war. The Catholic Just War theory can be used to defend some war in a thoroughly consistent and Biblical fashion.

On many other issues such as the proper level of taxation, or the proper judicial philosophy, or the prosecution of the drug war, the dictates of Christian principles are not cut and dry. There is legitimate room for Christians to take a wide range of positions on these, and most, political issues.

But I would contend that the fundamental underlying philosophy of conservatism is much more compatible with Christian principles than is modern liberalism. And this is where simply saying "You can be a Christian and not be a Republican!" too swiftly dispenses with the legitimate question of whether one party, or -- really more centrally -- one side of the political spectrum is more compatible with Christian principles or not. The postmodern Christian assumption would seem to want to affirm a thoroughgoing centrism or moderate position as the best, but this is an illegitimate move. It's the same fallacy that results in people falsely deriving relativism from a postmodern critique of modernity.

Just because there are two sides to an issue or because the answer to the question at hand is not absolutely dictated by revelation, this does not mean that one side can not be much more closely in line with Christian principle, or that one position can not be totally at odds with Christian teaching. We can't let our cultural pluralism blind us to our moral senses, or certainly to our Christian inheritance, which I think is happening en masse. And on this score, I don't let all conservatives off the hook. Certain wings of conservatism, such as the libertarian wing, have elevated the virtue of personal volition so absurdly high, and as so ultimate, that all competing values are rendered subservient and secondary. This is very harmful. Though, with that said, that's just one wing of the right that has something somewhat wrong, whereas I think the left has everything completely wrong, and that most of their fundamental assumptions are at odds with Christian values.

However, if you do happen to be that rare species of Christian Democrat, I'm not going to try to convert you from your left-wing politics. That's surely a quixotic task, at least for a blog post of this length. What I do think should be easy enough for all Christians to acknowledge is that we can't simply rest in the proclamation that "You don't have to be a Republican!" We have to actually do the difficult work of examining our beliefs and actions in the political realm and honestly evaluate whether they are compatible with our Christian beliefs, which obviously are of prior and greater significance. We have to examine the possibility that some cherished political belief is actually sinful and at odds with Christ's teaching, even if that belief enjoys prominence and acceptance in mainstream American culture. We have to be mindful that our cultural prejudices don't dictate our theological inclinations, but that the relationship runs in the other direction.

If you do all that and you still come to the impossible conclusion that being a Christian Democrat is acceptable, well then, God bless you, and I pray earnestly and fervently that you are defeated at the polls regularly and egregiously.

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