Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Christianity and Political Conservatism

Last week we considered the moral errors of political liberalism. Many Christians I talk to (though certainly not all) readily recognize those errors. But not as many recognize the moral problems involved in the varieties of conservatism on the contemporary scene. J. Budziszewski helps us see these in chapter 7 of his book The Revenge of Conscience. He begins by making what I believe is a crucial observation.

The danger, it would seem, is not in conserving, for anyone may have a vocation to care for precious things, but in conserving ideology, which sets forth a picture of these things at variance with the faith. The same is true of liberalism. From time to time Christians may find themselves in tactical alliance with conservatives, just as with liberals, over particular policies, precepts, and laws. But they cannot be in strategic alliance, because their reasons for these stands are different; they are living in a different vision. For our allies' sake as well as our own, it behooves us to remember the difference. We do not need another Social Gospel - just the gospel.

He goes on to discuss eight moral errors of conservatism.

1. Civil religionism. According to this notion America is a chosen nation, and its projects are a proper focus of religious aspiration; according to Christianity America is but one nation among many, no less loved by God, but no more. I believe that conservative Christians are guilty of this more than they realize, perhaps even more so since the presidency of Ronald Reagan. Budziszewski correctly notes that Reagan "applied the image of the City Upon a Hill not to the remnant of the Church in America, but to America as such - its mission not to bear witness to the gospel, but to spread the bits and pieces of its secular ideology." But the United States of America is not God's chosen nation. The only entity on earth that can claim to be God's chosen is the true church of Jesus Christ. We make a major error if we confuse the two.
2. Instrumentalism. According to this notion faith should be used for the ends of the state; according to Christianity believers should certainly be good citizens, but faith should not be used.... Religious conservatives who pine for the days when jurists called America "a Christian country" and recognized Christianity as "the law of the land" are deeply in error if they think such statements expressed belief; what they usually expressed was instrumentalism.
3. Moralism. According to this notion God's grace needs the help of the state; Christianity merely asks the state to get out of the way. We might say that while instrumentalism wants to make faith a tool of politics, moralism wants to make politics a tool of faith; on this reading, what instrumentalism is to secular conservatives, moralism is to religious conservatives. Surprisingly, though, many religious conservatives seem unable to tell the difference. Whether someone says "We need prayer in schools to make the children holy" or "We need prayer in schools to make the country strong," it sounds to them the same....
Christians...may certainly commend a law as good or condemn it as evil. They may declare it consistent or inconsistent with the faith. But not even a good law may be simply identified with the faith; Christians must not speak of a tax code, marriage ordinance, or welfare policy as "Christian" no matter how much, or even how rightly, they desire its enactment or preservation. That predicate has been preempted by the law of God. The civil law will be Christian - if it still exists at all - only when Christ Himself has returned to rule: not when a coalition of religious conservatives has got itself elected.
4. Caesarism. According to this notion the laws of man are higher than the laws of God; according to Christianity the laws of God are higher than the laws of man. With this error we have come back to secular conservatives. The peculiar thing about the American variety of Caesarism is that the state never says that its laws are higher than the laws of God; in the name of equal liberty for all religious sects, it simply refuses to acknowledge any laws of God.
...Therefore, [according to Caesarism] the First Amendment does not mean that people may act as their religion requires, but only that they may think as their religion requires; free exercise of religion makes no difference whatsoever to the scope of state power over conduct.
Perhaps the blame for our troubles lies with the Framers, for refusing to distinguish the kinds of religion whose exercise should be free from the kinds of religion whose exercise should not. But, foolishly thinking ignorance a friend of conscience, we have followed their lead. Afraid to judge among religions, we put them all beneath our feet; pursuing the will-o'-the-wisp of equal liberty, we tumble headlong into Caesarism.

5. Traditionalism. According to this notion what has been done is what should be done; Christianity, however, though it cherishes the unchanging truths of faith, insists that any merely human custom may have to be repented.
6. Neutralism. This may come as a surprise, because...neutralism also comes in a liberal variety. Whereas the liberal sort of neutralist exclaims, "Let a thousand flowers bloom," the conservative sort cries merely, "Leave me alone." In essence, conservative neutralism is the notion that because everyone ought to mind his own business, moral and religious judgment should be avoided. By contrast,...Christianity holds that moral and religious judgments can never be avoided. They must be straight and true before people can even agree as to what their business is.
7. Mammonism. According to this notion wealth is the object of commonwealth, and its continual increase even better; according to Christianity wealth is a snare, and its continual increase even worse. Mammonism is what the Big Tent that some political analysts urge for the Republican Party is all about: ditch the social issues, but keep that capital gains tax reduction. To hold onto your liberty you have to hold on to your money.... Capitalism depends on a moral spirit which it cannot supply and may even weaken; it is, in the most exact of senses, a parasite on the faith. But a Christian parasite is not by that fact Christian.
8. Meritism. According to this notion I should do unto others as they deserve. With the addition of mammonism, matters become even simpler, for then those who need help are by definition undeserving, while those is a position to help are by definition deserving. That meritism is not a Christian doctrine comes as a surprise to many people....What the New Testament actually teaches is that in what we need most, we are helpless; the grace of God is an undeserved gift. According to Christianity I should do unto other not as they deserve but as they need.
What does the contrast between meritism and charity look like in ordinary human relationships? Consider the government policy of paying women cash prizes for bearing children out of wedlock. Liberals want to continue the policy because they cannot tell need from desire. Meritists propose ending it because the subsidies are undeserved. Although a Christian may accept the cutoff, he cannot accept it for the reason given. All of us at times need and receive many things that we do not deserve. The problem with the subsidy is that they are not what is needed. They so completely split behavior from its natural consequences that they infantilize their supposed beneficiaries; to infantilize them is to debase them, and no one needs to be debased....After achieving the cutoff, the meritist thinks his work is done, but the Christian thinks his work has only begun. He must now find another way to offer help; and he had better be prepared to pay the price.


So my exhortation to you is, in all the political currents swirling around our country right now, do not mistake political conservatism for Christianity. Be discerning, vote wisely, support what is right and oppose what is wrong, and so on and so forth. But most of all, point people to Christ, for he is the hope of the world.

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