Christianity and Conservatism

July 8, 2004 | by | Topic: American History & PresidentsPrint Print

After drafting an Op-Ed piece entitled “Ronald Reagan and the Face of Conservatism” this week, I resolved to also write a brief piece on the relationship between Christianity and Conservatism. Before heading up to my study to begin, my wife suggested that I pick up the current issue of World Magazine (July 3/10) and read the article entitled “How shall we then vote?” It was, indeed, timely in terms of what I intended to say—how it is that Christians ought to be involved in society and especially with political groups.

While millions of Christians surely consider themselves Conservatives, there is little evidence that Christian, meaning biblical, principles function as the foundation of the Conservative movement in America—often Conservative, in many minds, means Republican. Bible-carrying Christians would do well to ponder just how it is that they relate to Conservatism in any of its forms.

Christianity and Liberalism is a topic for another time. Consider the following concerning Christianity and the Conservative movement.

The Reagan piece, referred to above, summarized in some detail the evidence that Conservatism has four main branches. We want to ask here how any of them relate to basic biblical/Christian principles. Let’s be specific. Do any branches of the Conservative movement note that man is made in the image of God? That God has a moral law that is binding on all men? That he is the Creator and Sustainer of the universe who governs it by his Providence? That he requires kings and presidents to rule with justice and mercy? And more.

The Old Right, one branch of Conservatism, emerged after World War II from the pens and lectures of a group of intellectuals such as Russell Kirk. Kirk and his friends had great respect for all things old and English, especially ideas that flowed from Edmund Burke. He and other Old Right thinkers certainly did not begin withself-conscious references to what the Bible requires of them in their theorizing about society. On the contrary, they were most comfortable quoting Burke or Aristotle as authorities for their views.

In the 1960s and 70s a second branch of Conservatism emerged when certain intellectuals fled the liberal Left after it was, they said, betrayed by radicals with Marxist tendencies. Neoconservatives they were called and their work displayed a pragmatic policy orientation which endeared them to Republican Party leaders. Obviously, a search of Neoconservative publications does not reveal evidence of a desire to build their policies on biblical principles, though an Old Testament quotation from time to time echoed a certain erudition. Irving Kristol and Norman Podhoertz, and their extended families—literally many sons, sons-in-law, and daughters—represent this branch of Conservatism well. And, it is noteworthy that many from this branch of Conservatism reappeared in the current Bush administration, especially in the foreign policy arena.

As the Old Right was being marginalized and Neoconservatives were rising in Republican ranks, another branch of Conservatism emerged in the 1970s—the New Right. At first it was led by disenchanted Republicanssuch as Richard Viguerie, Paul Weyrich, and Phyllis Schlafly. They believed that “Eastern Establishment,” liberal Republicans did not represent the masses in the Party which they believed agreed with their views. Like Old Right leaders, they embraced traditional values, limited government, and free markets. On the other hand, they came at problems from a pragmatic, business perspective—not with quotations from the writings of Burke or Aristotle. Nor could they be found citing biblical ideas or principles to support their programs and policies—though they could be heard giving lip service to a biblical story at a fund raiser.

A remarkable development in the rise of the New Right, however, was the emergence of the Christian Right among them. Christians on the Right had been involved in politics for generations, but now they were energized by new issues(the Roe decision) and new leaders; chief among the latter were Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell. While Christians on the Right brought energy, large TV and radio audiences, moral fervor, and a deep patriotism to the New Right, the question here is whether they brought to politics a distinctly biblical point of view. Many would assume so, but the evidence is thin.

Much of the Christian Right’s work may be classified as moralizing about social issues. The high point in this effort came in the establishment of the Moral Majority in the spring of 1979. Representatives of the Conservative Caucus, the Christian Roundtable, Free Congress, and Falwell’s Thomas Road Baptist Church met in Falwell’s office for the initial meeting. Moral Majority’s history was dramatic but brief. Its leaders were vilified on all sides from all quarters. Barry Goldwater, always a profane man, suggested at the time that it was a patriotic duty to “kick Jerry Falwell in the .”Preaching against sin, both public and private ones, is certainly a high Christian calling—one practiced by Jonah, Jesus, and St. Paul. Yet, Christians are called upon to do more—to bring all “thoughts captive and obedient to the will of Christ”—so says St. Paul.This suggests that thinking about social, economic, and political affairs must be done according to the will of Christ and that systematically. It appears that the Christian Right has not yet developed a social philosophy consistent with St. Paul’s injunction. Rather, they tend to accept social and political views and structures found in the public square.

A fourth group claimed citizenship in the kingdom of Conservatism in the post-World War II era too, styling themselves “Libertarians.” Like other Conservatives they talked much about liberty but were different from the others inthat they pushed it to its logical extreme. To them it means personal autonomy. For many in the Libertarian wing of Conservatism, this also meant individual moral autonomy.If there be any question about what this view means, it may be captured in a paraphrased line from the Book of Genesis: “Each man did what was right in his own eyes,” Libertarians adding “as long as it did not injure anyone else.” The roots of the Libertarian movement are found largely in the writings of two intellectuals—the Austrian economist Mises and the anarco-capitalist Murray Rothbard. Both spent much of their time preaching against the power of the state and in defense of free economic activity.Contemporary expressions of Libertarianism are found in the work of the Reason Foundation and the Cato Institute. A look at their web sites shows that they are busy selling free market economics and the need for a very limited government. One does not find in Libertarianism’s founders nor in the Reason and Cato organizations any interest in, or reference to, biblical ideas or principles.

From this brief review of the main elements of the Conservative movement, it appears that none of them have self-consciously developed biblical ideas or principles. On the other hand, these organizations do have clearly developed views of social-economic-political institutions. If it is true, as assumed here, that Christians have a duty to develop biblical ideas about the world they live in, then they have a problem if they also see themselves as Conservatives. There surely are conflicts between some obvious biblical principles, and ideas and programs fostered by the Conservative movement. For example, Christians understand that the roots of liberty and freedom are found in Scriptural teachings, and they know that implicit in this view are limits. Many in the Conservative movement, on the other hand, see liberty and freedom as having no limits—a view that ultimately leads to personal autonomy if not anarchy. Christians have a duty to sort out these differences and follow biblical ideas,not merely go along with the views found in the culture. This is not an easy task.

One or two suggestions may be made in conclusion. First, there is wisdom in St. Augustine’s claim that as citizens in the City of God Christians should make common cause with the citizens (Republicans or Democrats or others) of this world—in so far as we are able. That means that they might reach the same conclusion on a policy question(abortion) as some of their Conservative friends, but that they do so by a different route—one grounded in the Scriptures.Second, it might be useful for Christians to refrain from referring to themselves as Conservatives because there is much baggage tied to the term which could confuse their duty to witness. Christian, Does your witness confuse anyone by your tendency to also call yourself a Conservative? And, finally, a personal note. Sometimes, I am told, as a Christian, that my views sound Liberal and at other times they sound Conservative. Personally, however, I am content to say that I am only trying to be biblical.

L. John Van Til

L. John Van Til

Dr. L. John Van Til is a fellow for humanities, faith, and culture with The Center for Vision & Values at Grove City College.

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