Friday, January 22, 2010

Christianity and Conservatism

January 20th was the first anniversary of Barack Obama's tenure in office, and I thought it might be fitting to repost a talk (slightly edited) I was invited to give at a church a couple of days before his election in 2008. I was asked to speak on why I thought conservatives opposed Barack Obama's candidacy. Here's what I said:

As the late Richard Neuhaus liked to say, the first thing to say about politics is that politics is not the first thing.

Having said that, the second thing I want to say is that there are basically two disparate political ideologies or worldviews in our politics - conservatism and liberalism, and that sincere, honest and thoughtful Christians are found in both camps. Christians who are conservative and liberal agree on the importance of peace, of helping the poor, of protecting nature, of valuing life, of improving education, of doing justice.

Indeed, the commands in Scripture distill to these two: Love God and love others. In the Old Testament love for others is usually discussed in the context of doing justice. In the New Testament the emphasis is on showing compassion. So as Christians who seek to achieve the ends we all agree upon, we are constrained by love for God to be compassionate and just toward our fellow man.

But, though we agree on the goals, and we agree that we should be compassionate and just, that's where agreement ends. Some very significant differences center around how we can best achieve the ends we all desire, and here the differences between us are often so great that one sometimes despairs that agreement could ever be reached.

I believe (but won't argue) that whether we see the world through conservative lenses or liberal is a function of our personality, our upbringing, our life experience and that since these things can't be changed, it's very difficult, though certainly not impossible, for people to change their ideology.

Because it's so hard to change minds, both sides resort to power politics. The only way to get what we think is best is to acquire the political power to impose our will on the rest of the nation.

One might wish that as Christians, informed by a Biblical vision of the world and of justice, we would pretty much agree on how to achieve the ends we mentioned above. Unfortunately, it's not that easy.

Consider an example: We all agree that the government needs money to do the things necessary to maintain a large population and to help those who need it. So, what's the best way to get the money? Is it to raise taxes or cut them? What does the Bible say? Well, the Bible is pretty much silent on the matter.

Should we raise taxes or should we cut them to fund needed programs? We should do whichever works provided it is compassionate and just, and assessing that is not always easy. Liberals say we should raise taxes, conservatives say we should cut them. Liberals say if the government needs more money you go to where the money is and take it. Conservatives believe that by cutting taxes on families and businesses people have more money to spend, they buy more, business prospers, hires more employees and pays them better salaries. The more people you have working and the more money they make, the more they pay in taxes and thus revenues actually go up. If, on the other hand, you raise taxes, conservatives argue, then the consumer has less to spend, business makes less money, they cut workers and reduce benefits which results in fewer people paying less tax in the long run.

So, what is the conservative philosophy of government? Different people would answer the question differently, but generally conservatives believe that in the three primary spheres of government responsibility - economic, social, and foreign policy - the government is best which governs least.

The economy does best when taxes and regulations on business are kept as low as possible. On foreign policy there are two schools of thought among conservatives: "Paleo" cons tend to be isolationists, "neo" cons tend to believe that we have a moral obligation to liberate people from oppression to the extent we can. That used to be the liberal position, by the way, but it no longer is. Domestically, as a general rule, conservatives hold that the less accountable a government entity is to the people the less it should interfere with their lives.

There's nothing in Scripture that mandates conservatism or liberalism, but the conservative ethos is certainly compatible with Paul's injunction in I Thess. 5:21 to "Examine all things carefully and hold fast to that which is good."

Well, we are on the cusp of an election and most conservatives are deeply concerned that Democrats will wind up controlling both Houses of Congress and the White House. Why is this such a serious concern for them? Why do they think it so important to defeat the Democrats?

The Democrat party, in its current incarnation, stands for a number of things which conservatives believe to be fundamentally unjust. Remember, when we vote on Tuesday we're not just voting for Obama or McCain, we're voting for the entire party.

Whoever wins is going to surround himself with people from his party. In the case of the Democrats that means people who wish to make some fundamental changes that conservatives think would be gravely harmful.

Conservatives may be wrong about this (though I don't think they are). It may be that the Democrats do not intend to do what conservatives think they'll do or it may be that the changes will not be as harmful as conservatives think they will be.

I'm not going to argue that the perceptions I'll mention are accurate renderings of Democratic aims. Nor do I wish to argue that they would be harmful. I merely point out that this is how conservatives see Democrat intentions and that they believe them to be much more harmful than beneficial.

So - most conservatives would agree that the Democrat party hopes to do the following:

  • Remove all restrictions on abortion, including partial birth abortion.
  • Alter the meaning of marriage so that it's no longer the union of one man and one woman.
  • Appoint judges and Supreme Court Justices whose decisions will be based on political fashion rather than on the text of the constitution.
  • Effect a redistribution of wealth from the middle and upper classes to the underclass.
  • Treat terrorism as a police matter rather than as a global war on Western civilization.
  • Pile onto American business onerous regulations and taxes that will make it impossible to compete in the global market and which will result in higher unemployment and higher costs. (Minimum wage, capital gains, health insurance)
  • Continue the accelerating secularization of our society.
  • Open our borders to anyone who wants to take up residence in our country and give illegal aliens the right to a driver's license, health care, and welfare.
  • Nationalize health care.
  • Deny to parents any choice in where they send their children to school.
  • Push fuel costs back up so as to force us to conserve and develop alternative energy sources.
  • Quell freedom of speech, particularly when it is conservative or religious, through vehicles like the Fairness Doctrine.
  • Downgrade our military preparedness and end the program that would enable us to shoot down incoming nuclear missiles.
  • Take away the right to own or buy most types of guns or to acquire a license to carry them on one's person.
  • Strip union workers of the right to a secret ballot in union elections.

One or two of these may come to pass under a McCain presidency, to be sure, but conservatives believe that it's almost certain that all, or most, of them will come to pass if the Democrats control both the White House and the Congress.

If these measures sound good to you then you should pull the lever for Democrats on November 4th. If, on the other hand, you don't think this is the sort of change that America needs then you should resist the seductive lure of Hope and Change and vote for McCain.