Understanding evangelical conservatives
Liberals are often perplexed and even disgusted by the economic conservatism of many evangelical Christians in the United States. In the Bible, we find Jesus commanding his followers to give away their possessions, to beware all kinds of greed, to flee materialism, to feed the hungry, visit the prisoner, and care for the poor. Jesus himself not only lived out this ethic, spending time with prostitutes and social outcasts, he himself was a poor man with 'no place to lay his head.' How on earth, then, can modern American Christians claim to follow Jesus while espousing conservative economic policies? How can you insist that you love the poor and while rejecting government programs designed to help them?
In this essay, I want to try to answer that question. To be clear, I am not attempting to excuse the behavior of all conservative evangelicals. Too often, we have indeed embraced materialism, power, and the American dream at the expense of Jesus' commands. Professing Christians like myself need to constantly remember the Bible's warning: "whoever oppresses a poor man insults his Maker." The Bible is very clear that greed and materialism are wrong and that everything we have belongs ultimately to God, not to us. I'm also aware that many people, both liberals and conservatives, simply inherit their political views from their friends, their cultural milieu, or their parents. They have never really considered rationally whether or how their political beliefs comport with their religious convictions. Again, I am not attempting to defend a kind of cultural conservatism that makes no attempt to reconcile the Bible's teaching with politics. All Christians can and should reflect thoughtfully on what they believe.
With these caveats, I want to help non-Christians understand why so many evangelicals in this country subscribe to conservative economic beliefs and can do so without rank hypocrisy or inconsistency. I'll look at two main areas: the teaching of the Bible and compulsion versus liberty.
The Bible and legislation
My first argument is perhaps the most crucial for non-Christians to understand: neither the Bible as a whole nor Jesus' teaching in particular provides specific instructions for how modern, secular governments should function. To say it another way, the Bible's commands were not written to be the constitution of a modern nation-state. If that proposition is correct, then it should inform the way we make use of the Bible in discussions of politics.
What is most odd about this first observation is that nearly everyone seems to recognize its truth, except when the Bible can be used to support their particular legislative goals. For example, liberals will often point to the numerous poor laws given to ancient Israel which provided special protections for the poor, widows, orphans, and foreigners and will draw a direct connection to modern legislation. Yet this argument is never used to recommend the implementation of equally wide swaths of Mosaic law forbidding idolatry or sexual immorality. If we insist that Christians are morally obligated to implement some modern version of the Levitical laws regarding charity and social consern, why are they not also morally obligated to implement some modern version of the Levitical laws forbidding idolatry?
In reality, this argument is based on a faulty premise: that the Old Testament law is prescriptive for all nations in all places and at all times. The vast majority of Christians historically and in the U.S. today recognize that Israel was a unique, divinely instituted theocracy. For this reason, Christians have never sought to impose Old Testament law wholesale on the nations in which they lived, even in places like Medieval Europe, where Christianity went culturally unchallenged for centuries. While Christians recognize that the Old Testament law is based on important and enduring moral principles -like concern for the poor or sexual ethics- they also recognize that they were not intended as a blueprint for the laws of all future nation-states.
A similar distinction needs to be made when it comes to Jesus' teaching. Jesus' commands were given to individuals, not to governments. Indeed, much of his teaching would be completely nonsensical if we viewed it as a code of civil law. Should there be laws against anger and lust and greed? While Jesus definitely expected his followers to obey his commands, it is much less clear how they should be applied to entire nations, composed of Christians and non-Christians.
Moreover, the same problem that was raised with regard to the Mosaic Law resurfaces. If we insist that Jesus' commands should be written into law, why only his commands about money? Jesus taught not only about money and concern for the poor, but about the nature of marriage, sexual ethics, divorce, murder, theft and a host of other concerns. If we argue that evangelicals ought to promote legislation that is consistent with Jesus' teaching about the poor, shouldn't we also argue that evangelicals ought to promote legislation that is consistent with his teaching about marriage or sexuality?
In both these cases, Christians and non-Christians need to recognize what the theologians have long recognized: that the Bible does not provide us with a detailed or exhaustive list of laws by which modern nations should be governed. Am I then saying that the Bible and the Christian worldview are completely irrelevant to politics? By no means. I am simply saying that their relationship is complex; it is not as simple as identifying biblical commands which were given to ancient Israel or to individual Christians and applying them to an entire society.
Compulsion versus liberty
Next, let's consider the issue of compulsion versus liberty. Even if we agree that there is some uncertainty in how we are to apply to biblical principles to laws, we could still argue that liberal legislation better reflects the Christian worldview. Why then are so many evangelicals politically conservative? In large part, and trying once again to take the most charitable, consistent view of conservative thought, I think that tendency reflects a desire to protect individual liberty and a hesitancy to use compulsion.
A key element of conservative and libertarian ideology is the recognition that all governmental legislation is ultimately accompanied by the threat of force. The rejection of any law, no matter how minor, will -if we persist in that rejection- ultimately lead to the use of state-sanctioned violence. That claim sounds extreme, but consider an example. Let's say that the government passes a seemingly harmless law that we all must recycle or face a small fine. Because I think that this law is silly, I ignore it and am given a fine. But I refuse to pay the fine, so my fine is increased. I still refuse to pay the fine, so the fine is increased again. Eventually, the government issues a warrant for my arrest. When I am served with the warrant, I refuse to cooperate with the police officer because I view my arrest as illegitimate. When the police officer forcibly tries to handcuff me, I physically resist because I view his actions as illegitimate. Eventually, I will be placed in a choke hold and thrown into the back of a squad car, all because I consistently rejected a recycling law.
This scenario would seem unrealistic if not for the numerous real-world examples that have been brought to light in the last few months involving individuals (often minorities) whose deaths were precipitated by exceptionally minor offenses, like selling individual cigarettes or committing traffic violations. My purpose here is neither to rail against police brutality nor to defend the use of force. I am merely pointing out that every law has the use of force as a implicit but necessary concomitant. Thus, one can easily see why conservatives and libertarians generally favor smaller government: fewer laws means less use of compulsion. I think it is reasonable for Christians to accept such an argument. Shouldn't Christians be hesitant to employ the use of force to coerce behavior from their fellow citizens? Wouldn't a simple aversion to compulsion and respect for others' individual freedom motivate us to legislate as little as possible?
But let's assume for the sake of argument that we can ignore the actual use of force and that we can be reasonably certain that the mere threat of force will be enough to compel obedience to the law. A good and relevant example would be tax policy. Shouldn't Christians pass tax laws based on a biblical concern for the poor, knowing that very few people will actually resist to the point of being forcefully taken to jail?
Here again, I think a reasonable argument can still be made that Christians should be hesitant to coerce the moral behavior of charity towards the poor. To see why, we can simply reframe a debate about tax policy in terms of a debate about church or family or community finances. Imagine that your neighborhood was raising funds to clean up the local playground. You believe that the playground contributes to the good of the community and therefore suggest that everyone give some small fraction of their income to support the effort. However, one member of your neighborhood strongly disagrees and does not want to contribute. Does it follow that, in such a situation, the neighborhood homeowners association should compel the dissenting member to contribute? If they do not, should a lien be placed on their house until they cooperate? Should they eventually be sent to prison if they steadfastly refuse to contribute? Presumably not. Most of us would feel incredibly uncomfortable coercing such behavior from a neighbor, a close friend, or a family member. How much more should we feel hesitation in coercing a complete stranger to give against their will and in the face of their vocal opposition? Similarly, while the Bible absolutely does command Christians to care for the poor, it never suggests that this obligation should be coerced by the church or the state.
A final consideration is the compulsion of the 'other', which is especially relevant in light of modern political concerns. Recent discussions of taxation have focused mainly on 'the rich' or 'the 1%' paying their 'fair share.' The problem that I've noticed is that very few people calling for wealth redistribution are part of the class they think should be taxed more heavily. Instead, we almost uniformly see people calling for others to redistribute their wealth. That seems like a serious problem. No matter how great our love for the poor is, Christians should feel a legitimate anxiety about compelling other people to bear the bulk of that concern.
This problem came home to me when I saw a member of a Facebook group claiming that we could solve all of our economic problems by seizing the money that 'the 1%' had stolen from 'the rest of us.' When I pointed out that he and many other members of this group were probably part of 'the 1%' that he was decrying, someone responded that the 'top 1%' wasn't really the problem, but only the 'top 0.1%.' The original poster then responded that the 'top 0.1%' wasn't really the problem, but only the 'top 0.01%'! Similarly, I cat still recall a proposition during my time in California that promised to increase mental health care funding substantially, not by increasing taxes on everyone, but by raising taxes only on the top 0.1% of wage earners. All of this should be troubling to anyone who recognizes the tendency of human beings to blame the Other for the problems of society, whether the Other happens to be immigrants and Muslims or greedy, rich people. Knowing our capacity for hypocrisy and moral posturing should cause us to question stances which force others to contribute but which personally cost us little to nothing.
The two major considerations I've listed above are in-principle objections to liberal economic policies; they are quite independent of practical considerations. I haven't yet discussed any empirical objections that conservative economists tend to make to liberal economic policies, such as the inherent inefficiency of state actors, the relative efficiency of the free market, or the danger of unintended consequences. Nor have I discussed other in-principle objections regarding the role and extent of government, the existence of property rights, etc... I selected the two objections that I did mainly because I thought they were the least controversial and the easiest to understand. They don't rely on a great deal of shared philosophical or economic assumptions; they reflect everyday concerns about the nature of biblical teaching and the importance of personal freedom. Neither were these ideas invented by Americans in the mid-20th century. For example, the church father St. John Chrysostom, writing in the 4th century, says the following:
Should we look to kings and princes to put right the inequalities between rich and poor? ... Should we beg the emperor to impose a tax on the rich so great that it reduces them to the level of the poor and then to share the proceeds of that tax among everyone?... Far from bringing moral benefit to society, [redistributing wealth by force] would actually do moral harm. Material justice cannot be accomplished by compulsion, a change of heart will not follow. The only way to achieve true justice is to change people's hearts first - and then they will joyfully share their wealth. - St. John Chryostom, On Living Simply, Sermon XLIII
I am not arguing that these objections require a Christian to adopt conservative economic views. However, I hope that they explain how a Christian can be consistent with the teaching and the spirit of the Bible and still adopt to conservative economic principles. My suggestion to non-Christians is that they give Christians the benefit of the doubt in terms of their motivations. For example, a 2007 survey found that while only 5% of Americans tithe (i.e. give 10% or more of their income to charity), approximately 24% of evangelical Christians do so. Indeed, it is not at all uncommon to find well-known evangelical Christian pastors and theologians like John Piper or Tim Keller who see giving 10% of your pre-tax income as the beginning rather than the end of Christian giving. My own church runs ministries to the homeless, orphans, prisoners, unwed mothers, and at-risk youth and recommends giving in excess of the tithe, not out of obligation but out of a love for God and other people. So it's unwise to assume that an evanglical's conservative views are motivated solely by greed.
For Christians, any discussion of economic arguments needs to be accompanied by an affirmation, both with our words and with our lives, that ultimately our money is God's and not our own, that materialism is a sin, and that we have a duty to care for the poor both inside the church and in the world. No matter how strongly we adhere to our political views, our conversation should be grounded in our desire to do what is ultimately most glorifying to God and most conducive to the common good. Let's not allow economics or politics to become an obstacle that keeps non-Christians from the gospel.
- Why Should We Believe that Christianity is True?
- Why I Am a Christian
- The Gospel According to Sheryl Crow
If anyone reading this essay has questions about it or about Christianity in general, feel free to e-mail me at Neil -AT- Shenvi.org. I also highly recommend the book The Reason for God by Tim Keller. It is phenomenal. Free sermons treating many of the topics covered by this book can be found here.