It is said that the two subjects which ought to be avoided in polite conversation are religion and politics. Furthermore, within Christianity, there is often an understandable desire to transcend the politics of the day: politics, by the very nature of the craft, involves compromise and gets very dirty in deal making; furthermore, no political platform fully embodies God’s purposes in Christ, and politicians invariably fall short of upholding what God would have upheld in Christ in every respect. At the same time, Christians in America will invariably be called upon to engage with all sorts of ideas, philosophies, plans, and policies prevalent in American political discourse as members of this representative republic; thus, however Christians engage with politics, they ought to do so in ways which bring the lordship of Jesus to bear, and Jesus ought to be glorified and manifest in how they speak of politics and politicians (Ephesians 4:29, Philippians 1:27, Colossians 3:17). We thus do well to consider the broad trends in political discourse and how they relate to what God has made known in Jesus.
The vast majority of modern American political discourse takes place within the general confines of philosophical liberalism: a commitment to free speech, freedom of individuals, the fundamental equality of everyone, a commitment to the rule of law, free markets and free trade, freedom of religion, and a primarily secular posture from the government. Within this commitment to philosophical liberalism we presently see three major political postures: progressivism, conservatism, and libertarianism.
The core concept of political conservatism involves the goal of advocating for and protecting, and thus conserving, civilization as expressed in society and culture: tradition, authority, property rights, religious practice, and the family are thus emphasized and promoted. Conservatism as such arose in Europe as a result of the seismic changes caused by the French Revolution. In its moderate form conservatism attempts to work within a commitment to philosophical liberalism to preserve freedoms while upholding what is deemed proper authorities and traditional culture; in its more extreme reactionary form conservatism seeks to disrupt or even overthrow modernism, crying out to stop everything in the relentless pace of change. In its American form political conservatism may be understood as upholding republicanism, a “Judeo-Christian” moral framework, American exceptionalism, individual liberty, a pro-business laissez-faire philosophy of economics, a skepticism toward government and its effectiveness, and great resistance to anything perceived as Marxist/communist/socialist.
Political conservatism in America remains fractured among three emphases often held in tension: fiscal conservatism, social conservatism, and religious conservatism. Fiscal conservatives have been strongly influenced by libertarianism and the Chicago and Austrian schools of economics and thus emphasize the importance of free markets and resist many forms of government oversight of economic markets; they endorse policies which will advance the economic interests of American businesses. Social conservatives emphasize the dangers they perceive to social and cultural values of the past: they endorse policies which would preserve the integrity of social and cultural values of the past and to resist the policies endorsed by political progressives. Religious conservatives emphasize the “Judeo-Christian” religious heritage of America and endorse policies which would reinforce American Christian civic religious practices and values. Some political conservatives identify across all three emphases; many others maintain a primary loyalty to one or two emphases over the others. Many other divisions and differences in ideology among political conservatives could be added; for our purposes, we do well to note how a need to bridge the various emphases and ideologies can help explain some of the internal contradictions which often manifest themselves in political conservatism, and how commitments in political conservatism may inform the postures maintained by many in their faith.
There is much to commend political conservatism for the Christian. At their best political conservatives work to preserve the religious liberties of Christians and others so Christians can live out lives in peace and dignity (cf. 1 Timothy 2:1-2). Political conservatives wish to uphold the integrity of the family and the life of the unborn and to maintain space for the traditions of culture and society. The truly politically conservative impulse remains very necessary and an important check on the impulse toward progressivism from the other side: not everything ought to be changed or challenged. Many aspects of the society and culture we have received from our ancestors are praiseworthy and ought to be imitated and maintained. Major policy changes should be subjected to great scrutiny so as to limit the difficulties which might arise from the law of unintended consequences.
And yet political conservatism is not without its difficulties. Many challenges arise from the inherent tension among economic, social, and religious conservatism as practiced in America today. While one can certainly glorify God as a Christian and believe in the value of laissez-faire capitalism, laissez-faire capitalism is not mandated or inherently commended in the pages of Scripture. The shareholder value-driven impetus of what is deemed “late capitalism” has proven extremely harmful for the integrity of the environment, the family, and work, and thus in tension with what ought to be the goals of social conservatism. The move toward libertarianism among many political conservatives has led to greater emphasis on freedom than responsibility. Since the 1930s economic and political conservatives have worked with many faith leaders to promote an American Christianish civic religion, encouraging attending a church or a synagogue of one’s choice and a commitment to free markets and free enterprise, and this effort has proven very successful in conservative Christendom. Any Gospel-based critique of modern American practices of free markets or free enterprise have been deemed by many religious conservatives as Marxist or socialist and dismissed entirely. Not a few Christians seeking to restore the ancient order have fallen prey to the siren song of American Christianish civic religion: many find few, if any, points of disconnect between their faith in Christ and their patriotism and political commitments, and some prove more than willing to condemn as heretical and anathema any Christian who would not share those political commitments.
Unfortunately, Frank Wilhoit’s proposition regarding conservatism has yet to be refuted: “there must be in-groups whom the law protects but does not bind, alongside out-groups whom the law binds but does not protect.” Since political conservatives strongly value loyalty, the strong temptation remains to find reasons to commend and justify themselves and stifle critique and dissent and use the law as an instrument to benefit themselves at the expense of those with whom they politically disagree. Such offends the premise of equal standing before the law, the punishment of wrongdoing, and the commendation of the good in Isaiah 1:16-17 and Romans 13:1-7.
Even the core strength of political conservatism, the drive to commend and defend the cultural and social order, is not without difficulty. Christians can find many aspects and elements to modern American culture which are praiseworthy and ought to be maintained; yet not all aspects of American culture should be preserved. It is very tempting for political conservatives to commend and defend the indefensible if the indefensible remains part of their cultural heritage, as seen most clearly in the long term embrace of white supremacy and resistance to the dismantling of racist systems among many political conservatives. Modern political conservatism has a strong contrarian streak, and a few political conservatives back themselves into reactionary postures and white nationalism in their attempts to “own the libs.”
Politics and society work best when a healthy conservatism proves willing and able to make spirited defenses for the present polity, to work to conserve the culture and the environment, and to uphold the dignity and honor of life and work. Christians can find much to commend in political conservatism. Nevertheless, not everything in society is worth preserving; many aspects of society are oppressive and unjust, and to defend and support such things would be contrary to God’s purposes in Christ. Christians must take care lest they become too comfortable in the atmosphere of political conservatism so as to go beyond what glorifies God in Christ and compromise the faith, judge hypocritically, and justify the indefensible. May we all seek to glorify God in Christ in our political views, postures, and behaviors, and magnify the Lordship of Jesus!
Ethan R. Longhenry