Is the Christian Right, Right? (1)
Written by Ray Pennings
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Reformed Worldviews - Government

The story is told that during the United States Civil War, a clergyman sent a note to President Lincoln, intending to encourage the President. The note said "Do not fear; God is on your side." Apparently, upon reading the note, President Lincoln turned to his advisers and said "But that isn't the question. The question is: `Am I on God's side'?"

The distinction is an important one and provides a context for analysing the political movement known as "the Christian political right."

As with all labels, the term "Christian political right" has its weaknesses and is potentially misleading. It is most frequently either a derogatory term (especially as used by the secular media) or a self-descriptive term by some who would like to be perceived as leaders of the movement. Complicating matters is the fact that those whom critics describe as belonging to the Christian right, and those who most loudly claim ownership of the label, are not necessarily the same people.

Left versus Right

This confusion is also true of the terms "left" and "right," which are culturally sensitive. In Russia, for example, being "on the right" implies a sympathy for, and a desire to return to, the communist system. In Iran, “right” implies a fundamentalist interpretation of the Islamic religion, with its political and social implications.

We need to start by clarifying what we mean by "left" and "right.” Generally, those on the right approach politics with a belief in smaller government and an emphasis on individual responsibility and self reliance. Those on the left emphasize community and social responsibility, and are much less reluctant to involve the government in solving problems. These imprecise definitions will not satisfy any political science theorists, but they provide a common framework to address the question “Is the Christian political right, right?”

Putting Politics in its Place

A few more preliminary comments, however, are needed to provide the context of our discussion.

First, I would like to emphasize the relevance of the question before us. Our Reformed heritage requires us to pay attention to what Scripture teaches about areas of life that would not usually be labelled as directly spiritual. God's sovereignty applies to the totality of creation. I will not develop the point at length here. But at a time when some in evangelical—and even Reformed circles—suggest that the "one thing needful" is really the "only thing needful," and that as long as one is converted nothing else in life matters, we must reaffirm the Biblical truth that God demands obedience from our total being for all aspects of our lives. And while we must be aware that political issues are temporal—not eternal matters—we must, with Jeremiah, "seek the peace of the city whither I have caused

you to be carried away captives, and pray unto the LORD for it: for in the peace thereof shall ye have peace." (Jeremiah 29:7) In article 36 of the Belgic Confession, we confess that it is a gracious God who provides us with magistrates for the restraint of evil and the promotion of good.

Having emphasized the wrongness of neglecting Christian responsibilities for this part of life, we must also be careful in how we apply Scripture to current issues. The Bible speaks very clearly on many matters that directly apply to the political sphere, and where Scripture speaks clearly, so ought we. However, that does not mean it is appropriate to argue that there are definitive and exclusively "Christian" answers to every political issue in our day. It is important to distinguish between religious claims and political judgements.

Perhaps the distinction is clarified with an example. Consider the issue of abortion. Christian thinking on these matters most certainly starts with the biblical teachings that man is created in the image of God, and therefore, every human life is precious. This is clearly a scriptural claim that applies to all and we must affirm it, also in the political arena. It is a Christian’s starting premise when addressing these issues. But how does this translate into legislation? Obviously, it implies that there ought to be a law against abortion, but what should that law say? How should those who break this law be punished? Who is the murderer? Is it the doctor who performs an abortion or the mother who requests it? What about the father who urges her to? And, to carry it a step further, if there was capital punishment for murder, who should be so punished? I am certain that these questions would generate vigourous debates among us, and most would concede that Christians might reasonably come to different conclusions on these questions.

I raise this example—and there are many other issues on which debate would even be more vigourous than on the abortion/euthanasia question—to illustrate this crucial distinction between political and religious judgements. As I hope to make clear, we cannot separate political judgements from scriptural truth. The two are connected, and we need to be prepared to explain our political judgements with reference to the religious claims on which they are based. But the two are not the same thing. The failure to make this necessary distinction is harmful to the cause of Christ, as well as politically fatal.

Going back to our example, the clear authority of the Scriptures is that to take a human life through abortion is to destroy a created image-bearer of God and to violate His law. That is why it is wrong, and that is why governments must punish the wrongdoer. But in determining precisely what actions constitute criminal liability and what are the appropriate legal remedies, I cannot claim the same authority about such political judgements. Nor should I label those who disagree with me on a piece of legislation for being less Christian than I because of their different political positions.

Applied to the questions surrounding the Christian right, we must be clear that we are primarily assessing political rather than religious claims. I don't particularly like the labels “left” and “right,” yet, as I make political judgments on the issues of the day, the policies I find myself supporting are usually described as on the right. I must recognize, however, that coming to different political conclusions is not necessarily a sign of unfaithfulness to

Scripture. I fear that sometimes those who step into the public arena wearing their Christian colours boldly are too eager to uncompromisingly judge those with whom they have political differences, while they are sometimes too timid to speak forcefully and directly on questions where the Scriptures warrant a loud, "Thus saith the Lord."

A Historical Context

Returning to the question “Is the Christian political right, right?,” it is helpful to put this movement in historical context. Until the seventeenth century, it was assumed that religion and politics belonged together. Religious uniformity was deemed to be a necessary prerequisite for social order, and it was the government's task to enforce religious purity. This was carried out by governments both against Christians and in the name of Christianity against heretics. Already in ancient Greek society, the government enforced a particular moral code. Socrates, living some four centuries before Christ, was sentenced to death because his teachings were said to threaten the social order.

Religious freedom did not come about overnight, and is still denied in some parts of the world. But wars of religion in Europe, the Reformation, and the Enlightenment all contributed to the disestablishment of state religion. Within the development of western civilization came the realization that freedom of conscience and religion was, in fact, the first and foundational freedom.

Although religious freedom flourished, religion was never thought to be irrelevant to public life. The western democracies developed within a framework of a "moral consensus" among the citizenry. Most believed that there ought to be a separation of church and state, and in particular, that the state ought to be kept out of church disputes and that it not endorse a specific denomination. But politics was informed by, and dependent on, the moral influences of a religious society. In fact, one might go so far as to say, particularly in the United States for example, that a "civil religion" developed, in which ideas about love of God and country become intertwined.

This general characterization of western society was valid until about fifty years ago when the rapid secularization or "de-Christianization" of western culture began. To grossly oversimplify, one might say that in the fifties, these ideas were developed in the ivory towers of academia. During the sixties, they came to expression in popular culture. The media and entertainers celebrated the removal of constraints and the rejection of authority.

Watergate and Vietnam marked the transition into the seventies. These events propelled the rejection of authority from the fringes into the mainstream. Confidence in our institutions, especially the institution of government, eroded.

Awakening of the Christian Right

I think it is fair to say that the Christian community critically observed these trends, but generally minded its own business and did not become overly concerned or involved with the directions in the public policy arena until 1973. It was the United States Supreme Court decision on Roe vs. Wade—the abortion issue—which awoke the ordinary church member to

the fact that North American society was changing. No longer could we assume that the Christian moral consensus would be the basis of our living together in society.

In 1976, "The Year of the Evangelical," Jimmy Carter became President. His campaign focused on his claim that he was a born-again Christian. Americans, their faith in the presidency shaken by the events of the decade past, wanted a good man to restore integrity and their faith in the system. The problems, however, ran deeper than the person in the President's chair. Just having a Christian in office wasn't enough.

The stage was set for the first prominent, explicitly Christian political advocacy organization, the Moral Majority. Formed by Rev. Jerry Fallwell in the late seventies as an antidote to the secularization of American society, it had high hopes of achieving its goals by influencing the Reagan presidency, however, its supporters were disappointed. In spite of promising words, the Reagan administration was not seen to go very far in implementing the Christian agenda.

Having a Christian in office without an explicitly Christian agenda proved unsatisfying. So did having an explicitly Christian agenda without a Christian leader to implement it. And so the next stage was very predictable. The two were combined in the 1988 Presidency campaign of Rev. Pat Robertson. That campaign fell short but the organization it created— renamed the Christian Coalition—continued on. This organization is the focal point of the Christian political right in the United States today.

Since the hiring of Ralph Reed, a bright young tactician and spokesman, as its Executive Director, the Christian Coalition has developed into one of the most effective political organizations in the U.S. By taking the lead in applying new technologies, building an incredible network of contacts, and combining the two at a grassroots level, the Coalition succeeded in getting Republicans organized around a written "Contract with America" and in the 1994 Congressional elections, won control of Congress.


Before analysing the movement and what it stands for more closely, let me make a few observations based on the historical developments I have just outlined.

First, while it seems in retrospect that there was a logical development and thought process behind the movement, in reality this was hardly the case. In hindsight, we observe that the Christian community voted for a Christian in Carter, formed a Christian organization, and then tried to combine the two. But the truth is that each movement, at the time, was controversial within the Christian community. They were separate movements, with different leaderships and dynamics explaining their origins. To define them as one continuous movement, or as the execution of a single plan, is to distort what really happened at the grassroots level. That being said, however, we are all shaped in our thinking today by what we have learned yesterday and I think it is fair to link the logical development of the movement as I have done.

Second, the Christian right is a reactive movement, a response to the aggressive and militant secularization of society. It is not surprising to hear within the Christian right a nostalgic desire to return to a past era when North America was Christian. That raises several questions. How Christian was the government in the fifties? Can we really hold up those models as illustrative of the influence of a Christian government on society? If it were not for the secularization of society, could the Christian community have been motivated to become involved in the same way as it is today? It is not a defined vision or plan for society that motivated the Christian right into action. Rather, it was the rejection of the secularization which was overtaking society, as well as a sense of loss of the dominant position—with its admitted privileges and comforts—which Christians had enjoyed in society.

I have traced the development of the Christian right using American examples because the intellectual leadership and profile of the movement is largely American. It should be noted that in Canada, the activities of the Christian Heritage Party, REAL Women, and the Evangelical Fellowship of Canada certainly can be linked to the Christian right. More recently, a group is trying to organize a Canadian equivalent of the Christian Coalition, directly borrowing their strategies. However, what has happened in Canada to date is really an imported Canadianized version of what's happened south of the border where it seems the movement is more sophisticated and mature.


In recounting the origins, I have mentioned various names of activists with whom you might be familiar from the newspapers. It's worthwhile, however, to review some of the more prominent theorists who have given shape and intellectual leadership to the movement.

One such theorist is James Skillen, whose book, The Scattered Voice, sketches three distinct streams of thought among the religious right. The first Skillen has called "pro- America conservatives" and in this camp he names, among others, Jim Dobson, Tim LaHaye, and Jerry Falwell. At the core of their appeal is a return to a better past where families lived together, government stayed out of the road, and children were taught the Ten Commandments in school. The charge is made that the elites who control our education system, the media, and the courts have "stolen" from the "silent majority" this Christian America. Now is the time to stand up and recapture it.

The second group, the “cautious and critical conservatives”, which include people like Charles Colson and Doug Bandow, do not reject the pro-American analysis of what's happened, but they are skeptical about the possibility and even desirability of the solutions.

Christians, Colson argues, are as susceptible to corruption as are secularists, and having the "silent majority" elect a government to recover the lost America is hardly a guarantee of a better life. In fact, looking back to the "good old days," were they really that good from a Christian perspective? What about the injustices which were done toward minorities? What about the treatment of the Japanese by the Christian majority during World War II? It is not that Colson and company disagree with the critique of what is happening in present society, but they warn that Christians are just as capable of unchristian behaviour as the secularists who presently hold office.

The third stream of thought Skillen has labelled the "sophisticated neo-conservatives." The names of Richard John Neuhaus and Michael Novak are the most prominent. Again, the basic critique of society is shared however Neuhaus and Novak argue that Christians need to take a much broader approach. They argue that some in the Christian right place far too much emphasis on politics. They also argue that over-emphasis on the institutions of family, church, and state has resulted in certain areas of life—economics for example—left either as an individual responsibility or as a state responsibility. The common approach is simply inadequate, they say, in organizing a society so that it conforms consistently with the calling of the Scriptures.

In summary, the pro-America conservatives are primarily focused on moral issues and a return to a better past; the cautious conservatives emphasize limited government, with checks and balances since power easily corrupts; and the sophisticated neo-conservatives try to develop a more positive Christian approach to all areas of society but, in trying to do justice to the complexity of these matters, end up with a less coherent and more academic call to action. It is useful to observe that the lines between these three groups are blurred at the best of times, and there is general respect and cooperation between them.

Continued here.

Ray Pennings is an elder in the Calgary Free Reformed Church, Alberta, Canada. He is the Director of Research for Cardus (, a think-tank focused on issues relating to the intersection of faith and public life.