Is the Christian Right, Right? (2)
Written by Ray Pennings
PDF Print E-mail
Reformed Worldviews - Government

Continued from here. 

Is Conservatism Christian?

In the minds of the public, the distinctions between these movements are lost. The various elements of the Christian political right are lumped together as having two characteristics: Conservatism and Christianity. And if we are to develop an answer to the question "Is the political Christian right, right?" we must come to grips with the prior question, "Is being politically right— in other words, a conservative—Christian?"

I have already declared that my political bias is to the right, although I reemphasize that this is a political claim, and not a religious one. But I have no hesitancy in defending that claim on the basis of biblical teaching.

Among the various biblical principles that apply to the political sphere, at least three provide the basis for solutions which typically are described as being “right.” The first is the emphasis on individual accountability and responsibility. I trust I do not have to spend a great deal of time convincing you that the Scriptures hold each of us as individuals, accountable for our actions and behaviour. The Heidelberg Catechism deals with the reasoning that one finds so prevalent in our society when it explains the doctrine of original sin. In Lords Days III and IV, the catechism points out that since the Fall, human nature has been corrupted and we are all conceived and born in sin. Apart from the regenerating work of the Holy Spirit, "we are wholly incapable of doing any good and inclined to all wickedness." (Question 8) So then, proceeds the questioner, is God not being unjust towards man in requiring an obedience of which man by nature is incapable? "Not at all," comes the response. Man is accountable and the justice of God will hold man accountable for his original as well as his actual sin.

In an age where everyone seems to be a victim and where political solutions seem to be focused on solving "systemic problems," the scriptural teachings regarding human accountability are relevant and ought to guide our thinking. If God holds man eternally accountable for his actions, should governments who derive their authority from God (Romans 13) explain away an individual's responsibility for their actions on the grounds of systemic problems?

The second biblical principle incorporated into a conservative approach is a basic pessimism about human nature. Conservatives are not usually committed Calvinists, embracing the doctrine of total depravity. In fact, most would take considerable issue with it. Conservative thinking might be better described as "meritism,” whereby people should be treated according to what they deserve. This approach is inadequate but it explains the individualism, the cold-hearted justice, and the glorification of materialism through unrestrained capitalism that characterizes some conservative policy. For conservatives, it's a matter of getting what you deserve. Work hard, do what's right, and a harsh criminal system won't affect you. You will enjoy the fruits of your labours and not need to rely on handouts.

But, as any observer of society will notice, many individuals do not behave in a manner to enjoy the wonderful life that might otherwise be theirs. For conservatives, this creates a basis to be pessimistic about human nature. After all, everyone has the opportunity to merit the good life, yet many choose not to. So it is from observation of social reality that most conservatives come to their pessimistic conclusions about human nature.

This is quite a contrast to the prevailing spirit of our day, which promises a society-created utopia. In that spirit, society responds to rallying cries in order to eliminate disease, end poverty, and build a prosperous economy. Consider how President Clinton mixed and misquoted both Paul and Isaiah in his inauguration speech: "No eye has seen, no ear has heard, no mind has imagined what we can build." Over against such utopianism and trust in what man will accomplish, conservatives operate with a realistic pessimism about human nature.

The third biblical principle reflected in conservative thinking is a respect for authority. For the Christian, God is the ultimate authority who has provided, through creation and Scripture, the means for us to know him. (Belgic Confession, Article II.) Truth is not determined by what we feel but by an authority outside of ourselves which we can rely on to make proper judgements. Important in this regard is also the concept of delegated authority. God has created structures in which some have particular responsibility and authority over others. Parents have an authority over children. Governments have an authority over citizens.

Again, this principle is much better reflected in conservative than in liberal thinking. Conservatives tend to be traditionalists. They rely on custom and precedent for doing things a certain way. That, of course, is not without its dangers. For example, the 1992 decision of the United States Supreme Court, in Planned Parenthood v. Casey, argued that the right to abort a child was an established twenty-year legal precedent. The question "is not the soundness of Roe's resolution of the issue, but the precedential force that must be accorded the ruling . . . . An entire generation has come of age free to assume Roe's

concept of liberty."i Essentially, this is a conservative argument. Abortion has worked this way for twenty years, we've learned to live with it, so let's leave well enough alone. Nevertheless, when contrasted with the liberal approach of egalitarianism (the belief in social equality) which derives authority from within the autonomous self and, consequently, has little respect for transcendent authority, I find myself much more in line with conservative reasoning. While we must never use tradition or precedent as a standard to distinguish right from wrong, Christians can appeal to much in our past. That does not mean that we may turn a blind eye to the injustices of the past and pretend that it represents an ideal to which we should return. But neither should we ignore nor denigrate the influence that Christian thinking has had on the development of western civilization and North American society. Canada and the United States have been developed within a Christian heritage and tradition, and it is appropriate for Christians to join conservatives in appealing to these traditions as a reason for present action.

I must point out that there are several biblical principles that do not fit well within a conservative frame of reference and are better dealt with by those more liberal in their political judgements. These include the biblical emphasis on the community responsibility for caring for others; the focus on serving others or servanthood; and the notion of stewardship over against the notion of property rights.

Combining Christianity and Conservatism

By themselves, liberal and conservative thinking are inadequate expressions of Christian political thought. Both are man-made "isms" that promise more than they deliver and are fraught with errors and inconsistencies incompatible with scriptural teaching. Yet, if Christians are to participate in public life—as is surely their obligation—then working within the political frameworks of the day is inescapable. In that vein, I defend my political "right" orientation, conceding that my political judgements are shaped, at least in part, by that framework. I do so cautiously, however, recognizing that by no means should I claim that my political judgements are more biblically sound than those of my political opponents.

If nothing else, the foregoing has shown the inadequacies of the political frameworks of both conservatism and liberalism to make room for a full-orbed Christian vision of public life. My defense of being somewhat conservative in my political judgements is not a defense of conservatism. Professor J. Budziszewski recently wrote two excellent articles in First Things in which he pointed out various problems that Christians ought to have with both conservative and liberal ideology. He observed:

"From time to time, Christians may find themselves in tactical alliance with conservatives, just as with liberals, over particular policies, precepts, and laws. But they cannot be in strategic alliance, because their reasons for these stands are different; they are living a different vision."ii

Answering the Question

So where does this leave us in trying to answer the question "Is the Christian political right, right?" Several points are implied by our discussion.

1. The Christian political right is properly involving itself and drawing attention to an area of life in which Christians ought to be involved as salt and light.

2. The movement correctly seeks to examine and base its positions on current issues based on the revealed will of God, and is willing to make the explicit link between God's call to obedience and the life of a society.

3. Involvement in public life, however, requires political as well as religious judgements. Political involvement inevitably results in drawing on the dominant political frame of reference.

4. While sympathetic to many of the issues raised by the Christian right, I fear that they have not made adequate distinctions between their religious claims and their political judgements. The result is that they have communicated, implicitly and sometimes even explicitly, that their position on a given issue is the only position a Christian might hold, and that every other position is therefore unchristian.

Observing how Christian involvement in public life has been combined with a conservative frame of reference raises three issues: moral reductionism, the problem of pluralism and being Christ-like.

Moral Reductionism

Christians involved in public life find themselves often pointing out that every decision is based on premises that are moral in character. Contrary to the prevailing spirit of our day, Christians must hold that moral neutrality does not exist and every political decision involves the imposition of some sort of morality. The real question of public life is, "Whose morality will be imposed?"

It is easy to fall into the trap of advocating that the state, by default, becomes the guardian of morality. Those on the Christian right enthusiastically embrace these arguments when it comes to obvious issues of morality such as pornography or homosexuality, but they are less apt to adopt the same logic when it comes to other issues.

For example, most Christian right activists argue that pornography is moral pollution. Just as the government has the duty to limit smog emissions so that we all have clean air to breathe, so it must keep the "moral air" of a community clean by curtailing pornography. Just as it is inappropriate for a factory owner to argue that his economic freedoms take precedence over the environment, so it is inappropriate to argue that the personal freedom to view pornography should take precedence over the moral health of a community.

That line of logic is familiar enough and most Christians who are politically right would readily agree this is an appropriate use of state power. But how many of those same people would argue that the Bible also speaks clearly against the immorality of oppression?

Look up oppression in the concordance. Read the repeated warnings in the Levitical laws against oppression. "Thou shalt not oppress an hired servant that is poor and needy, whether he be of thy brethren, or of thy strangers that are in the land within thy gates." (Duet. 24:14) The Lord warns to come in judgement against those that oppress the hirelings in their wages. (Mal. 3:5) Paul warns the Thessolonian church that the Lord is the avenger of those who defraud their brothers in any manner. (I Thess. 4:6) But why is it that those on the politically right will almost immediately argue that any government involvement in the economy is inappropriate? Should not the same logic that argues for the curtailment of pornography as an appropriate limitation on individual freedom also argue that laws enforcing a minimum wage be an appropriate restraint against the sin of oppression?

The issue of what is an appropriate use of state power is complex and the above issues raise many other questions which deserve consideration beyond what we can give them. But Christians involved in public life can be very selective in the morality that they advocate.

It should be noted that those on the Christian left are as guilty of this as those on the Christian right. Both are willing to "impose" morality in some areas and unwilling to apply the same arguments in others. The fact that those on the Christian right are quick to moral arguments on lifestyle issues like pornography also raises questions about the extent to which they are willing to rely on the state as the guardian of morality. Politics ends up being reduced to moral issues, and the range of moral issues tends to be selective.

The Problem of Pluralism

The inevitable question that Christians involved in politics must address is, "What about those of other faiths?" If it is true that freedom of religion and conscience is the first and most basic freedom, then certainly Christians must be prepared to defend the freedom of those of other faiths to practice their religion.

It is important to remind ourselves of the point we made earlier that the religious right as a movement is a reaction to the militant secularism of our day. Whereas once the "moral consensus" governing public life in North America was shaped by a Christian worldview, the modern mindset is antagonistic towards any Christian expression or claims in the public square.

In this setting, it is easy to paint any appeal for a Christian place in the public square as that of a petulant child who is seeking to regain his lost place. Consider that as recently as 1960, the expectation of presidential candidates was that they were church-going Protestants, and one's Christianity was almost a requirement for public office. This feeling was so strong that John Kennedy felt obliged to address the issue head-on in a September 12, 1960 address to the Houston Ministerial Association:

"If 40 million Americans lost their chance of being president on the day they were baptized, then it is the whole nation that will be the losers . . . in the eyes of history, and in the eyes of our own people. It is not what kind of church I believe in, for that should be important only to me, but what kind of America I believe in."

I certainly have problems with Kennedy's position, but he was quite right in saying that church affiliation should not be a test for public office. But consider how far the pendulum has swung in 35 years. Now, any Christian profession in public life is almost considered a disqualification for office. This led Ralph Reed to open the 1995 convention of the Christian Coalition with the rallying cry, "We will ride in the back of the bus no longer."

Christians need to think carefully about the issue of pluralism and avoid both extremes. The desire to create a Christian country, in which religious orthodoxy becomes a test for political office and a Christian majority enjoys a privileged position in society based on their religion, is not the sort of vision that should inspire Christian politics. But neither should Christians suggest that they are another interest group fighting for their rights, battling other groups to see who gets the front seat of the bus.

We must avoid and oppose a relativistic pluralism. In such a system, religion is effectively privatized so as not to offend others. This is the vision advocated by Kennedy when he suggested that his religion mattered only to him. Such pluralism is antithetical to the Christian faith and must be opposed. If our faith is vital and true, it must impact our involvement in all of life, including our public life.

Instead, we must advocate for a pluralism that recognizes that all citizens, whatever their faith, have the freedom—and responsibility—to live their religion, also in their public lives. Religious discussion should not be avoided but encouraged in public life. Such pluralism is only possible because of the framework of freedom provided by our Christian heritage. This is not simply a matter of claiming credit or seeking advantage for Christians; it is a matter of educating ourselves and society of the important roots of this freedom. When we lose sight of the origins of freedom, we run the danger of practicing intolerance.

Being Christlike

What does Christian involvement in public life communicate to the world about Christianity? It is crucially important for Christians to consider how their actions reflect on the name they bear. It is not their own reputation and political career at stake; it is the name of Christ by which they are called.

It has been said that all questions in life reduce to: Who am I? What am I doing here? Where am I going?

When a Christian publicly identifies himself as such, he is telling the world what he believes about himself. I am a Christian. That is not only a confession that my only hope of salvation rests in the person and work of Jesus Christ, and that I believe that for His sake I am forgiven and I live in hope of the glorious life to come; that is also a public confession about the purpose and meaning of this present life. For what I am doing here on this earth? To use the answer of the Westminster Confession, my purpose is to glorify God and enjoy Him forever. This world is not mine, it is not ours collectively, but this world belongs to God. Christ is the King of all of life and whether my fellow-citizens or those I meet acknowledge it or not, Christ has claim over this country and over our lives. So where are we going? God will come again to judge this world. Every nation and tribe will one day acknowledge Him as the Lord of lords and the King of kings.

Christian involvement in public life—and this of course applies to home life, business life, and every other aspect of life as well—must be conducted in a way that brings honour and glory to God's name. And as in all our endeavours, our efforts in the public forum leave much to be desired. Indeed, here too, we see that our best works are but totally stained by sin.

That, however, is no excuse for inaction. In that vein, I am thankful for the Christian political right for awakening the consciousness of many Christians and promoting an involvement in an area that we too easily ignore. That doesn't mean we are blind to the dangers. We must be conscious to make careful distinctions between our religious and political claims. We must be careful not to employ rhetoric that leads to the illusion of social salvation. Politics and government cannot save us. God in His grace gives us government to restrain sin; it is only His redemptive grace worked by His Holy Spirit that overcomes sin.

And God has clearly taught that this salvation is worked through the preaching of the Word applied by the Holy Spirit, and not through the force of government. It is not by might, nor by power, but by God's spirit that the hearts of men are transformed.

Lest we think that these problems and challenges are peculiar to our age, let me remind you of the story we started with. Like the letter-writer to President Lincoln, many are tempted to recruit God to their side in their pursuit of political objectives. May we be given the grace, however, to recognize the important distinction and instead, seek to serve God and obey His will, also in our public lives.

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.



i. Quoted in "The Problem with Conservatism", J. Budziszewski, First Things, April 1996, pg. 41.

ii. Budziszewski, p. 38. Both this article on Conservatism and the article “The Problem with Liberalism” by the same author, published in the March 1996 issue of First Things, are highly recommended to those who would like to examine these issues further.