Why is it that Christians in America tend to migrate toward conservatism in the political arena? Certainly, not all Christians are political conservatives, but it is the definite tendency of the majority. Does conservative politics naturally hold a Christian element? Is it just that Christians are using a particular political party to try and advance their own beliefs?
Strictly speaking, I don’t believe that either of these represent the truth. Conservatism actually goes in different directions based on numerous factors and, ultimately, the goals of the Christian faith do not line up specifically with any political party. So, just where does the tendency come from?
To get at this issue, we must start with some historical background. The principles that America was founded upon were decidedly Christian. Not that every founder was a Christian or that the founders, as a group, were even necessarily good Christians. But the principles which formed the foundation of the nation’s culture came directly from Biblical thinking.
That being the case, in the U.S., Christian Theism naturally leads to political conservatism. After all, what is conservatism but the effort to “conserve” what already exists. Since the founding principles were based on Christian ideas, conservatism is the movement which works to keep those ideas prominent. In an Islamic country, conservatism is the attempt to maintain Islamic principles. In a Hindu country, conservatism is the attempt to keep in place Hindu principles. Because the base of American society was founded on Christian principles, the conservative movement here seeks to conserve the Christian principles put in place by the founders.
But over time, even in the most stable of circumstances, beliefs from other systems tend to creep into the mix. In the U.S., these outside influences have come from a couple of different places. The first is from immigration. As people from other religious backgrounds have come into the country, the principles from these groups have also filtered in. Another influence is the profound growth of other worldview beliefs which have been introduced from within the society. Naturalism, in particular, has been planted and nourished through our educational institutions, the entertainment industry, the news media and the political system. As both of these influences have become more prominent, many of the beliefs and policies associated with America’s founding have been weakened or set aside. As those who prefer the founding principles see this happening, they tend to rally together with others who share their values.
But political conservatism does not necessarily equal a Christian worldview. Even among those who prefer the founding principles, there are differences of opinion. There are basically three different ways that this plays out.
First, there are those who want to apply conservative principles only partially. The Libertarian movement is one representation of this. Typically, Libertarians are fiscal conservatives, but tend to be more “liberal” as it relates to social issues. But, a Christian worldview is very interested in social issues and sees Biblical morality as essential to a healthy and stable society. Not that every moral issue can be established in law, but things which hurt people and tear down society can be regulated.
Another way that conservative principles are viewed is based on the ideas and actions of those who want the benefits of a conservative approach (a stable society based on fiscal soundness and Biblical morality), but who have self-centered motives. These are the people who have adopted Christianity as a cultural tool. They recognize, in principle, that the precepts of the Christian faith produce stability and justice, and they want society to reflect those values because this kind of society makes their lives more peaceful and secure. Cultural Christians believe in God but live, first and foremost, for personal peace and security. Even though they accept a Biblical morality as “right,” they don’t mind compromising in some areas if it makes their lives more personally satisfying. The reason they are willing to compromise various moral principles is that the underlying motivation of this group is self-centeredness, not accomplishing the will and purpose of God.
Finally, there are those who are true believers in Christ and see the founding principles as a means for maintaining a stable society in which the purposes of God can be easily promoted. Not that the state is overtly religious, but that it promotes an environment where Christians are able to easily promote and carry out the work of the kingdom of God.
Unfortunately, in the political arena, this gets all jumbled up. All of those who want to conserve founding principles end up supporting the same basic people, regardless of their motives. And in the process, compromises are made which weaken various parts of the equation – particularly in the social arena.
This is able to be reconciled, to some degree, in politics. But Christians must be very careful to keep their focus on God’s purposes. There are many things that will go wrong if “conservative” principles are partially applied or applied for self-centered reasons. When politics becomes an end in itself, Christians end up compromising the truth. The ultimate goal is to build the kingdom of God. This can be facilitated by good politics, but cannot be accomplished through it.
This does not mean that Christians should refrain from involvement in politics. But the political arena only provides a means for creating an environment where God’s purposes can be accomplished. It is not the main tool for actually doing the work of God in the world. That task belongs to the church.
As such, it is perfectly fine to be involved in the conservative political movement. At the same time, we must be very careful that we are not seduced into putting our focus in the wrong place. Building the kingdom of God is our first priority. All other work we do should be only a support for that goal.
© 2011 Freddy Davis