Christian Conservatism, Part II

Grant’s comment on my previous post reminded me of another area of disagreement with conservative Christians that is worth highlighting:

I am comfortable with government as an instrument of our communal values and efforts in aiding others. If we as a group of citizenry feel a desire to help “the poor, downtrodden, sick, disadvantaged” (in other words, to follow the admonition and example of Christ), why can’t we use the government (the collective representative of our citizenship) to build and carry our programs that will accomplish such ends?

Conservative Christians, on the other hand, have proclaimed a wall between our individual responsibility and collective government action. A lot of this goes back to the 1950s and the suspicion of communism, which produced a religious attack on “collectivism” and “materialism.” Religious leaders on the right gave greater emphasis to individual salvation and individual responsibility. In the 1960s, as the right linked the Civil Rights movement to their concerns about communism, they sought to restrict even the role of churches to the narrowly spiritual, eschewing efforts to involve their congregations or denominations in anti-poverty or anti-segregation efforts. By the 1970s, they felt that the only product of government involvement in social issues was moral degradation (see especially Roe v. Wade but also their suspicions about the Great Society programs).

These suspicions continue today. George W. Bush’s “compassionate conservatism” is an interesting case for at least two reasons. First, because it tried and largely failed to push against those suspicions. Second, because it only really did so in a narrow way that promised to also diminish the separation of church and state, a bonus that helped attract conservative Christians who would otherwise have been wary.

Rick Santorum now has the opportunity to showcase another brand of this big government, communal conservatism. It will be interesting to see whether he articulates that this weekend, whether it takes a positive or negative spin, and where it leads him. More on that in a future post.

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