What Separates Me From the Religious Conservatives

I am an active church-goer, a Christian believer who has spent time proselyting for my faith. But my politics almost never align with those conservative Republican evangelicals who get so much attention in the Republican Party. Why not? I think the answer boils down to some fundamental differences in perspective:


1. Religious Belief v. Political Belief – I know a lot of conservative Christians who regard their political beliefs as a subset of their religious beliefs. They apply the same ‘truth’ test to claims in the political realm as they do in the religious realm: that which they feel to be right is adopted with conviction that supersedes outside evidence.

While I believe in the truth of my own religious convictions, I don’t regard my political views as ‘true’ in the same way. I approach policy questions as a social scientist, trying to figure out what works and what best accords with stated principles and goals. For direction in the things of God, I look to God. To govern the affairs of men and women, I look for evidence in the world around us.


2. Religious Practice v. Political Practice – When evangelical Christians began to organize as a political block during the 1950s, ’60s, and ’70s, they did so with the idea that politics worked like religion. Just as they believed the religious faith was most powerful when it was preached purely, so they insisted on ‘purity’ in their candidates and political platforms. Rather than “the art of compromise” or “the art of the possible,” evangelical Christians viewed politics as fundamentally a contest of conversion. Practitioners ‘won’ only if they were willing to stick to their principles at all costs, for as long as it took to prick the hearts of the masses. Any deviation from proscribed orthodoxy was more than suspect, it was dangerous.

It seems to me that government, especially democratic government, is about serving the people more than promoting any particular ideology. In the long run, real political success is about figuring out what is best for the time and place in which we are living. There’s a pragmatism to my political approach which, frankly, I would find unsettling in my religious belief. But that’s because I don’t view politics as a direct extension of religion.


3. A Christian Nation v. A Nation of Christians – Many evangelical conservatives hold to the belief that the Founding Father set out to create a “Christian nation” and were guided by God to create the government of the United States in a near-ideal form. This Christian originalism gives politics the cast of a religious contest in which secular liberals play the role of traitors. The job of patriotic Christians is to either preserve or reclaim the divine aspects of this nation.

If God wrote the Constitution, He’s willing to put up with a lot more evil and error that we usually give Him credit for. Even if I could comfortably set aside the issue of slavery, what about patently foolish provisions like the vice presidency going to the presidential candidate with the second-most electoral college votes? Surely a divine author could have foreseen the conflicts that would arise from that system and preempted the need for the 12th Amendment.

While plenty of the Founding Fathers (a rather amorphous group) were ‘Christians,’ many were only nominally so. Were some of them concerned with preserving their religious views in the new nation? Certainly. But the historical evidence suggests that this was nowhere near the central purpose of most of their actions. This applies particularly to the creation of the Constitution. Those who drafted the Constitution were primarily concerned with creating a federal government that would foster greater unity, “establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity.” Do you see Christianity in there anywhere? Neither do I.


4. Religion v. Religious Freedom – Many conservative Christians, including leaders of in my own faith, perceive a decline in religious freedom in this nation. They warn against what they see as a growing threat to religious expression in the public sphere.

Personally, I worry that they are missing a distinction between religion and religious freedom. Majority religions have often been hostile to religious freedom because it comes at a cost: a smaller public role in exchange for a more protected private role. Fortunately, we live in a nation where religious freedom is enshrined in the Constitution. That freedom is what allows public religion to come under attack, for people to question candidates about their religious beliefs, and for public figures to speak freely about their religious preferences without being automatically disqualified from office.

Historically, this has been a blessing for Christianity in American, which has flourished in this climate of religious entrepreneurialism. But as conservative Christians have pushed back into the public sphere they have encountered push-back. Rather than being a sign of the diminishment of religious freedom, such push-back suggests to me that freedom of religion is alive and well in this nation.

2 Responses to What Separates Me From the Religious Conservatives
  1. Grant
    January 5, 2012 | 8:07 pm


    I grew up in wildly conservative Idaho before moving to California to pursue my studies in engineering. I also spent time proselytizing for my faith, and my deep beliefs are the bedrock of my life. As I’ve lived my life and observed the world around me, that faith and those beliefs have pushed my politics from the formative right-leaning ideas that I grew up with, to center, and then left. When I read through the New Testament & the teachings of Christ, I don’t find the cut-through, hyper-individualistic, winner-take-all, and generally selfish & insensitive tendencies which seem to utterly pervade Republican & Right wing politics. What I do see is an undeviating commitment to the poor, downtrodden, sick, disadvantaged, and an over-arching concern for the well-being of all men. I have never understood how the Republicans can claim to be the party of the Christian faith and not answer to those larger principles of promoting the greater good viz a viz healthcare in particular, as well as the pillaging of the middle class standard of living.

    P.S. Thanks for the link to the column by David Brooks about Santorum – very enlightening & certainly digs deeper than most of the media coverage of him.

  2. Jason
    January 7, 2012 | 4:20 pm


    Thanks for your comments. I agree with your reading of the teachings of Christ. In regard to your question of how conservative Christians can take their politics in the opposite direction, I have a long answer that I’ll write in the next post.

    Always good to hear from you.