A Poisoned Chalice: Christianity and Political Power

by Tim Reuter:

On December 9, 1931 a democratic government of republicans and socialists passed a liberal constitution to modernize their country. Religion, seen as causing stagnation, was a primary target. The document proclaimed a total separation of church and state, legalized divorce, banned clergy from teaching children, and governed church property.

Christians Marching

Source: Kathleen Hunker

The further purging of religion from schools and hospitals enraged political opponents and their traditionalist supporters. But, these men did not resort to protests and voting. They chose years of insurrection before turning to open war on July 17, 1936. The war cost 600,000 lives and suppressed republicanism for thirty-six years. The conflict was, of course, the Spanish Civil War, and the victors were Francisco Franco and the fascists.

Mr. Carlson makes his stand for the involvement of Christian conservatives in government in two ways. First, he invokes the fear of malevolent elites. Leaving politics “could mean surrendering power to elites who do not care for these [Christian] morals in the first place.” He cites several Supreme Court cases to demonstrate the de-Christianization of the public square came in possible defiance of public opinion.

Mr. Carlson’s second, and deeper, charge is suggesting the government will harass peaceable practitioners of their beliefs, or coerce obedience. “How can the Christian Right regain their moral legitimacy when they are being legally sanctioned from doing so?” He cites the misbehavior of the IRS and government pressure on Christian owned businesses to cover morning after pills, per Obamacare, as proof of willful infringement on individuals’ right of conscience.

But, implicit in Mr. Carlson’s argument is a problematic premise. He assumes antagonism between the elite controlled state and the masses bolstered church. When mixed with religious dogmatism this view leads to a dangerous conclusion. Politics is viewed as the best way to preserve or restore Christianity in America.

Is his seminal essay “Politics as a Vocation”, German sociologist Max Weber defined politics as the art of compromise and deal making predicated on weighing social benefits against costs. The politician must unite “ultimate ends” with “an ethic of responsibility” to make necessary deals in order to shape policy. This need for flexibility, or ends justify the means, should rule out ideologues beholden to one conviction via self-selection.

By Weber’s definition, evangelicals are ill suited to direct the state. Within any religion believers ascribe to certain dogma. But in Christianity, doctrine is definitional. Fierce theological debates do not usually move the already committed. For example, evangelicals do not sacrifice or moderate Sola Scriptura to improve relations with Catholics. Such fierce intellectual combat is important for clarifying who stands where and why on matters of eternal life and death, but is not a recipe for good government.

Those seeking proof should consider evangelicals who meld Biblical inerrancy with public policy. In reaction to presumed hostile elites, advocacy for right of conscience has gone beyond defense. It now demands remaking society by restoring America to its founding as a Christian nation based upon Biblical precepts. And given present society’s depravity, Biblical inerrancy has extended beyond entering Heaven to encompass everything on Earth. The results are embarrassing.

Evangelical politicians look foolish when they declare science a matter of opinion, such as proclaiming a woman’s body can shutdown an unwanted pregnancy if raped. They reek of hypocrisy by enthusiastically supporting a war waged by a co-religionist, see Iraq in 2003-2004. They appear fascistic when party dissenters are called treasonous and purged for not toeing the party line: just witness a Republican primary. Yet, those disturbing standards of ideological purity in politics mirror the doctrinal orthodoxy that is required of a devout believer.

But even if one grants the validity of Mr. Carlson’s claim that elites seek national de-Christianization, electing Christian conservatives to government will change little. Flexibility and deal making are the original sins of governance. Dogmatism has its uses for intellectual demarcation and group cohesion. But regarding policy, one must “render to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s.”

Evangelicals seek to “reclaim America for Christ” out of fear. They look at how far Europe has fallen and see America’s future unless they act. While honorable, this belief is mistaken. Eighty years ago, Hilaire Belloc saw into the heart of Europe’s self-destruction. The crisis of the 20th Century stemmed not from materialism, nationalism, or any other ism. These were by-products of a loss of faith among individuals.

“Western Europe has progressively lost its religion, and especially that united religious doctrine permeating the whole community, which unity gives spiritual strength to that community…As nations we worship ourselves, we worship the nation; or we worship (some few of us) a particular economic arrangement…”

The church failed. Lost amidst the whirlwind of modernity, it no longer gave men reason to believe and they sought other gods. Most tragically, Christendom was not rebuilt after its ruin in the world wars. Centuries of culture, community, and continuity yielded to artificial constructs of transnationalism, multiculturalism, and aimless secularism. These idols promised peace, and delivered Europe to spiritual death.

Indeed, it is not evil elites who will bring Europe’s secular fate to American shores. It is the Religious Right. So long as Christian conservatives desire political power to recapture a lost golden age, they are of the world. The Religious Right imagines it is calling men to repent. It should begin within, and turn from the corruptions of power.

The state is not, and must never become, a moral agent. Those experiments end in horror. But if one grants Mr. Carlson’s point about attacks on Christianity, then Hilaire Belloc is again worth quoting. “If I be asked what sign we may look for to show that the advance of the Faith is at hand, I would answer by a word the modern world has forgotten: Persecution. When that shall once more be at work it will be morning.”


Tim Reuter is a researcher at a Washington DC think thank.

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