Come Bearing Gifts: Principled Prudence for Conservative Christians in American Politics

by Matthew P. Cavedon:

Less than a month after a military coup saw Egypt’s government arrested for the crime of being too religious, it was interesting to read Tim Reuter and Josh Carlson’s ongoing debate over the future of conservative Christians in American politics. Tim is right that conservative Christians need a serious dose of perspective, and Josh correctly sees that Christians ought to remain somehow involved in politics. But both focus almost exclusively on the welfare of Christians. Because they fail to consider society’s needs, too, their arguments ring hollow. Christian insight into the nature and destiny of the human person is an important contribution to the political pursuit of justice.

Joseph in EgyptTim fears for the loss of Christian cultural influence due to political grandstanding, and Josh wants to make sure Christians maintain some power so they are not crushed under it. So much for what’s good for Christians, but what about society? Christians cannot think only of themselves when deciding how to approach politics. They need to think about the gifts that they can bring to the societies they live in, including the political ones.

The state is a moral agent in society, despite Tim’s insistence to the contrary. It is capable of making it easier for people to be good, as the federal government did by enacting laws against racial discrimination. And it is capable of encouraging or committing evil, as the federal government does when it wages unjust wars or allows the taking of innocent life. Tim is right to think that politics grow out of culture, but surely political decisions help shape culture, too. Society benefits when the state uses its power responsibly, and it suffers when the state does not.

Society needs politically-active Christians because they hold moral insights that can help the state use power responsibly. Christians believe in human dignity, holding that every person is made in God’s image and is headed for a rendezvous with him at life’s end. This belief has consequences for society, as Christians have demonstrated in helping to lead many of the West’s great social reform efforts: separating powers, tolerating religious difference, abolishing slavery, enfranchising women, protesting wartime injustice, integrating people of different races, protecting human life from conception to natural death, ending human trafficking. The Christian mission may aim beyond the political realm, and perhaps the highest political priority for the believer is securing basic religious liberty. But Josh is right—Christian morality, with its beliefs about human beings, is concerned with all of what affects human dignity. Politics included.

As Tim and Josh both acknowledged without fully considering it, Christians can help be society’s conscience, given their religious commitments to dignity, liberty, peace, and justice. Insights into these matters are what inspire citizens to be politically active, and what society needs driving its politics. Christians have to be politically active alongside other citizens, for the sake of the common good.

That does not mean “the Christian Right” has it, well, right. Christian morality does extend to politics, but not all of politics extends to Christian morality. When Christians say God will provide a miracle to end Obamacare (not the contraception mandate, mind you, but the whole thing), or as Tim points out, paint support for Israeli defense policies as “God’s foreign policy,” they wrongly try to turn prudential calculations into doctrinal absolutes. Nor does all of Christian morality qualify for political enactment. If conservative Christians grant that the state cannot make citizens fulfill their first duty to God by believing in him, then why do so many try to outlaw every sexual sin?

But how can Christians contribute to political justice without making it the end-all be-all? Perspective. Christians need to know when they have special insight from their beliefs about the human person, when they don’t, and what issues are beyond the competence of politics. For some issues, “ultimate anthropology” won’t make much of a difference. Marginal tax rates and transportation subsidies, among other exercises in the mundane, come to mind: every Christian citizen has the right debate these questions, of course, but the faith is not usually going to have anything particular to say about them, because they operate at a level very far from human dignity.

For other questions, like the death penalty and the right to basic welfare support, beliefs about human dignity are going to inform any citizen’s thinking. Why should Christians isolate themselves, shuffling off to the catacombs instead of bearing their gifts? These are issues where Christians hopefully (if not predictably) have moral fervor and certain love that will help them be part of society’s conscience. These are the sort of issues where Christian conviction has sometimes meant the difference between freedom and tyranny, peace and strife, and even life and death. Christians will have to choose wisely between wearing their faith on their sleeves and leavening the debate in more subtle ways, but they ought to find ways to contribute.

Finally, there are the issues beyond the state’s reach. These concern the choices made by conscience, the acts committed privately and consensually by adults, and the beliefs held in the heart, professed with the lips. As far as spreading right teaching about these is concerned, politics is a dull yet remarkably offensive instrument, unworthy of the message.

The ideal solution can be found back in Egypt, where this post began. When God called Joseph to go and be its prime minister ages ago, Joseph made the reasonable grain storage provisions that any prudent statesman would have, thereby preventing starvation. He discerned from his faith that freely sharing the grain with all—even his brothers, who had sold him into slavery—would honor human dignity, and one imagines Egypt grateful. And he never sought to use his political position to impose Judaism or its comprehensive law on his subjects, beyond whatever fear of God his virtues might inspire.

This is something more than what Tim has in mind for Christian Americans. It is not the kind of total transformation that the Christian Right envisions. But it is the principled, prudent path of contributing responsibly to the common good to which Christians ought to keep.


Matthew Cavedon is a graduate of Harvard University. He is currently pursuing a dual degree in both law and theology at Emory University in Atlanta, GA.


  1. Josh Carlson says:

    Thank you Mr. Cavedon for this insightful article, as it, on the whole, reflects my views regarding this subject.

  2. Matt Cavedon says:

    Thanks, Josh – I suspect Tim might, too. I was going for constructive synthesis.

  3. Evan Bernick says:

    Mr. Cavedon,

    Respectfully, you’ve rather badly misread the Joseph story, which in fact points up the merits of Mr. Reuter’s view of the state.

    That “reasonable grain storage” that was “freely shar(ed) with all” was the fruit of confiscatory taxation intended to render Egyptians dependent upon the state for their very sustenance. Joseph and Pharaoh taking money, then property, and finally the farmers themselves in exchange for life-giving bread. Safe and comfortable in their fortified cities (guarded, no doubt, by well-fed soldiers), Joseph and Pharaoh use a supposed concern for the well-being of the nation as a pretext to enslave it. Joseph made the slavery of his OWN PEOPLE possible. Without him, no Exodus would have been necessary.

    That is what government does when it does things other than secure life, liberty, and property– when it concerns itself with a nebulous “greater good” that is somehow distinct from individual citizens.

    The state is indeed a moral agent, but its role in promoting morality should be limited, in keeping with its nature as an instrument of brute retaliatory force and its capacity to act (if unconstrained) as an instrument of tyranny far greater than any which would exist without it. Property rights are moral rights. The right to life is a moral right. The right to earn one’s bread by the sweat of one’s brow is a moral right. The state ensures that these rights are protected by creating an environment free from physical violence and fraud, and enforcing voluntary contracts.

    When it does more, it does things that serve only the narrow interests of rulers, rather than any “common good” that it professes to be interested in.


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