Intersections of Political and Religious Ideologies

I want to talk about conservative Christianity. This seems appropriate as we near Christmas and the Iowa caucuses, which are often won by the candidate who best resonates with evangelical Christian conservatives. I hope the following thoughts will break down some of our assumptions about each other's beliefs and encourage us to listen to one another before coming to conclusions about a person’s religious or political views.  

I first want to note an important distinction between the terms we use to describe conservative Christians and Christian conservatives. Christian conservatives are those people who have conservative political views and also happen to be Christians. Conservative Christians, on the other hand, are Christians who have theological views that are conservative. When Christians talk about conservative theological views, they are not using the term to identify particular political beliefs, even political beliefs that are driven by their religion. Instead, they use the term conservative to describe the way they form their beliefs about God. Although the term has a variety of implications, it is most often used to describe those who give more authority to the Bible’s descriptions of who God is than their own preferences of what God should be.

The populations of politically conservative Christians and theologically conservative Christians do significantly overlap, but not always. For example, I am a theologically conservative Christian who generally prefers liberal public policies. This is not an oxymoron. While the Bible does lay out a variety of values that should be present in how we Christians live our own lives and interact with others, it provides less guidance regarding questions of how we should, in a democratic society, leverage government policies to improve society. In fact, the political liberal and theological conservative share some specific values with political implications, including giving dignity to all people, regardless of how they might be marginalized, caring for our environment, and self-determination of beliefs. If only these two groups would take the time to listen to each other and gain a better appreciation for the other, they might succeed in finding more common ground.

Given that the politically liberal and theologically conservative positions are not irreconcilable, these groups should be able to have civil and productive conversations about politics. With this in mind, I would like to make some suggestions to help political liberals and theologically conservative Christians do just that, discuss politics in more productive ways, helping each side better understand the values and logic of the other. I do not mean for these few suggestions to limit dialogue, but simply offer ideas of places discussion may be directed toward more fertile ground for agreement and mutual understanding. While I address these thoughts to political liberals and conservative Christians, the two sides of my personal coin, I hope the advice will prove helpful to a broad audience.

First, seek to discover mutual goals. Even in the most heated and polarized debates, the political liberal and conservative Christian can often agree on certain principles. For example, in the abortion debate, both parties often share the goal of reducing unwanted pregnancies. By identifying this common goal, the political liberal and conservative Christian can engage in productive debate of more specific goals and policy from a shared foundation.

Second, seek to understand how the other person is balancing their own competing values. Similarly, seek to understand within your value system the multiple values you are balancing. For example, in the same-sex marriage debate, Christian conservatives arguing for limiting same-sex marriage might acknowledge that this could lead to the marginalization of a people group, and then wrestle with the question of whether a government mandate is the best way for them to balance their values of truth and grace.

Third, acknowledge the shared role of the church and government in solving societal problems. In the eyes of many Christians, the church is the best way to provide care for the poor, ill, elderly, and otherwise disadvantaged. These Christian conservatives cite government inefficiencies and failures to provide, and they believe that the church would be better able to serve if the government simply got out of the way. On the other hand, political liberals will often take the position that there will always be gaps in the ability of the church to care for others, particularly among non-Christian populations. Similarly, the two groups should consider areas where the church has a role but political action may not be required. For example, most Christians feel that the church has a role as a moral authority in encouraging monogamy and discouraging divorce, but at the same time are content with the government’s more hands-off approach to these issues. Are there other issues on which Christian conservatives have called for government action, but where the leveraging of the church's moral influence may be a more effective or appropriate tool?

Finally, I offer two points of advice directly to my Christian brethren. First, try to avoid using the Bible as your only argument for policy preferences. To do so is to exclude non-Christians from the conversation and to implicitly say to them that you have no points to offer unless they are willing to acknowledge the authority of the Bible. Second, as I've discussed, please be aware of the way you are using the terms “liberal” and “conservative.” I often hear from the pulpit that a “liberal” or “conservative” would interpret a passage one way or another. While the pastor does not necessarily mean these statements to have political implications, they can be easily misinterpreted without attention to context.

The case of conservative and liberal political versus religious ideologies is but one example of the challenge we face with language. In order to better listen to and consider another person's views, especially ones we disagree with, it is critical that we understand the context from which the person is speaking and the words they are using. If you have any question, ask in order to clarify understanding, then keep listening.

Scott Anderson, Lawyer and Bible Study Leader
December 2015