Ask a Christian Conservative....(Response)

by Rachel Held Evans Read Distraction Free

At the beginning of the year, when I asked what sort of people you would like to talk to via our interview series, one of the most popular suggestions was to interview Christians who identified with various political parties.

So last week, we spoke with Caryn Rivadeneira, a Christian LibertarianFor this week, you submitted over 120 questions to Matthew Lee Anderson, a Christian Conservative. Next week, we’ll interview a Christian Democrat. (After that, we’ll return to the usual fare—Ask a Buddhist, Ask a Stay-At-Home-Dad, Ask a Pastor, lots of good stuff lined up.)  So far, I’ve been encouraged by the civility and thoughtfulness of the conversation...especially considering the fact that we’re at the start of an election year, when emotions tend to run high. So thanks for that. 

Matthew Lee Anderson is the author of Earthen Vessels:  Why our Bodies Matter to our Faith. He blogs atMere Orthodoxy, and you can find him on Facebook and Twitter.  He recently wrote an article for Relevantentitled “Why I Am a Christian Republican," and he did a great job responding to your questions.  



From Matthew: Thanks to Rachel for hosting this little cocktail party, and to everyone for submitting questions. I'll dive right in, as I get a bit wordy. Hopefully the zombie-apocalypse doesn't come before you finish (though if it does, run to your nearest political conservative, because they will still have guns). 

From Julia: Why do you call yourself a conservative?  What are the ideals that you have politically that cause you to hail as a conservative?

In addition to how I described it in my Relevant piece, I'd say the conservative disposition is rooted in a deference to tradition, what Chesterton described as “the democracy of the dead.”  In its degraded form, this gets reduced to a false nostalgia based on mythological readings of history.  But at its best, the impulse recognizes that we have received goods worth holding on to and that social innovations tend to bring about negative consequences that we rarely foresee.  Sometimes the devil you know is less dangerous than the devil that may come. 

The impulse toward limiting government is, for me, rooted in two principles:  First, societies are endlessly complex and that the first responsibility of government should be to do no harm.  Governments, like anything else, tend to get ahead of themselves in their pursuit of justice. Second, nature may abhor a vacuum, but the state loves one.  And the absence of vital and healthy institutions elsewhere, particularly religious institutions, leads to a general dependence upon the state as the provider of social goods.   The effect, as T.S. Eliot argued, is that those parts of our lives outside the state have been rendered increasingly trivial, and somewhat paradoxically, the sphere of our individual freedoms will erode (which we have seen, for instance, with smoking laws).  

From Brian:  What Republican party platforms, policy initiatives, laws, etc., do you hesitate to support or have trouble reconciling with your faith?

The Republican defense of waterboarding is beyond dispiriting. It’s corrosive to our national honor and integrity to engage in such behavior toward our enemies.  While I understand that security is an important good, (and one of the chief concerns of the state), the means by which we pursue it should not counteract the good that it sets out to defend.  We ought never do evil that good may come.  And that’s what torture seems to be. 

Similarly, I have growing concerns about the steady expansiveness of the security state and the corresponding erosion of personal liberties.  In short, security can become a tool for expansive government in the same way that social services can.  And that's what I think we have seen. 

From Elisabeth: Many Christian Conservatives base their advocacy or opposition for a policy (such as same-sex marriage) on their religious beliefs. But in a country that promotes freedom of religion, what makes those positions valid to people who do not share your particular belief system? Why should conservative Christian beliefs carry more weight in the United States than moderate or liberal Christian beliefs, Muslim beliefs, Buddhist beliefs, or secular humanist beliefs?

Let me push back at part of this, and simply say that basing advocacy for public positions on religious beliefs does not undermine religious freedom or the Constitution.  For instance, my Christian friends on the left frequently talk about expanding social programs for the poor on grounds that Jesus would have done so (Sojourner’s “What would Jesus Cut?” was a classic example of that).  The question of religious freedom isn’t whether someone advocates for positions based on religious beliefs:  it’s whether those religious beliefs inhibit other people’s right to free exercise.  

Second, as noted, I want a government that leaves as much room for voluntary associations of whatever sort.   But the more expansive the government gets, the trickier it is to distinguish the lines between it and everything else, as we’ve seen with the recent hubbub over contraception funding.   So I think a small government actually leaves more room for an energetic, pluralist public square.  

And when it comes to how things get decided, I want the argument to go forward in terms everyone can understand--even if they don’t share the premises.  There can be no laws respecting the establishment of a particular religion, which means that it’s not a matter of conservative Christian beliefs carrying more weight than anyone else’s, except on matters about which we can work for general agreement. 

From Rebekah: As the wife of an Iraq veteran, I'd like to know your thoughts on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and in particular how they relate to fiscal conservatism and a pro-life stance.

This is a really tough question, if only because the issues at stake are incredibly complex. But I think the only place where I could possibly start is by recognizing that the loss of human life is tragic (especially in Iraq, where much of the post-invasion seems to have been badly bungled).  That said, we are often in a hurry to make judgments about whether things are “worth it” or not, and on questions of incredible difficulty like this one, a prudential reluctance to make judgments hastily seems right to me.  The war in Iraq radically reshaped the region, and it’s still not clear what all the unintended side-effects of that are.  I resonate a lot with many of the concerns that are raised in this discussion.   

But when it comes specifically to the relationship between the wars and fiscal conservatism, I think we need to put military spending in historical perspective.  Yes, our expenditures are considerably larger than any other country’s in the world.  However, including the wars in Iraq, they are relatively low in relation to  our GDP, compared WWII.  I want to make my point carefully:  whatever else we make of defense, defense spending and the like, the budget crisis is coming from elsewhere, namely Social Security, Medicaid, and Medicare.

As to the pro-life business, I leave that aside.  At least until the next question, anyway!

From Paula: Many Christian Republicans/conservatives strongly associate with a "pro-life" position.  How does your Christian faith inform your definition of what it means to be pro-life? Does being pro-life include the lives of those on death row, enemy combatants/civilians in war, or funding government social programs that support women and children ?  Why or why not?

That's a long list of issues, so let me make a general claim and then draw a few distinctions.

I think being pro-life means recognizing the humanity and dignity of every person made in the image of God, and defending their intrinsic rights and duties accordingly.  At the heart of that is protecting those members of our own species whose humanity has been made ambiguous to us.  Which is to say, whatever aims and standards we might have for human flourishing depend upon us welcoming human persons into our midst.  

As such, I think for strategic and clarity purposes we ought to keep the scope of those issues which are “pro-life” more narrowly focused on bioethical concerns, while coming up with other ways of describing our positions elsewhere.  After all, simply because I am pro-life does not mean that is all I stand for.  I am pro-free enterprise, pro-peace, and pro-justice.  We have lots of other ways of describing the things we work for beyond that one, and in order to maintain clarity I think we should use them.  
But you asked about particular things, so let me run through them.  

• Capital punishment:  I currently lean against capital punishment as an institutionalized practice or as a matter of justice, but am working through this one at the moment.

• Enemy combatants:  I am a just war theorist, and affirm proportionality as a means of using force.  I think war is never an occasion for rejoicing, however, even if it’s a just war.  Being “pro-life” means defending innocents' rights to life, and I take it that I have a different relationship with enemy combatants.  And for what it’s worth, my just war commitments hinge upon my belief that church and state have separate approaches, and that the latter has the power of the sword to execute justice.  I also think the early church was as divided on this as the church is today.

• Civilians in war:  I think it is immoral to intentionally target non-combatants in war.  I also think that we have to recognize that supply lines and faculties are often run by civilians during wartime, and that as such they often pose a military threat.  As to nuclear weapons, I think their use was immoral and that we ought not make moral decisions based on weighing the number of lives saved or (potentially) lost. 

• Funding government programs:  I’m skeptical about such programs’ ability to provide the sort of social safety net needed to ensure that women and children do not abort their children.  As such, I think that trying to justify Medicaid or the like under “pro-life” positions simply muddies the waters.

From Sophia: How do you reconcile the many statements Jesus makes about supporting and helping the poor and sick with the Republican Party's concentration on policies that give preference to the 1%?

Well, first of all, we should be really careful about drawing a straight line between Jesus’ statements about helping the poor with expanding government programs.  When Jesus says to “render to Ceasar what is Ceasar, and to God what is God’s,” he’s drawing a distinction between the two that we need to hold on to.  

Also, let me push back at the premise of the “1%” rhetoric.  The critique of “crony capitalism” shouldn’t be a critique of the fact that some 1% are more wealthy than everyone else.  After all, as middle-class Americans (like I suspect most everyone reading this blog is) we’re in the 1% of the world.  So percentages are on a sliding scale. 

What’s more, I don’t think wealth inequality is unjust per se.  Bill Gates deserves a whole lot more money than I do, given the sorts of things we’ve built respectively and the role they’ve played in the world.  The disparity in our resources isn’t unjust.  Instead, injustice occurs if people are disenfranchised and not allowed to participate in the political process.  We should have real concerns (and I do) about that, and we should be concerned about how wealthy people use political power to create “hedges” around themselves and their businesses so that they keep wealth.  But those critiques should be made carefully (I forget who first pointed it out, but we should remember that Occupy Wall Street and the Tea Party had the same objection to “crony capitalism”). 

Last word:  when it comes to theories of economics and taxation, the question isn’t whether people care about poor people.  The question is how the poor and marginalized are most effectively helped.  I think the poor are best helped by governments with strong legal systems that can defend property rights and arbitrate contract disputes justly, which ensure that there is sufficient infrastructure for commerce to proceed, and which leave the rest to charitable organizations and free enterprise to employ others and generate profits that can then be given away as they might be morally obligated to do, but not legally obligated. (Go linger around The Acton Institute for all sorts of arguments fleshing this out.) 

From Laura: Over the years, I've noticed what seems to me like a contradiction among Christian conservatives. Christians believe that we are fallen beings, inherently sinful creatures. However, regulations protecting the environment, workers' rights, human rights, etc. seem to be viewed as anti-freedom, or even evil, by many conservatives. But Christians hold that freedom is not boundary-less; God's boundaries are seen as helpful, aiding us to be free from the chains of sin. From my perspective, most government regulations (not all, but most) are attempting to simply put boundaries on our depraved natures, with an understanding that if we are left unchecked completely, we will abuse others. But conservatives I have talked to don't see that regulations are necessary. How can you hold to human depravity on one hand while resisting regulation on the other? If the government should not impose regulations, should the Church? Do we monitor ourselves? I'm just not clear on the conservative position on these theological issues.  

This is such a good question, and you’re absolutely right that boundaries are intrinsic to our freedom.  That’s one of the most fundamental differences, I think, between a deeply conservative position and a strictly libertarian one:  conservatives think that for all its merits, the right we have to choose in the marketplace needs to be shaped by virtue and ordered by a moral order (I never tire of pointing out that Adam Smith thought himself a moral philosopher).  

That said, most conservatives aren’t opposed to regulations per se.  They’re opposed to over-regulating and badly regulating, but only strict libertarians think that business ought to have its way of things without anyone saying a word.  And I for one am not a libertarian.

We could go back and forth about what constitutes good regulation and what doesn’t.  But let me simply point out one:  mark-to-market accounting regulations.  In the financial crisis, such rules required banks to report their assets at their current market price, which created a cyclical effect.  As the price dropped, they had to report the losses on their books at their depressed prices, making the company look weaker....rinse, repeat.  By the time that the regulators had softened the rules the damage had already been done. 

But these problems are partly why I want to privilege the education that happens within the church and the home as necessary for a healthy social order.  In short, the church needs to think about whether it has inculcated the virtues needed to counter an expansive state.  And if it has not, then She gets precisely what she deserves, namely less space to operate in.  

From Colleen: I'm a Canadian born / raised Christian, now an American citizen....American conservatives seem to talk a lot less about the Kingdom of God and more about the kingdom of America...As an American conservative Christian, do you ever consider the potential idolatry of patriotic pride? Is it OK to recognize the sins of this country's history without offending your peers? If this question is offensive to you, can you ask yourself why? 

Full disclosure, I was also born in Canada and actually still have dual citizenship (though I call myself an American, have never voted in Canada, paid taxes there, or used their free health care).  

That said, it is true that patriotism can turn into an idol, and it may be the case that conservatives are particularly prone to doing that (like I said, at its worst, conservatism gets reduced to a nostalgia rooted in a mythological history).  But here’s a paradox:  many of the people who happen to be most deeply patriotic and talk about America’s greatness are also the most concerned about social decline.  In short, many conservative Christians are unwitting Augustinians:  they are very ready to admit the sins in America’s history, and (in fact) unsparing in acknowledging the stain that has darkened our own soil more than any other.  And that is, on the whole, a rather healthy balance to have.  

Which is to say, the question is not offensive to me at all.  But I think we also have unique moral obligations to those that we interact with on a daily basis.  The universality of humanity that we believe in as Christians does not entail the erosion of particularity, and while my national ties are not the deepest (indeed, I argued something similar here) they are not non-existent either.  As Richard John Neuhaus put it, I shall meet God as an American, for good or ill.  And an appropriate patriotism moves us, I think, to acknowledge the fact and then work to ensure that our Americanness doesn’t preclude the other dimensions of our identity, and that the America in which we live (or Canada, or what have you) is the sort of place we can be appropriately proud of.

I want to underline my gratitude to Rachel for hosting such civil discussions (more, please!) and to all you commenters for chiming in. If you didn’t get your question answered, feel free to hit me up on Twitter or atMere-O and I’ll do my best to make a go at it.

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