Is conservatism the natural political home of Christianity? That certainly appears to be the case if the voting habits of American Christians are anything to go by.
Pew Research Center analysis suggests that 78-81% of white, born-again and evangelical Christians and 52-60% of white Catholics have voted for the Republican candidate in each of the last four presidential elections. In the most recent presidential race, regular churchgoers voted 56% Trump to 40% Clinton while the religiously unaffiliated voted 68% Clinton to 26% Trump. ().
Individuals vote for a host of different reasons and the available data does not allow differentiation and interrogation of the motives of Christian who vote for Republican presidents. It is safe to assume they aren’t monolithic. Whatever the reasons, the fact remains that a majority of American Christian voters feel compelled to support the conservative side of politics. This begs the questions: what is it about conservatism that resonates with so many Christians?
Answering such a question requires some clarity around the term “conservatism.” To do so I have surveyed the vision and mission statements of prominent conservative political organizations in the United States. These include: The Heritage Foundation, American Conservative Union, Citizens United, Americans for Constitutional Liberty (The Conservative Caucus), Eagle Forum, Family Research Council, FreedomWorks, and the John Birch Society. I have also considered the preamble of the “Republican Platform 2016.”
These mission statements reveal a very consistent set of principles and values that can be taken as representative of political conservatism in the United States. Thy include: “free enterprise,” “limited government,” “individual freedom,” “traditional American values,” “national sovereignty,” and “strong families.”
There are many further discrete positions and interests expressed in mission statements, but these generally can be placed under the rubric of one of the aforementioned principles. For example, the notion of limited taxation comes within the scope of “limited government,” educational freedom under “individual freedom,” opposition to same-sex marriage under “strong families,” and support for a strong defense and opposition to a world government under “national sovereignty.”
The question I wish to explore is this: what are the theological grounds, if any, for these principles? I pose this question from a deliberately agnostic position as to the relative merits of the values and principles themselves, and without any presumption as to conservatism’s superiority or inferiority vis-à-vis any other political movement or ideology.
The controlling concept that binds conservative principles together is “freedom” (also “liberty”). The importance of “free enterprise,” for example, is often explained by its relationship to “individual freedoms.” According to the Heritage Foundation, “capitalism is the only economic system of our time that is compatible with political liberty.” The preamble to the “Republican Platform 2016” states that “political freedom and economic freedom are indivisible.”
“Limited government” is similarly linked to the preservation of individual freedoms. It is about limiting the power of government to interfere with or curb individual political and economic freedoms. The American Conservative Union, for instance, argues that “liberties can remain secure only if government is so limited that it cannot infringe upon those [inherent] rights.”
The defining characteristic of conservatism, therefore, is individual freedom. This helps to sharpen the focus of our question: what are the theological grounds for conservatism’s politics of individual freedom? Although conservative values and principles are generally not supported explicitly with theological arguments (at least not in mission statements), one important theological theme does recur. This is the notion that God has endowed humans with inalienable rights, which by implication require certain political and economic freedoms in order to flourish and to be preserved. The American Conservative Union, for instance, maintains that “our inherent rights are endowed by the Creator” and the Family Research Council argues that “God is the author of life, liberty, and the family.”
The notion of God-given inalienable political rights provides an entry point into a discussion of the theological grounds for conservatism. The theology of conservatism appears to rely substantially on a doctrine of creation. There are two parts to this theology. The first part is anthropological. It says that humans are, by their nature, autonomous creatures with free-will and an inherent desire and need for social environments that facilitate and protect the expression of that free-will.
The second part is an imago Dei argument. If humans owe their nature to God, their creator, then their inherent autonomy and commensurate desire and need for freedom must be God-given. This creationist account of freedom serves as more than mere explanation for the existence of individual rights. It lends theological authority to the notion that individual freedom is something that the Christian in good conscience can fight for and defend in the political arena.
Indicative of the fact that the theological grounds of conservatism’s politics of individual freedom are inferred from the Christian doctrine of creation is that the sacred text most frequently cited in support of conservatism’s principles and values is not the Bible but the American Declaration of Independence and/or the American Constitution. The latter is described in the preamble to the “Republican Platform 2016” as “our enduring covenant.”
This is not to say that the concept of “freedom” is absent from Scripture. The ancient world, including that of the biblical authors, had a concept of “freedom” and “slavery” that reflected tangible and consequential social realities. But beyond reflecting the social reality of the existence of slaves and freemen in the Biblical era, Scripture also provides a theological construal of freedom: freedom from the bonds of sin. Both the sociological realities of freedom and its theological meaning are evident in John 8:31-35
Then Jesus said to the Jews who had believed in him, “If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples; and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.” They answered him, “We are descendants of Abraham and have never been slaves to anyone. What do you mean by saying, “You will be made free?” Jesus answered them, “Very truly, I tell you, everyone who commits sin is a slave to sin. The slave does not have a permanent place in the household; the son has a place there forever. So if the Son makes you free, you will be free indeed (NRSV).
This new distinction between freedom and slavery in relation to sin did not mirror the sociological distinction between freeman and slave. Jesus’ point was that the freeman could still be a slave to sin. This passage from John’s Gospel typifies Jesus’ teaching about freedom. Does it follow then that Jesus also stood for free enterprise, limited government, national sovereignty, and traditional American values? Who can say? These are all modern concepts unknown in Jesus’ day.
Are such values therefore un-biblical or un-Christian? No. It just means that the Bible is largely silent on many of the values that define the contemporary conservative movement in America. The bible does not offer, for example, an economic theory – market-based or otherwise. Nor does it take a position on the size and role of government. Furthermore, it is silent on many of the more discrete positions expressed by conservatism, such as the right to homeschool, limited taxation, the right to bear arms, and a strong national defense.
The fact that the Bible does not offer anything resembling the nature and content of the “Republican Platform 2016” does not gainsay the theological basis of conservatism’s controlling concept “freedom.” It is difficult to deny that humans are born with an innate capacity and desire for freedom.
This much is recognized in criminal justice systems across multiple cultures, where individuals are held personally accountable for their actions. No person of right mind aspires to become a slave. For the Christian who believes God created man and woman in his image, it seems reasonable, if not necessary, to attribute human freedom to imago Dei.
It is equally undeniable that this innate freedom can be attenuated, restricted, repressed, and even denied. So while freedom is innate, it is not something that can be taken for granted. It is therefore something worth fighting for, as many peoples have done throughout the ages, including in America.
But if we accept that individual freedom is part of imago Dei, does it follow that free enterprise, limited government, traditional American values, and national sovereignty are? Are these values part of the created order? The truth is that these are not theological concepts. They rely on philosophical arguments rather than theological arguments, which is to say that they are based on reason rather than revelation (special or natural). The question of the size and role of government, for example, is not revealed in Scripture, nor dictated by nature. It is, ironically, a matter for human freedom to determine.
The observation that these principles are grounded in philosophical rather than theological arguments does not imply their illegitimacy. It merely clarifies the nature of the arguments and their relationship to Christian theology.
If the characteristic values of conservatism are philosophically based rather than theologically based, notwithstanding the movement’s theologically grounded (in the doctrine of creation) controlling concept of God-given “individual freedom,” then the question remains: why do the majority of Christians habitually vote Republican? Is it because a majority of Christians are persuaded by the philosophical cogency of conservatism? Or, is it possible that some, perhaps many, Christians overestimate the theological basis of the contemporary American conservative movement?
The possibility of the latter does not automatically discredit the former. The Christian, for example, who possibly overestimates the theological grounds for conservatism might still be persuaded by the philosophical cogency of its principles and vision even once the philosophical nature of the arguments has been clarified. Good and bad political ideas are equally susceptible to false-sacralization by Christians.
There is, of course, another possibility. Some Christians who vote conservative might do so on account of specific issues rather than the philosophical framework of conservatism per se. There are a range of issues of special concern to many Christian voters, such as abortion, Supreme Court appointments, the right to educate children according to one’s religious convictions, and religious liberty, that are championed by the Republican Party.
Issue-motivated Christian voters may therefore choose the Republican Party for tactical reasons rather than philosophical reasons, in which case their support need not necessarily imply passionate embrace of all of the conservative values and principles discussed in this post. In that case, the conservative Christian possibly acts more like an interest group that votes Republican in order to advance sectional interests. But at the end of the day, irrespective of individual motivation, a Christian vote for the Republican Party is a vote for a broader conservative platform.
The one part of the conservative agenda that is more difficult to connect to the controlling concept of “individual freedom,” and which has a much more obvious theological basis, is “strong families.” This is an issue upon which Scripture does have something to say. Scripture and the church (at least traditionally) have had a very specific view of marriage and sexual relations. While Christians can and do take different positions on the question of same-sex marriage, there is no dispute that those Christians who uphold a “traditional” view of marriage do so on theological grounds.
It is possible therefore that some, perhaps many, Christian conservatives are conservative first and foremost on account of their support for a particular Christian view of the family and its pivotal role in society, rather than, say, a passion for the unbridled right to accumulate private wealth. It is interesting, however, to note that the one part of the conservative agenda that has the strongest claim to theological roots ostensibly has the least to do with the concept that seems to bind together the conservative philosophy: “individual freedom.”
One could even argue that the conservative Christian view of the family cuts across the very grain of “individual freedom.” The question of same-sex marriage, for instance, is one of the most obvious points of tension between conservatives and libertarians, with many in the latter camp supporting same-sex marriage precisely for reasons related to “individual freedom.”
If support for “strong families” is the bedrock of much Christian support for conservative politics in the U.S., then it is possible to ask whether such support need entail embrace of the entire conservative agenda. Does support for traditional marriage, for instance, necessitate a particular view about the economic organization of society and the size and scope of government?
While conservatism is premised on a controlling concept that Christians can genuinely support on theological grounds – our created freedom, and supports a theologically-rooted view of the family, the reality is that many of its core values are not theologically-grounded, at least not in any obvious or unambiguous way. This is not to say that they are therefore intrinsically wrong, incompatible with Christian theology, or cannot be supported by Christians in good conscience. It simply means that conservatism is a political ideology, or political philosophy, not Christian revelation or theological doctrine.
This helps to highlight two principles the politically conservative Christian ought to bring to their politics. The first is to avoid sacralizing conservatism. It is unnecessary. At its heart, conservatism is a secular political philosophy. This is why and how atheists can and do also embrace it. The politically conservative Christian can argue that conservatism is compatible with Scripture and Christian theology, that it reflects some aspects of Christian teaching, or that certain Christian principles form part of the philosophy. What they cannot cogently argue is that conservatism is the natural or only political philosophy that a genuine Christian could embrace.
The second principle is humility. If many of the principles of conservatism are philosophical, and therefore secular, then they ought to be embraced by the Christian with some humility. Principles such as free enterprise, limited government, and national sovereignty are not revealed truths. Rather, they are the products of human reasoning, discourse, and enterprising imagination.
Like any product of the human intellect, however, they are susceptible to error and illusion, and therefore must be subjected to constant critical reflection on the part of those who hold them. The risk of error is not a reason against embracing conservatism. It is simply a reason to do so with humility and the charity that this should breed towards those who have different philosophical convictions.
Jonathan Cole is a research member of the Centre for Public and Contextual Theology, Charles Sturt University (CSU), Canberra, Australia, and a PhD candidate in Political Theology at St Mark’s National Theological Centre, CSU. He spent 14 years working in the Australian federal civil service in the areas of Immigration, Health and Intelligence. He spent seven of his 14 years working in two intelligence agencies as a Senior Terrorism Analyst. He has an MA specializing in Middle Eastern politics and Islamic theology from the Australian National University. He speaks Arabic and is an expert in Islamist terrorism. He also has a BA Honors in Modern Greek language and history. He wrote his honors thesis on the politics of linguistic nationalism in nineteenth century Greece.