During the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln was purportedly asked if God was on his side. “Sir, my concern is not whether God is on our side,” said the President, “my greatest concern is to be on God’s side, for God is always right.”
Although Lincoln is often praised for this remark by those who oppose the mixing of religion and politics, it contains three of the most controversial ideas in American politics: that it is legitimate to invoke the name of God within the realm of political discourse; that God’s existence isn’t merely symbolic, but that he is always right; and that since God takes sides on certain issues, some people will be divinely justified while others will stand in opposition not only to their political opponents but to the very Creator and Sustainer of the Universe.
If you find these ideas absurd and repugnant, you are most likely a secularist. If you find them to be embarrassing truths, you may be on the religious left. If you find them so obvious that they hardly need stating, you are probably a member of the so-called “religious right.”
I embrace them wholeheartedly—with reservations about how they are applied—which makes me a certified member of the religious right. Although I’ve often been uncomfortable with that term, I find that as my political convictions develop, the term fits me more and more, as if I’m growing into it. So be it.
Over the past several years I have served in various positions that have allowed me the opportunity to engage with people who express firm religious and political convictions. My experiences with the religious right have been, at various times, aggravating, encouraging, fulfilling, funny, frustrating, provocative, and, on occasion, downright weird.
In general, I remain optimistic about the role of politically conservative evangelicals, mainline Protestants, Catholics, Mormons, and Jews. There are, however, a number of issues that still give me pause. It is worth reminding ourselves of lessons we’ve learned that can easily be overlooked. Here, then, are nine thoughts I want to share with my fellow religious conservatives:
1) As a matter of political liberty I believe there are justifiable reasons to support such issues as prayer in schools and public displays of religious symbols. But I can’t imagine that on the Day of Judgment I’ll hear, “Well done, good and faithful servant—you have faithfully fought to keep the Ten Commandments in the courthouse.” It’s more likely we’ll all be asked why we didn’t spend more time concerned about our neighbors in Darfur or fighting the global AIDS pandemic. Perhaps we should rethink our priorities and put first things first.
2) We have ideological enemies (such as Islamic terrorists) and ideological opponents (such as secular liberals). While our ideological opponents want us to lose political debates, our ideological enemies want us to lose our lives. That’s a crucial distinction that we should always keep in mind. While we are called to love them all, we shouldn’t lump them all together.
3) In a classical statement of ecumenicity, St. Augustine once said, “In essentials, unity. In non-essentials, liberty. In all things, love.” Those of us on the religious right should adopt a similar principle and clearly define the boundaries between what is essential and what is non-essential in matters of policy and politics.
Protecting the sanctity of innocent human life and defending the traditional definition of marriage are clearly essentials. Those matters are based on principles that can be clearly derived from our traditions and holy texts. Other issues, however, are less opaque. For example, can someone be a part of the “religious right” and not support the war in Iraq? The fact that question can even be asked shows how we’ve muddied the waters. While I personally think that, on the whole, the war was morally justified and necessary as a humanitarian intervention, I can respect those who disagree. Indeed, the alternate opinion may be as rooted in Biblical and conservative principles as I believe my own position to be. We must be careful and deliberate about where we draw the lines of political heresy.
4) We must keep in mind that the term “religious right” encompasses two unique spectrums. Because of our commitment to the faith, we often find ourselves in agreement with the religious left. And because our conservatism is informed by our religion, we will also find ourselves in disagreement with the secular right.
Our political alliances, therefore, will often be tenuous and shift based on particular issues. Adherence to our principles trumps loyalty to those who simply share our religious identity. Several years ago, at Family Research Councils Values Voter Summit, Southern Baptist leader Richard Land said he’d vote for a Jewish pro-life politician who promised to raise his taxes before he’d vote in a Christian pro-choice candidate who promised to cut them. The rousing applause he received was as disturbing to many Republicans as it was to many Democrats. But Land knew how the issues should be prioritized. We should too.
5) Our allegiance to any political party should be modest, contingent, and made with a full awareness that both the Republican and Democratic parties will attempt to distance themselves from us as soon as elections are over. Both parties have always done so and will likely continue that tradition until the Eschaton. Our goal, then, should merely be to usher in the side that will slow the process of disorder, allowing us the room to maneuver to re-strengthen and fortify society’s other institutions.
6) Cultural reform is needed more urgently than political reform. As Andrew Fletcher, an 18th century Scottish patriot, once boldly proclaimed, “If one were permitted to make all the ballads one need not care who should make the laws of a nation.” Fletcher understood that cultural influence was vastly more important than political power. We once understood this point too. It’s time to remind ourselves that, to paraphrase James Carville, “It’s the culture, stupid.”
7) It is not enough for religious conservatives to simply baptize the conservative agenda; our political beliefs must be derived from our religious worldview. Deriving them, however, requires a complementary worldview and knowledge of how to our worldview and principles translate to sound political policy. While the difficulty of the task makes it easier to accept off-the-rack conservatism, we need to be able to tailor our policies using the fabric of our faith as a guide.
8) There are those who call us “Christianists” and claim we are attempting to “impose a theocracy”—because name-calling and scaremongering are easier than engaging us in debate. But there are also those who make such claims out of honest ignorance. For example, many of them are likely unaware that the largest Protestant denomination in America, Southern Baptists, cannot even tolerate a centralized church government, much less a central government controlled by the church. Thinking that a nation full of Southern Baptists wants to establish a theocratic regime is about as absurd as believing anarchists want to create a centralized government. Absurd or not, communicating this reality and addressing misunderstanding is a task we must take upon ourselves.
9) Our beliefs are often informed by tradition and sacred texts. This does not, as our ideological opponents often claim, make them invalid. But it does make it necessary to translate them into common political vernacular when we bring them into the public square. Premising a political argument on “Because the Bible says so . . .” is rarely effective or convincing—even when presented to our fellow believers.
Fortunately, God provides us general revelation—conscience, rationality, empirical observation—which is often effective in expressing his foundational principles in a way that anyone can accept and understand. We must use these tools to make obvious the overlooked connections between secular and religious argument. For instance, we can use logic to show how same-sex marriage affects children and religious liberty, or use empirical research to show how family structure influences poverty. It is not enough to be correct in our views; we must also be persuasive.
And finally, we must recognize that America is not a “Christian nation,” though we should aspire to be a nation whose Christians are admired as good and noble citizens. America is not a “shining city on a hill,” though we should let our light of freedom be a shining example for the entire world. America is not the “greatest blessing God gave mankind,” though it is a great nation worthy of our faithfulness. Patriotism has a role but must not be allowed to expand beyond certain intellectual borders. We are citizens of both the City of God and the City of Man, and must always be sure not to confuse the one for the other.
Joe Carter is web editor of First Things His previous articles for “On the Square” can be found here.