Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.

Christian Politics as Critical Loyalty?

Timothy Sherratt


November 17, 2012

By Timothy Sherratt

Over lunch a month ago, an African colleague asked me why evangelical Christians in the United States had allowed themselves to be so firmly entrenched in Republican politics. Shouldn’t evangelicals make their political positions known and demand that the political parties take those positions seriously if they want to earn evangelical support?

This week, evangelical entrenchment faced new questions, not from evangelicals but from other Republicans. Red State editor Erick Erickson reviews a host of calls to throw social conservatives out of the party before defending their presence as a still vital constituency. But the once unthinkable has now been uttered.

Much of this grumbling may be discounted as the usual finger pointing that follows an election defeat. But recent evidence from the Pew Forum and the Institute for Religion and Democracy lends it a paradoxical gravity.

In 2012, after President Obama had lured many of them to his side four years earlier, the faithful returned to the Republican fold. White evangelicals gave Governor Romney as much support as President Bush earned in 2004, while observant Catholics were almost equally emphatic in support of the former governor.

Paradoxically, the social conservatism reinforced by observant Catholics and white evangelicals is now associated with declining capacity to build winning majorities because the issues themselves no longer attract majority support. Does this signal a coming separation, even a divorce?

The calls for ousting social conservatives are made not only against the background of electoral defeat, but also of the secularizing flavor of this year’s elections. All the gay marriage ballot initiatives passed. Medical, and in three states recreational, use of marijuana won by heavy majorities, and in Massachusetts physician-assisted suicide only failed narrowly—perhaps Victoria Reggie Kennedy’s support for a ‘no’ vote was decisive here.

I doubt that the blame game will succeed. But there is no time like the present for inviting a more comprehensive expression of social conservatism.

My colleague was surely half right. No party should take people’s votes for granted. The preferred stance for Christians to take, on principled and prudential grounds, is, I think, a kind of critical loyalty.

Democrats and Republicans embrace separate political visions drawn from a single tradition. That tradition, born of Protestantism and the Enlightenment, commits American governments to protect personal autonomy by a mixture of restraint, which safeguards civil liberties, and activity, which protects civil rights. From the key roles awarded to the state and the individual have emerged mutually exclusive preferences for either state-based or market approaches to governing. Both of these disregard or belittle the role of civil society, relegating non-state and non-market institutions to the margins.  

Christians in the Kuyperian tradition in which the Center for Public Justice works regard civil society as a domain of differentiated human responsibilities, whose unique roles government should respect and accommodate. Nor can these diverse human responsibilities be reduced to mere market forces.

Put like this, a posture of critical loyalty towards both parties appears as the most logical Christian posture. The Kuyperian tradition embraces important elements of social conservatism in the respect for life and for natural institutions like marriage, but it goes further in committing government to public justice, rather than personal autonomy, as its top priority.

Nor is this perspective, with roughly equal emphasis on personal responsibility, integrity for civil society, and governmental care for the weakest members of society, “right wing” in the American sense. In reality, it is comprehensive enough to warrant a party of its own. Christian Democratic parties in Europe and elsewhere have organized themselves along these lines for well over half a century. No less in the United States, there would be value in Christians giving notice that this is the star by which they navigate politically.  

—Timothy Sherratt is a Professor of Political Science at Gordon College in Wenham, Massachusetts.

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Capital Commentary is a weekly current-affairs publication of the Center for Public Justice. Published since 1996, it is written to encourage the pursuit of justice. Commentaries do not necessarily represent an official position of the Center for Public Justice but are intended to help advance discussion. Articles, with attribution, may be republished according to our publishing guidelines.”