May 23 2011

Religion and Politics: Conversation Good, Condemnation Bad

Hadley Heath

There are a variety of strategies used by both the Right and the Left to criticize each other, and to point out contradictions in the philosophies or actions taken by either side.  But one particular punch - pulled too often by the Left - is the use of religion, particularly Christianity, to point out where conservatives have gone wrong.

Polling data from presidential elections shows that Protestant Christians, the biggest religious group in the U.S., tend to vote with the Republican Party more often.  This statistic becomes slightly stronger when we consider the group of people who attend a church service regularly.   From 1980 to the present, we see that Catholic voters (about a quarter of the population) have been fairly split between the two parties, with a majority vacillating from Reagan and Bush Sr., to Clinton, and back to Bush Jr., and back to Obama, etc.

To some liberals, the Christian religion seems inconsistent with conservative philosophies about government.  How can Christians - who have a responsibility to care for their neighbors in need - oppose government policies that provide generous entitlements?  How can Christians oppose the "redistribution of wealth" when this idea might give needy people a better life, and more opportunities?

This week the buzz is about some letters exchanged between Speaker Boehner and Catholic University academics and between Rep. Paul Ryan and Archbishop Timothy Dolan of New York, president of the Catholic bishops' conference.  Both exchanges dealt with the budget proposals facing Congress, and concerns that Ryan's plan would harm the poor. 

This debate springs from the idea that Christians should support government intervention for the sake of the poor.  Both Ryan Messmore at the Heritage Foundry blog and Roger Pilon at the Cato-at-Liberty blog offer insightful thoughts on these letters in defense of fiscal conservatism.

Maybe it's the individualist in me (after all, conservatism is strongly linked with individualism), but in my opinion, religious beliefs are highly personal, and it should be up to individuals to reason their beliefs about God and the universe.  Of course there's a place for religious community - where people can encourage each other in the search for truth and faith - but no one should be forced to believe something or do something in the name of religion. 

Christ was very clear about how to treat money and how to treat the poor.  Christians are not to love money, they are to be good stewards, and they are to practice charity toward those in need.  But I think Christ left Christians with a lot of freedom about what to believe about government.  It was not a topic He spoke about very often, and I don't think it's our place to speak for Him. 

Ecclesiastes says "God is in heaven and you are on earth, so let your words be few."  We'd all do ourselves a favor by not telling other people what their religion tells them to do.  It's fine and good for us to discuss and debate the interpretation of religious things, but it's not productive, not wise, and not loving to condemn one political view or another in the eyes of God.  That's beyond our scope.

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