The following question from Trimbiner showed up in /r/askhistorians today, and I couldn’t help but write about it.
In America, Why Has Christianity Primarily Fallen Into The Conservative Political Group Instead Of Liberalism?
In the bible, there seem to be a lot of lessons that would advocate you being liberal, politically. However, in America it seems like the vast majority of Christians are republican, and I was curious as to if there was precedent in history that created this apparent one sided weightfulness, or if there was a movement that occurred.
Since the subreddit this was posted in has some pretty strict rules, and I’m pretty sure I violated several of them, I figured I’d repost it here before it got deleted by the moderators. My answer follows:
Okay, I’ll take a crack at this. Full disclosure, I’m not a historian, but I am a Christian, a conservative and the last time I bothered to vote, I did so as a Republican.
For starters, I’ll toss out a quick challenge to your assertion that the vast majority of Christians in the US are Republican or even conservative. There is a lot of evidence to suggest that this isn’t the case. I know of no African-American congregation that is not firmly Democrat, for instance. (Anecdotal evidence, to be sure, which I hope you will forgive.) Jesuits are famously supportive of leftist causes. The current Pope is hardly a fan of Sean Hannity. There many are far more “liberal” Christian churches than you might be aware of, as can be witnessed by those with LGBTQ clergy, relaxed stances on sexual issues, etc.
Anyhow, setting aside the stereotype doesn’t answer what I suspect is your core question (which i hope you’ll forgive me for paraphrasing): If your religion is based on loving your neighbor, why don’t you guys support the party that does that?
Actually, I think we do. Please bear with me as I try to explain.
When Christ came, he gave us one Commandment: Love thy neighbor as thyself. Simple. Succinct. But, it’s also far more complex than it appears at first glance. It’s easy to say, “OK, I get it. I should love everyone, right? Done. Can I have a cookie now?” Often, we miss those last two words. In fact, they get dropped from the quote altogether. I think they’re way too important to skip. The commandment isn’t that I love you. It’s that I love you as if you were me. Your health, happiness, well-being, etc. are as important as my own, and I am commanded to weigh them both as if there were no difference between the two. God’s perspective is so different from our own, and the concept is so hard to actually put into action, that I can only imagine that in His wisdom, there was only way to do it. I believe Christ’s ministry on earth was meant to demonstrate that concept in the most concrete means possible, in a way that would resonate beyond the end of the world.
Now, if you’ve stuck with me this far, you’re probably thinking, “OK, that’s cool and all, but you still haven’t answered the question.” Fair enough. Let me try.
From my perspective, and I suspect those of most conservatives, what we call “liberalism” (I’m going to call it leftism from now on because it’s more accurate) is primarily concerned with two things: breaking down the established order (because it’s exclusionary) and redistributing wealth (because some people need resources and other people have more than they need).
To a leftist, the established order is racist, sexist, homophobic, able-ist, and a few more “-ists” I’m probably not even aware of. They accuse us of hating the “other”. I won’t deny that many of my stripe have failed in this regard, but I dare say you won’t find this in the hearts of the “vast majority” of Christians. We love these people, albeit with the imperfect love of broken humans rather than the perfect love of God. Those who truly preach hatred (I’m looking at you, Westborough Baptists)
are pretty rare, despite the media focus on them. I, for one, have been to a lot of churches and never heard anything of this sort.
The “established order” (a terrible name for it and I regret it already), however, is a good vehicle for transmitting a moral code from one generation to the next. When we speak of “Western Civilization” we’re really talking about a moral code with roots that actually reach back to before Christ and draw from philosophies external to the Judaic tradition we Christians come out of. Besides personal morality, we get our concepts of liberty, justice, the very order of a stable society from there. So, when the left tries to tear that down, we’re going to be resistant simply because we see this as the foundation of everything we hold dear in this world. Sometimes we’re right and sometimes we’re wrong, but that’s just how it is.
I think the key takeaway is that the Christian mindset lends itself to conservatism, meaning we feel it’s necessary to conserve the values that made it down the long road of history to us, and we have a duty to pass that torch along as intact as possible. Since the Democrats embrace the left, a lot of Christians become Republicans because it at least seems to want to keep civilization in one piece.
“Alright, then,” you might be asking, “why don’t you put your money where your mouth is? The rich need to do more to help the poor!” You’ll get no quarrel from me on that account. The question is, how should that be done. To the left, the solution is to take resources by force (and make no mistake, all government actions are coercive) and give them to those who need them. The Christian solution (and forgive me, because it’s not just us. Other religions do this as well and we don’t deserve all the credit) is far more hand-wavy and hard to quantify. I speak of charity, of course. The voluntary transfer of resources from the top to the bottom. Now this will be hard for a non-religious person to understand, because this is something that must be taken on faith. If you look at it from a numbers perspective, it can’t possibly work. But it does, and it also does something that the government solution can’t. It makes people better.
You see, when I give something to someone who needs it, I actually benefit more than the recipient. The act of charity is as close as you can get to feeling what God feels as a human can get. I feed you, and I feel some semblance of what God feels when he feeds me. I give my life for you, and I experience a tiny fraction of what Christ did for me on that cross. It’s addictive, and it makes me want more of it. It makes me want you to be rich so you can feel that wonder as well. Do you see what happened? I want your well-being as badly as I want my own. In that act, I love you as if you are me. I am showing you God’s love, that perfect love that I’m frustratingly incapable of achieving on my own.
When you tax me, regulate me, and otherwise prevent me from doing that, I resent it. While the Republicans are far too imperfect in this regard, they’re light years better than the Democrats. In this regard, they’re the only game in town.
Alright, I’ve gone on too long, and I’ve trampled haphazardly all over this sub’s rules, for which I humbly apologize. I’ll stop now, and if you have any questions, fire away.