Why Christians are so bad at politics

I wrote this about a year ago for my church’s magazine. Frankly I’m reluctant to post it here; it’s way too long for a blog post and some of the references are now a little dated. Plus I’m not sure I still agree with all of it or that I wrote it as well as I could. Nonetheless, there are still some points in there that I think are worth making.

Why Christians are so bad at politics

I normally find listening to fellow Christians talking about politics an uncomfortable experience. While I always appreciate their efforts, usually admire their sincerity and occasionally praise their erudition; my overwhelmingly impression is typically that they don’t get it. This is a reaction that crosses denominational and ideological boundaries, applies as much to people I agree with as those I don’t, and has come over me listening to believers as humble as local preachers or as elevated as the archbishop of Canterbury. What do all these believers do to distress me so? Well it’s all about moral values.

The evangelical Christians – whose dependable support has made the Republican the dominant force in American politics – have been christened by pollsters as ‘values voters’. This reflects their self-identification as the upholders of Christian morality in a nation so corrupted these it tolerates abortion and gay marriage. Christians on the left are equally likely to understand politics in such morally charged terms with many recently looking to communitarian philosophers like Michael Sandel and Maurice Glasman who criticise both left and right for taking an unduly instrumental view of politics and explicitly calling for values to play a greater role.

It is harder to imagine someone with stronger moral values than Gandhi. While a Hindu he revered Jesus and adopted a Christ like attitude to self sacrifice. He forfeited a comfortable middle class lifestyle, a normal family life and ultimately his life in pursuit of peace, justice and freedom in India. On the January 7th 1939, he wrote a letter that haunts his reputation to this day. He wrote it as the Nazi conquest of Europe was accelerating and as the Nuremburg laws stripped away the German Jews civil rights. To Gandhi the solution that the western democracies were about to adopt – a war with Germany – was an unacceptable breach of the principle of non-violence. What he suggested instead was shocking. He wrote that rather than fighting the Jews should willingly go the concentration camps because their destruction would provide an unanswerable case against Nazi aggression.

Few of us would share Gandhi’s stance, yet none of us would dissent from the values underpinning it: a preference for war over peace. Where then does our disagreement with Gandhi lie? I submit that it is a sense that the world does not work how Gandhi assumes it did. It might be possible to shame an opponent like the British rulers of India away from a course of violence, such a stance would be suicidal when dealing with someone of ruthless as Hitler. This distinction between values and worldview seems to me to have wider implications.

The recent debate over capping welfare benefits illustrates the Christian tendency to focus on values at the expense and to the detriment of worldview. Both the Bishops in the lords who tried to soften the policy, and those come out in the support of the government – notably former Archbishop of Canterbury George Carey – used morally charged language. This was rather paradoxical because the applicable values were not really under debate. Few demur from the idea that poverty is undesirable, or that work should be rewarded more than idleness. What the Bishops and the former Archbishop really disagreed about was a question of cause and effect: would a cut in benefits cause the jobless to go out and find work or sink further into poverty? Carey illustrates the problem with values based arguments when he asserts “if we can’t get the deficit under control and begin paying back this debt, we will be mortgaging the futures of our children and grandchildren.” Carey misunderstands the nature of the national debt and consequently its moral consequences. The economist Paul Krugman observes – from his American perspective – that national debt is not like the debt we are used to: “an over-borrowed family owes money to someone else; U.S. debt is, to a large extent, money we owe to ourselves.” Thus the deficit is not taking money away from future generations but moving it within it. Our children inherit our credits as well as debits, thus rendering Carey’s point void.  A decision that A is morally preferable to B is fatuous if one is really choosing between A and C. We have a duty to cultivate an accurate worldview because without it we do not know what we are making moral choices between. A values driven politics is likely to mean bad policy because it is blind to the impact it has.

A decision that A is morally preferable to B is fatuous if one is really choosing between A and C. We have a duty to cultivate an accurate worldview because without it we do not know what we are making moral choices between. A values driven politics is likely to mean bad policy because it is blind to the impact it has.

A corollary of this view is an assumption that it is natural that Christians will hold diverging political views. Even if united by common values there is no reason to believe they will share a worldview. This, however, constrains the ability of the church to enter the political arena. Religious leaders cannot assume that the moral and spiritual authority vested in them by their flocks allows them to speak for them on political matters. They may know, for example, that the bible contains three thousand commandments to help the poor but whether a market orientated or socialist approach will do more to alleviate poverty is a moot point – within their congregations as much as anywhere else. We have to ask on what basis we might expect religious leaders to have a greater insight into these matters than say a politician, an economist and social worker. So while I personally agree very much with the stance the Bishops took, I reluctantly have to conclude they were the people to take it. They would have done well to listen to the Rev Billy Graham’s confession that “We as clergy know so very little to speak with authority on the Panama Canal or superiority of armaments. Evangelists cannot be closely identified with any particular party or person. We have to stand in the middle in order to preach to all people, right and left. I haven’t been faithful to my own advice in the past. I will be in the future.”

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