In the United States it is nearly an assumption that if a person is a Christian then he or she must be a conservative. According to the Pew Research center, a sizeable 92% of surveyed American conservatives are either “absolutely certain” or “fairly certain” that God exists, and at least 70% would rate religion as very important to their lives. Over 80% of American conservatives attend religious services no less than once a month.
Such a strong correlation between conservatism and Christianity should not stop us from asking fundamental questions, however. We may even go to the heart of the matter and attempt to identify the perspective at the center of our faith -- Jesus Christ.
Would Jesus, for example, join with the 76% of white evangelicals who closely identify with the Republican Party? Would he celebrate the 80% of evangelical voters who cast their ballot for Donald Trump in the most recent presidential election? Would he have anything to say about politics or conservative philosophy at all?
The likely response of many Christians may be that Jesus had nothing to say on the matter. Often quoted is the passage from Matthew 22 in which Jesus offered the principle “Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and unto God the things that are God’s.” Many Christians even take this to be the whole of Jesus’ message and teaching regarding government and politics. If the political and spiritual worlds are separate, then aren’t we as Christians on our own to answer questions concerning politics?
Jesus, we must admit, had far more pressing and urgent matters to attend to beyond American politics. Besides this he of course lived in a very different time when “right wing” and “left wing” did not mean what they do today. Moreover, the culture that Jesus lived in was not subjected to the modern challenges of 24/7 media coverage, information overload, and constant political spin.
Nevertheless, we have a rich and expansive dialogue from Jesus throughout the Biblical gospels (including but not limited to Matthew 22). Within this we may, surprisingly, find Jesus at times addressing issues and even philosophical beliefs often associated with conservatism. Take, for example, the following passage from the 7th chapter of the book of Mark:
“The Pharisees and some of the teachers of the law who had come from Jerusalem gathered around Jesus and saw some of his disciples eating food with hands that were defiled, that is, unwashed. (The Pharisees and all the Jews do not eat unless they give their hands a ceremonial washing, holding to the tradition of the elders. When they come from the marketplace they do not eat unless they wash. And they observe many other traditions, such as the washing of cups, pitchers and kettles.)
So the Pharisees and teachers of the law asked Jesus, ‘Why don’t your disciples live according to the tradition of the elders instead of eating their food with defiled hands?’
He replied, ‘Isaiah was right when he prophesied about you hypocrites, as it is written: ‘These people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. They worship me in vain; their teachings are merely human rules.’ You have let go of the commands of God and are holding on to human traditions.’
And he continued, ‘You have a fine way of setting aside the commands of God in order to observe your own traditions! For Moses said, ‘Honor your father and mother and, ‘Anyone who curses their father or more is to be put to death.’ But you say that if anyone declares that what might have been used to help their father or mother is Corban (that is, devoted to God) – then you no longer let them do anything for their father or mother. Thus you nullify the word of God by your tradition that you have handed down. And you do many things like that.’” – Mark 7:1-13
In this passage we find Jesus making a clear distinction between the “commands of God” and “human traditions.” He attacks the Pharisees for ignoring the intent and purposes of God’s commands as they blindly follow cultural customs and norms. The traditions that Jesus mentions, though originally stemming from divine wisdom, had become polluted and were serving the opposite of their intended purposes. The result is that Jesus identified the traditions as obstacles to sincere faith. The people following them remained far from God.
What does this mean for Christians now, thousands of years removed from the Pharisaic culture that Jesus indicted? To answer this question we must first recognize that in making the arguments in Mark 7, Jesus was not necessarily attacking conservatism. He was, however, indicting pure traditionalism, blind rule following, and nostalgia.
This is good news for true conservatives. Conservatism, as I have argued throughout this blog, is not the same as defending the past. When practiced correctly, it requires a prudent sorting out of the bad and the good from our inheritance. Edmund Burke shows us this principle at work as he methodically made arguments to defend the noble aspects of the status quo while purposefully discarding others that were harmful.
Making the distinction between “good tradition” and “bad tradition” is they key point, and it requires the type of wisdom and sound judgment that Jesus offers us. He recognized that the hearts of the rule followers were far from God and that they were destroying their own community and family life by blindly following corrupted rules.
To avoid a similar fate, we must be careful to avoid following tradition for its own sake. We must especially watch out for tradition that takes us away from God. In such cases we should reexamine its original intents and purposes to determine its moral value. Are we doing something without understanding the why behind it? Are we enforcing rules that don’t serve higher purposes? Are we voting a certain way just because we always have or our parents have?
Jesus, of course, never used the words America, conservatism, or Republican. He had nuanced views on important social and political topics ranging from poverty, to family life, to what it means to love others. And he was always careful to consider his audience and challenge them on their own terms.
But properly understood, Jesus’ teaching can actually embolden our conservatism. He offers us a value set – the commands of God – to use in examining our politics, principles, philosophy, and tradition. And, as Jesus himself said, the sum of God's commands is epitomized in the act of love.
We may therefore look to God’s commands as embodied in the life, teachings, and love of Jesus to infuse our perspective with wisdom. Having such wisdom allows us to apply it to all issues of life, including our politics. Doing so rescues conservatism from simple nostalgia or protecting the entire status quo for its own sake.
And that is the type of conservatism our world needs.