Article written in 2003 and expanded in 2009. Published on the internet only
CHRISTIANITY: AUTHORITARIAN OR LIBERTARIAN? LEFTIST OR RIGHTIST?
John Ray (M.A.;Ph.D.)
This article concerns the paradox that many Christian conservatives see themselves as supporters of individual liberties whereas many others -- particularly Leftists -- see Christian conservatives as authoritarian and dictatorial people who are always wanting to impose their own values on others. Christians and conservatives generally of course return the compliment by saying that it is Leftists who are authoritarian and dictatorial people who are always wanting to impose their own values on others.
The solution suggested is that Christianity and conservatism are quite separate and distinct and that it is conservatives rather than Christians who have historically been supporters of liberty generally -- but that conservatives sometimes ally themselves with Christians because conservatives do support the need for SOME rules and Christian authoritarianism is a much lesser evil than Leftist authoritarianism
The basic puzzle
Respect for the individual and the rights and liberties of the individual represents a great intersection between Protestant/Christian and conservative/libertarian thinking but it would be a mistake to think that this brings about any necessary connection between Christianity and conservatism. The "Founding Fathers" of what later became the United States of America were devout Protestant Christians. They were also such devoted communists that only starvation forced them to abandon it. So the argument that Christianity and conservatism are inevitably allied is obvious nonsense to anyone who knows the first thing about history. Even Karl Marx knew that. In The Communist Manifesto he said: "Nothing is easier than to give Christian asceticism a Socialist tinge. Has not Christianity declaimed against private property, against marriage, against the State? Has it not preached in the place of these, charity and poverty, celibacy and mortification of the flesh, monastic life and Mother Church?". Yet committed Christianity in America today is in fact closely allied with conservatism. So what is going on?
The libertarian argument
As I have pointed out at some length elsewhere, the English-speaking world in general and conservatives in particular have always been characterized by a strong respect for the individual and for individual liberties. Christians often attribute this Anglo-Saxon exceptionalism to the influence of Christian teachings despite the fact that Christianity is far from peculiar to Anglo-Saxon countries. When this is pointed out, they often admit that what they really mean is that the influence of Protestant Christianity in particular has led to a high respect for the individual. The idea that Catholics are not really Christian is very common among Protestants.
But both Protestantism and Catholicism have in the past been fiercely intolerant and, as such, resolute enemies of individual liberty. Whether it be John Calvin (who, with Luther, was one of the founding fathers of Protestantism) burning the scientist Servetus at the stake, the forbidding Puritans of Cromwell's Protectorate or the antisemitic writings of Luther himself, no-one can say that Protestants are totally different from the very holy Catholics of the Spanish Inquisition or such products of a good Catholic education as Adolf Hitler. All forms of Christianity appear to have within in them much of the intolerance that characterized the "jealous God" of the Jews (Exodus 20:5).
And not much has changed in recent times. The South African Apartheid regime was assured of Biblical support for its discriminatory policies by its fundamentalist Protestant clergy and would anyone like to read this story from Rwanda and still tell me that Christianity, by itself, leads to respect for the individual? Or do we need some other motivations as well? The Rwanda story is about some pretty fervent and fundamentalist Christians. Excerpt:
"A UN tribunal has found a Seventh Day Adventist pastor and his son guilty of aiding and abetting genocide and sentenced to 10 and 25 years respectively for helping to massacre ethnic Tutsis. Elizaphan Ntakirutimana and his son, Gerard, were accused of herding large groups of Tutsi men, women and children into a church and hospital compound in the Kibuye region of western Rwanda in 1994 and then calling Hutus to come and kill them. A UN spokesman at the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda said the verdicts were unanimous. "Pastor Ntakirutimana distanced himself from his Tutsi pastors and flock in their hour of need," Eric Mose, a Norwegian judge, said. "As a medical doctor [Gerard] took lives instead of saving them.""
The example is merely illustrative of course. The underlying point is that Africans everywhere are commonly enthusiastic Christians whilst also being characterized as a group by extremely high rates of violent crime, including murder. So looking to Christianity or even Protestant Christianity (Seventh Day Adventism is a very Protestant sect in many ways) for a sole explanation of the greater respect for individual rights among peoples of Anglo-Saxon origin runs up against both historical and sociological evidence to the contrary.
I would submit, then, that the chain of causation is exactly opposite to what many Christians assert. It is its Anglo-Saxon/Germanic origin rather than its Christian origin that made Protestantism a liberating force. It is the fact that Protestantism became the characteristic religion of the Anglo-Saxon peoples -- with their ancient pre-existing non-religious respect for the individual -- that made it a force for tolerance rather than the fact that it was Christian. In MOST of its forms Protestantism was more liberating than Catholicism. Anglo-Saxon (individualistic) values did what Judaic (group-conscious) values could not.
I should perhaps spell out that "Judaic" is not synonymous with "Jewish". The Judaic religions are of course Judaism and those religions descended from it -- Christianity and Islam. The common features of Judaic religions are too well known for me to spell out (monotheism etc) but the feature of them that seems to me most pernicious is the belief that belonging to the particular religious group concerned makes you superior (chosen or special or saved) in some way. It seems to me that the example of Islam shows vididly just how pernicious and intolerant that belief can be and that the example of the British empire shows that such beliefs do not need to go to anyone's head if one also has non-religious pre-Christian traditions of individual liberty.
And many non-Judaic religions -- such as those of the far East -- are of course almost completely tolerant of one-another. Yet orientals are much more conformist than individualistic. So even if we concede that Protestantism tends towards tolerance, it is not at all clear that religious tolerance leads to any kind of individualism.
But tolerance is only one virtue in a civilization. An arguably more basic requirement of civilization is social order. For Leftists, there is no problem about order of course. Order will be enforced by bullet or by bayonet as required. Conservatives, however, try to strike a balance between order and freedom so for them the establishement and preservation of social order requires more thought and more subtle mechanisms.
And many influential conservative writers of the past (e.g. Burke, 1790) have held that Christianity is an essential foundation for conservatism -- though others (e.g. Hayek, 1944) see only some merit in Christianity. A large part of the reason for the view of Christianity as important is the traditional role of the churches as arbiters and enforcers of morality in general and sexual morality in particular. Although suspicious of authority generally, conservatives have never shrunk from the need for authority if they consider it essential to the functioning of a civil society. And morality has always to them seemed essential for any kind of civilization. And morality generally has to be taught and to some degree enforced. It does not always come naturally. And both the church and the State have generally seemed needed for setting and maintaining moral standards.
In the modern very secular world where religion has a strong influence only on a minority of the population, however, it is clear that civil society and a modicum of morality (both sexual and otherwise) can survive with or without the church. So the Burkean view that religion and its moral codes are essential to a good life and a reasonably well-ordered society has to be seen as disproved by history.
Christian conservatives still claim with some justice, however, that traditional Christian moral standards make for a better society than it otherwise would be and sometimes agitate energetically for such standards to be widely applied. Their view of the benefits of Christian standards may well be correct but any attempt to have such standards applied to non-believers is both un-Christlike (tyrannical) and shows the Christians concerned as mired in an obsolete past. The best that one can say about such attempts is that those who make such attempts are mistaken about what is essential.
Nonetheless, many American Christian conservatives are adamant that there would be no survival of morality or civility in the US without the widespread transforming power of the Christian faith. They see their faith as the historical and still real foundation of American values. They believe that, without anchors in Christ, Americans would all succumb to the mindless "all is relative" doctrine of the Leftist and be unable to make any distinction between right and wrong. The restraint of faith is seen as needed to prevent everyone from behaving like mindless, selfish beasts. And certainly, even to a foreign visitor, there does seem to be a marked contrast between the Piranha-like attitudes that are often to be found in big cities such as New York or Los Angeles and the more generous and humane attitudes prevalent in smaller, more faith-based American communities.
Although I was once myself a fervent Christian and still retain enormous respect and admiration for the teachings of the carpenter of Nazareth, I see the view of Christianity as essential to civility and social cohesion as having only some truth, however. I agree wholeheartedly that Christianity is an enormously beneficial influence on ethical behaviour but cannot see that it is essential or unique.
And it certainly is not sufficient. We might think that Christ's central commandment "Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself" (Matthew 22:39) would be as firm a foundation for respect for the rights of others as one could possibly imagine but there are unfortunately very few Christlike Christians and savagery and tyranny have historically been far more common in Christian lands than anything else. And the most striking example of Christianity NOT leading to individual liberty is probably Byzantium.
The Eastern Roman Empire was inaugurated in Greek Byzantium (renamed as Constantinople) by Constantine the Great in 330 AD and lasted for roughly 1,000 years. And it was from the beginning dominated by Christian fanatics. Byzantine wars and revolutions were mostly fought over fine points of Christian theology! So there can be no doubt of their intense Christianity. No other Christian community comes near them for sustained and intense Christian committment. Yet, even though they were mostly Greeks (who were in prior centuries famous for democracy), democracy was unknown to the Byzantines. They were thoroughly imperial with no more respect for individual liberty than anybody else of the time. So Christianity alone is clearly not sufficient to ensure democracy or respect for individual liberty. At best, Christ's teachings could be held to have a reinforcing role among groups already inclined to liberty.
And Christianity may not be needed at all. It seems to me that, in the USA, the national traditions embodied in the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the ideas of the American Revolution are still great unifiers, even among those with little or no religious faith. Americans on the whole still do (with good reason) believe in the right to "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness", and in democratic institutions, in protection of property rights, in the rule of law, and in the "American Dream." And the "American Dream" is about working hard and taking risks to become well-off, not about winning the lottery or robbing the rich.
A second reason for my skepticism about the importance of Christianity is the reality of another venerable democracy of the English speaking world: Britain. England is one of the most Godless places on earth these days. A huge proportion of the population appear to have virtually no religious belief and only about 2% go to church regularly. And, as noted at some length elsewhere, when they do go to church what they hear from their Church of England clergy is generally much more akin to Leftist politics than traditional Christianity.
So has the United Kingdom collapsed into anarchy or Stalinism? Not at all. Margaret Thatcher was as energetic and as effective a conservative reformer as Ronald Reagan and her influence has arguably been more long-lasting. A prominent member (Peter Mandelson) of the nominally Leftist political party that governed Britain in the early 21st century famously declared in 2002 that "We are all Thatcherites now". And that is the LEFT of British politics. Can we imagine the now deceased Senator Edward Kennedy saying that "We are all Reaganites now"?
So how does Britain do it? If Britain lacks the cohesive force of Christian faith, what keeps Britain as still one of the world's more civilized and prosperous places? One answer, I believe, is the influence of the monarchy. I myself am in the happy position of being both a keen monarchist and a citizen of a monarchy (Australia) and I tend to assent to the usual monarchist claim that the House of Windsor, for all its human weaknesses, is infinitely more reliable as a model of worthiness than are certain American Presidents with (for instance) strange uses for cigars. Be that as it may, however, I think the reality is that the claims of monarchy are emotional. To be ruled by a distant, glamorous and prestigious figure with access to a lifestyle unimaginable to the ordinary person is the normal lot of mankind. It is democracy that is the freak. The Roman republic succumbed to Caesar and Augustus and the ancient Greek democracies succumbed to the tyrants of first Sparta and then Macedon. So people seem to have evolved to need a monarch. They need that glorious and distant figure at the centre of power in their community.
And the British genius has been to find a way of having their cake and eating it too. They have a monarchy with all the trappings of greatness and real reserve powers yet are nonetheless governed by one of the world's oldest, most stable and effective democracies.
And, as it is so often re-iterated, the monarch is the symbol of the nation and of the continuity of national traditions. The popularity and prestige of the Queen is enormous and her powers are no less real for not being exercised. The reality of the reserve powers of the monarchy was vividly seen in Australia in 1974 when the Queen's representative dismissed a Leftist Federal government that tried to continue governing against constitutional precedent (failure to get its budget through both houses of Parliament). In short, the monarchy gives the British people a strong sense of security against arbitrary power, a strong sense of their identity, history and nationhood and serves as a model for what is decent and allowable. It is a unifying and cohesive force that transcends differences of class, accent, education, occupation, region etc.
I am pleased to see, therefore, that one of Britain's most prolific libertarian writers -- Sean Gabb -- has also written a lucid defence of the British monarchy.
My only quarrel with him is that he underestimates the support for the monarchy in Australia. There are many Australians -- mostly older and female -- who quite openly declare that they "love" the Queen. And if your old Mum loves the Queen, you are going to be pretty constricted in saying much against the monarchy! And in our recent constitutional referendum -- fought specifically on whether to have the Queen or a political appointee as Head of State -- nearly two thirds of Australians voted to retain the monarchy. How the Leftist wreckers must have hated that!
So it may be that in the US, Christianity plays an important part in preserving civility and a healthy common culture but I submit that the monarchy does a similar job for Britain and the other countries where the Queen reigns.
And is it coincidence that the other enduring European monarchies (Norway, Sweden, Denmark, The Netherlands and Belgium) are also highly civilized and stable democracies that have never turned to dictatorship and remain among the more peaceful and prosperous places to live?
My argument above is not of course original. Monarchists of all sorts have been saying much the same for centuries. It is however perhaps worth noting that even a Leftist American sociologist has come to a similar conclusion. As Owen Harries says:
"In his 1959 book, Political Man, widely regarded as a classic of its kind, the sociologist Seymour Martin Lipset observes the apparently "absurd fact" that 10 out of the 12 stable European and English-speaking democracies are monarchies. This, to Lipset's mind, could not be an accident. He suggests that during the rapid and profound social and economic changes of the last 100 years, which apparently were making monarchy increasingly irrelevant, the institution played a crucial role in retaining the loyalty of those groups that were losing as a result of the changes: the aristocracy, the traditionalists, the clerical and rural sectors. The persistence of the central institution provided reassurance that the world they knew was not totally lost, that the new social and political order could be adapted to. On the other hand, in countries that dispensed with monarchy (e.g., France, Germany, and the Hapsburg Empire after World War I), reconciliation and stability proved much scarcer commodities"
And, although it is not strict proof of anything, a comparison of two Austrian leaders is surely a little thought-provoking. The first Austrian, Kaiser (Emperor) Franz Josef, "was especially noted for his exceptional attitude to Jewish soldiers serving in the Austrian army, concerning himself over the availability of kosher food of the highest standard, assuring them of access to the necessary religious articles and ensuring unhindered Sabbath observance. .... (Quote from p. 210 of The Heavenly City by Menachem Gerlitz, 1979). The second Austrian leader was, of course, Adolf Hitler.
More potted history of the European monarchies: The Fascist dictator Mussolini came to power only because the Italian King allowed it. Monarchy is weak in Greece and Spain (though the Spanish have recently restored theirs) and both suffered years of military dictatorship. Germany abandoned their monarchy (with good reason) after World War I and got Hitler in exchange. France decapitated Louis 16th only to get the military dictator Napoleon and the incredible loss of life of his wars in exchange. And look what happened to Russia when they deposed the Tsar! I think it is not unreasonable to conclude from all this that, incredible though it might sound to American ears, monarchy has a powerful role to play in maintaining a civil society and is not easily replaced, once lost.
Non-Christian conservatism in Australia
Britain is not the only country that seems able to retain a high level of civility and civilization in the absence of widespread Christian practice. As has already been noted in passing, Australia is another.
Americans generally like Australia and see it in many ways as being a version of the USA -- though minus the large black population. The more laid-back Australian lifestyle does lead to poorer standards of consumer service and the fact that there are only 20 million people to pay for a road network covering a country roughly as large as the United States does mean that the roads are generally of a noticeably lower standard but otherwise life in Australia is generally attractive: Rather like a friendlier and less weird version of California.
Yet from its foundation in 1788, Australia has always been a traditionally unholy place with a very low rate of churchgoing. Americans trace their founding fathers to religious fanatics but Australians trace their foundations to convicts. And other major population elements in the white settlement of Australia -- such as goldrush "diggers" and Irish rebels -- did little to alter the culture originating from our convict origins. Only about 3% of modern-day Australians have convict ancestors but the early days formed a culture that has been passed on to others as they arrived -- just as only a small minority of Americans now have primarily English ancestry but English is nonethless the language of America. And Australia's only national hero to this day is Ned Kelly -- an Irish highway robber who eventually was hanged for his undoubted crimes.
So how come Australia is a civil, prosperous and pleasant place to live? It is because Australians DO have a widely agreed-on moral code -- but it is not a Christian one. It originates from the values of the English working class of yesteryear and can perhaps be conveniently summed up (in its original Australian slang) as the following five "Commandments":
* Thou shalt not dob in thy mates
* Thou shalt not bung on an act.
* Thou shalt not be a tall poppy
* Thou shalt give everyone a fair go
* Thou shalt be fair dinkum
Translating these into standard English yields APPROXIMATELY the following:
* You must not incriminate your friends to the boss, the police or anyone else. Loyalty to your associates is all-important.
* You must not be ostentatious or pretend to be what you are not.
* You must treat others as your equals. If you are seen as being better than others in anything but sport you will be made to suffer for it.
* You must be fair and permissive in your treatment of others.
* You must not be insincere or dishonest.
From Hammurabi onwards, most moral codes have had much in common and the Australian and Christian moral codes do also have things in common but the Australian moral code is not preached in churches. It is simply traditional and widely heartfelt.
So: Apologies to American churchgoers but people CAN be moral and decent without someone either putting the fear of God into them or inspiring them with the love of Christ.
Final note about religion in Australia: When asked at census time most Australians do put down some religion for themselves. Note, however, that in the last census we had over 5% of the population describe themselves as Methodists -- a denomination that has not existed in Australia for many years. The Methodists, Presbyterians and Congregationalists combined to form the "Uniting" church over a quarter of a century ago. In other words, for the vast majority of Australians, Christianity is a token thing.
So, as with the Australian population at large, lots of Australian conservatives are NOT religious. We see here a once-prominent Australian conservative Senator (Amanda Vanstone) putting rather well how an Australian non-religious conservative responds to demands from the religious Right:
"I think living by a decent set of values is far more important than defending [religious] dogma. I'm confident that if you lead a good life and there is a kingdom of heaven you will be welcome. Your religion is your business and no one else's. My personal view is that when you make your religion an issue, you drag it into the political domain and you tarnish it. It follows that I attach very little importance to [such] arguments.
"My point is quite simple: each to his own religion. If you say to me that doing something is against God's will, then I will respond by assuring you that, if God is annoyed, God will punish whomever has done that thing. The state should never be used as God's enforcer. Over the years, as I have been approaching 50, I can assure you I have had every confidence in God's ability to settle accounts. It has not been my experience that he or she usually waits until you are dead. Many people who have done the wrong thing have met their maker in a practical sense while they were still alive ...
"I simply ask those who, because of their beliefs, have a very genuine concern about this bill, to accept that they are entitled to follow their beliefs. They are not entitled to demand, by legislation, that everybody else does the same."
The authoritarian argument
The obverse of the historic committment of conservatism to individual liberty and to a rejection of big government is that Leftism (including the socialism of Hitler, the Marxism of Mussolini and the Bolshevism of Lenin and Stalin) is much more authoritarian and subjugates the individual to the State (or the "collectivity" as Leftists sometimes euphemistically term it or the Volk as Hitler called it).
An important objection to that account of the matter, however, is the fact that conservatives too do on some occasions use government to impose restrictions on individuals -- particularly on moral issues. The simple answer to that, of course, is that conservatism is not anarchism. Conservatives do believe in SOME rules. As with so much in life, it is all a matter of degree and in the centrist politics that characterize the Anglo-Saxon democracies, the degree of difference between the major parties can be small. But to compare things like opposition to homosexual "marriage" with the bloodthirsty tyranny exercised by Hitler, Stalin and all the other extreme Leftists is laughable indeed.
And it is the extremists who show the real nature of the beast as far as Leftism is concerned. Once Leftists throw off the shackles of democracy and are free to do as they please we see where their values really lie. Extreme conservatism (i.e. libertarianism), by contrast, exists only in theory. Conservatives are not by nature extremists. The issue of allegedly conservative Latin American dictators and the evidence that the core focus of conservatism has historically been on individual liberties versus the State is considered at some length here.
Another more contentious but perhaps equally important point is that many of the conservative attempts at regulating people's lives are Christian rather than conservative in origin and that, as has been argued above, Christianity and conservatism are in fact separable -- occasional allies rather than being one and the same thing. So conservatism should not be blamed for the multifarious deeds of Christians.
And note that in the case of abortion -- as I set out here -- conservatives are divided about it. The REAL opposition to abortion is religious rather than political. And the church which has historically tended to support the LEFT -- the Roman Catholic church -- is the most fervent in the anti-abortion cause. So the claim that conservatives want to impose their own moral views on others in the matter of abortion is quite wrong. Conservatives are indeed the one side of politics to have moral qualms on the issue but they tend to seek a middle road in dealing with it. Taking the issue to the point of legal prohibitions is a religious doctrine rather than a conservative one -- and the religion concerned may or may not be characteristically conservative.
Note further that although there is much about the RC church that would lead us to expect conservatism of it, the church is to this day quite Leftist in some parts of the world -- e.g. in Latin America -- and the church has long been centrist in its social doctrines. From de rerum novarum to centesimus annus the extreme of communism has been rejected but government intervention on behalf of the poor has been firmly supported.
Note further again that other ways in which conservatives have sometimes been accused of authoritarianism -- such as Sabbath observance and opposition to homosexual marriage -- are in fact distinctively religious, the work of VERY religious people usually.
Are Christians tyrants? Comparison with Hitler
A good example of an objection to my account of conservatism as liberty-focused comes from Chris Vinall, which, for convenience, I will reproduce in full here:
I want to take issue with the currently fashionable assertion that Hitler was a leftist. If "left" and "right" were defined simply economically, that would be a fair characterisation. Social factors also come into play. Neither wing of politics has a monopoly on social authoritarianism. Left-wing social authoritarianism is also called political correctness, and is characterised by attacks on others for being judgemental about people - in the world of the far left, judgementalism is the only sin. Everyone is of equal merit and only those who say otherwise are evil.
It should come as no surprise, then, that right-wing social authoritarianism stems from the opposite extreme of excessive moral judgementalism. In this view of the world, people living a certain lifestyle, or of a certain racial or cultural group, are judged immoral or inferior. Crucially, not only is this judgement made, but the social rightist goes on to say "and something should be done" - by, for example, criminalising homosexual sex, or banning Asian immigration. Islamist terror attacks also fall under the heading of right-wing social doctrine. Such dogma cannot be categorised as left-wing, despite its interventionist tendencies, because it is directly opposed to the leftist religion of equality and relativism. This is not simply an argument about interventionism versus non-interventionism, or authoritarianism versus libertarianism. BOTH sides want intervention, the far left to establish the equality of minorities and the far right to force minorities to conform.
Hitler was the most ruthless proponent of right-wing social doctrine in world history. Stalin, Mao and others massacred people in the name of equality, the common good and socialist dogma (the engineered famines, for example) and were social leftists. Hitler massacred people because he thought they were vermin and was a social rightist. The characterisation of Hitler as right-wing is fair because his genocidal crimes were committed as a result of his right-wing social ideals. That he was economically leftist is true but irrelevant.
The base problem is that (and this is of course old news) left-wing and right-wing are not adequate to describe the full range of political opinion. Social and economic leftism, for example, are lumped together by correlation - a lot of people who believe in forced social equality also believe in forced economic equality, but the two are logically distinct. If Hitler must be described as one or the other, then right-wing is the correct choice.
What this writer is certainly doing is equating conservatism with Christianity. From a U.S. standpoint that is very easy to do. Notable U.S. conservative thinkers such as Russell Kirk have long ago proclaimed the Christian basis of conservatism and from President George W. Bush downwards, many U.S. Christians today are vocal conservatives and claim that Christianity is the source of their conservatism. Indeed, the present-day USA seems to be in the middle of a religious war (See David Limbaugh here and Henninger here) -- with the Democrats seeming to do everything they can to attack Bible Christianity and Biblical Christians being in return the biggest single support for the Republicans.
Historians have to take a longer view of things, however, and conservatism DOES exist even when and where religious wars are not going on. So the present-day American alignment is only one part of a larger picture. It is true that Christians are a big support for conservatism in the USA but, as has already been noted, in essentially irreligious societies like Australia and Britain they are of only incidental importance. In fact the Australian clergy at the beginning of the 21st century seemed generally to be almost uniformly AGAINST the conservative Howard government -- a government which was as conservative as any on the world scene and which was long very successful electorally. And the large Roman Catholic church in Australia has historically had its base in the Australian Labor Party -- Australia's major party of the Left.
And in the USA itself there are of course many different forms of Christianity -- some of which are clearly Left-leaning. In fact (as I have already pointed out at some length elsewhere), most of the older and more establishment Christian churches in the USA and Britain are now fairly thoroughly in thrall to the Left. An obvious example is the very popular and clearly Leftist Episcopal Bishop John Shelby Spong -- who claims to be a follower of Christ despite what other Christians would see as his minimal religious beliefs. And support for the Left in the USA is not limited to nominal Christians. As Waldman says here:
"Actually, in 2000, at least 10 million white "evangelical Christians" voted for Gore".
So to equate Christianity with conservatism is not objectively sustainable, however heartfelt that view might be for some. Christianity and conservatism are thoroughly SEPARABLE. Conservatism plainly can and does exist with or without the influence of Christianity -- controversial though that still is to many U.S. Christians who are unaware of the many irreligious conservatives and Leftist Christians in Australia and Britain. And there are surely many senses in which Japan is deeply conservative despite the minimal Christian presence there. On the criterion of low taxes and small government, for instance, Japan makes the USA look almost Communist by comparison!
One might add parenthetically that it is something of an irony that the older, more staid, more establishment churches in the USA tend to be Left-leaning these days while the conservative churches are often fairly new and innovative in various ways. So much for the silly Leftist claim by Jost, Kruglanski et al. that Leftists are the innovators and conservatives are people who support the existing arrangements! See also James Lindgren's findings on that issue. It might have been true once that in Britain the Church of England was "The Conservative party at prayer" but times have changed -- with the same church now awash with pacifist bishops, "Green" Archbishops, homosexual priests etc.
If all that I have said so far has not yet exploded the often tenaciously held view that Christianity produces conservatism perhaps this will do it. It is from a speech by Adolf Hitler:
"My feelings as a Christian points me to my Lord and Savior as a fighter. It points me to the man who once in loneliness, surrounded by a few followers, recognized these Jews for what they were and summoned men to fight against them and who, God's truth! was greatest not as a sufferer but as a fighter. In boundless love as a Christian and as a man I read through the passage which tells us how the Lord at last rose in His might and seized the scourge to drive out of the Temple the brood of vipers and adders. How terrific was His fight for the world against the Jewish poison. To-day, after two thousand years, with deepest emotion I recognize more profoundly than ever before the fact that it was for this that He had to shed His blood upon the Cross. As a Christian I have no duty to allow myself to be cheated, but I have the duty to be a fighter for truth and justice... And if there is anything which could demonstrate that we are acting rightly it is the distress that daily grows. For as a Christian I have also a duty to my own people.
-- Adolf Hitler, in a speech on 12 April 1922 (Norman H. Baynes, ed. The Speeches of Adolf Hitler, April 1922-August 1939, Vol. 1 of 2, pp. 19-20, Oxford University Press, 1942)
Hitler too was the unapologetic product of a Christian education (though he of course was not himself really a Christian -- see here) but the lessons he drew from the Christian story are very different from the ones that modern-day U.S. Christians would draw. I hate to repeat an old saw that sounds disrespectful of history's greatest book, but, as those who have despaired of the great range of Christian sects often say: The Bible is a fiddle on which you can play many tunes. And, equally plainly, Christianity can be used to justify many political views -- not excluding socialist and antisemitic ones.
Socialism by itself has many of the characteristics of a Messianic religion (see Kurtz and "The Economist" on Marxism). And, like most non-Oriental religions, both socialism and Christianity have historically had strong tendencies towards authoritarianism and intolerance of competing religions. As has already been mentioned, the Spanish Inquisition is merely the best known instance of Christian tyranny but John Calvin, one of the two major founders of Protestantism, was no better. His burning of the Spanish scientist Servetus at the stake was at least as reprehensible as the Papal burning of Giordano Bruno. And I presume that I do not have to elaborate on the antisemitic views of Martin Luther or his support of the Obrigkeiten (existing Princely authorities). And for good measure, Salem witch trials anyone? So where Christianity has political influence, be it on the Left or the Right (and in Australia it has mainly been on the Left), it will tend to impose its moral and other compulsions. All practical politics are the politics of compromise and to obtain power, conservatives do sometimes have to accept some limits on their basic belief in individual liberty and those limits are in some cases Christian ones. But modern-day Christians have come a very long way from the Inquisition, Luther, Calvin, Salem and the murderous upheavals of Tudor England and its Cromwellian aftermath so to say that the various moral restrictions conservatives sometimes now support under Christian influence make conservatives as tyrannical, brutal and heedless of human life as Adolf Hitler and Joseph Stalin is absurdity of a high order.
Christianity and Islam
A related rhetorical ploy of the Left is to equate Christian fundamentalism with Islamic fundamentalism -- as if what you are fundamental about does not matter. Such a claim is expressed in a fairly rational way by recovering Leftist Christopher Hitchens, writing in the Wall Street Journal. Hitchens even ventures into New Testament exegesis to support his claims.
His NT quotation is one of the allegedly "Leftist" quotations from Jesus and I have already dealt with them on my Scripture Blog -- see here and here and here. Briefly though, what Hitchens and the Left get wrong is mistaking Jesus's spiritual guidance for guidance about how to run this world -- an elementary mistake. Jesus was interested in the next world, not this one. As he said to Pilate, "My kingdom is not of this world" (John 18:36).
The rest of what Hitchens says is just standard Leftist stuff so its only real novelty is its appearance in the WSJ. His argument simply is that the religious Right is tyrannical and that secularism is needed to avoid tyranny. That is absolute rubbish. For centuries -- including the early 20th century -- Britain was both an almost universally Christian country and also a great beacon of individual liberty and tolerance. Britons in fact had more rights 100 years ago than they do now -- the right to own a firearm for personal protection, for instance. There were of course some restrictions flowing from Britain's Christian assumptions at that time -- such as Jews being barred from Parliament -- but so tyrannous were those restrictions that Britain's Conservatives at that time actually made a Jew (Disraeli) their Prime Minister! He had to profess Anglicanism to observe proper form but he at no time made any secret of his Jewishness and in fact flaunted it repeatedly and floridly! Those nasty old intolerant Christians! The secularist Hitler sent millions of Jews to the gas ovens. The nasty intolerant Christian Conservatives made a Jew their Prime Minister! Which would you prefer if you were a Jew?
And the U.S.A. too has always been a great beacon of liberty and tolerance by world standards and it too was created by men who overwhelmingly were devout Christians. Like the Leftist he once was, Hitchens doesn't let the facts get in the way of a simplistic theory. And is the theory simplistic! In accord with Leftist custom, Hitchens equates Christian fundamentalists with Muslim fundamentalists -- quite ignoring what the two groups are being fundamentalist about. I suppose that to Hitchens Satanic fundamentalists and Christian fundamentalist would be the same too. Christian fundamentalists want to bar homosexuals from marrying. Muslim fundamentalists want to stone homosexuals to death. No difference between the two?
Christians have certainly not always in their history been perfectly tolerant but the God of Love they follow has certainly made them more tolerant than any other major group in the Western world that I can think of. I certainly prefer their record to the record of atheistic Communism. As with so much in human affairs it is all a matter of degree and Hitchens has obviously not yet wholly thrown off the simplistic, black-and-white thinking of the Left.
It may also be worth noting again in this context -- as William Anderson and others point out at length -- that for around a century now the theologically "modernist" churches -- which mostly means the established churches -- have been supporters of the political Left -- including such unsavoury and intolerant Leftists as Communists. So I think one could in fact argue the opposite of what Hitchens does. I think it is the LEFTIST churches that are most intolerant. Like all Leftists, they are would-be dictators and they support authoritarian and control-freak policies with great regularity. For more details, see the articles referred to.
And when we look at history, who is the most raving Christian fundamentalist who has ever had significant political power? I think it would have to be Britain's Oliver Cromwell (1599-1658). And what did he do? Did he ruthlessly destroy all who disagreed with his doctrines? What did he do about the Jews in particular? No group could be a bigger challenge to Cromwell's theology than the Jews. They didn't even accept Jesus as the Messiah, let alone any of the other doctrines of Protestantism. But, far from persecuting the Jews, it was Cromwell who allowed them back into England -- for the first time since Edward I expelled them all in 1290. That nasty intolerant old fundamentalist Protestant!
Cromwell was no saint. He massacred those who opposed him militarily (such as the Irish) but after the holocausts unleashed on Hamburg, Dresden, Hiroshima and Nagasaki under the aegis of Democrat Presidents FDR and Truman, I don't think the Left have much room to condemn Cromwell for that.
The basic point I am making is once again the perennial conservative warning about the complexity of human affairs. Simple generalizations (such as "secularism leads to tolerance") just will not do. Those who preach tolerance are often the most tyrannical and those who want to impose minor restrictions -- as Christian conservatives certainly do on things like homosexual marriage -- may nonetheless be the most tolerant overall.
Hitler was not even a conservative
To get back to Hitler: The statement "Hitler massacred people because he thought they were vermin" is undoubtedly true but the assertion that this was because "he was a social Rightist" is another historical absurdity. If he was a social Rightist, how come the Nazi party was so heavily homosexual? In addition to such well-known homosexuals as Roehm and Schirach at the top of the Nazi hierarchy there were others such as Heines -- whom Shirer ("The Rise and fall of the Third Reich") describes thus: "Edmund Heines, the Obergruppenfuehrer of Silesia... a notorious homosexual" (p. 307). Silesia is of course a major industrial area of great historic significance so command of the Nazis there was no mean post. Could a "notorious homosexual" get a prominent party job anywhere else in the world at that time? I think not. So Nazism did in its times embody an exceptional degree of "gay lib". Arguably it was in fact the first flowering of "gay-lib"! Hardly conservative -- particularly in the 1930s
Heines and Roehm at a rally above, Heines on right
There is even a view that Hitler himself was homosexual. There is certainly much to say that he was abormal sexually in some way -- the episode with the unfortunate Geli Raubal, for instance. Below is a picture that might be held to support the claim that he was "gay" when taken in conjunction with other evidence:
And Hitler's view that some people -- including Jews -- were vermin was in fact typical of the LEFTISTS of his day -- American Leftists such as Margaret Sanger in particular. And it was none other than that great darling of the Leftists, Bertrand Russell, who said this:
"Thee might observe incidentally that if the state paid for child-bearing it might and ought to require a medical certificate that the parents were such as to give a reasonable result of a healthy child -- this would afford a very good inducement to some sort of care for the race, and gradually as public opinion became educated by the law, it might react on the law and make that more stringent, until one got to some state of things in which there would be a little genuine care for the race, instead of the present haphazard higgledy-piggledy ways."
(Quoted from Kimball)
So Hitler's race-consciousness was also common on the Left of his day. It was certainly not a sign of "social conservatism". But I have documented that point fairly fully elsewhere so will not pursue it further here.
And in Hitler's time antisemitism in particular, as well as racism in general, already had a long history on the Left. August Bebel was the founder of Germany's Social Democrats (mainstream Leftists) and his best-known saying is that antisemitism is der Sozialismus des bloeden Mannes (usually translated as "the socialism of fools") -- which implicitly recognized the antisemitism then prevalent on the Left. And Lenin himself alluded to the same phenomenon in saying that "it is not the Jews who are the enemies of the working people" but "the capitalists of all countries." For more on the socialist roots of modern antisemitism see Tyler Cowen's detailed survey here. For more on the Leftist nature of Nazism, see here.
Some people of ill-will also at times make the absurd claim that Hitler was a Christian. See here for a refutation of that. That he had a Catholic upbringing means no more than V.I. Lenin's Russian Orthodox upbringing.
So why the alliance beween conservatism and Christianity in the USA today?
If nothing I have said so far has convinced a reader of this article that there is no natural alliance between conservatism and Christianity, it is probably because what I say is so contrary to current American experience. If Christianity can be as easily associated with the Left as the Right, how does the present American alignment come about?
As we shall see, the answer is a relatively simple one. American conservatives and American Bible-believing Christians have been DRIVEN together by the attitudes of the American Left.
The Leftist takeover of most of the mainstream churches shows how enfeebled the religion taught in those churches has become. They are basically just "social" churches. That can be seen from this article -- which shows that American politics are now heavily polarized along religious lines. We all know that there is a strong affinity in America between real Christians and the Republicans but the article also points out the survey evidence showing that the Democrats generally (and Democrat convention delegates in particular) are equally (and fervently) anti-religion [unless the religion is Islam, of course]. It also shows that the Leftist media consistently downplay the anti-religious nature of the Democrats. Just some excerpts:
"ANES results indicate that anti-fundamentalism appears disproportionately among secularists, the highly educated, particularly those living in big cities, and persons who strongly favor legalized abortion and gay rights, oppose prayer in schools, and who, ironically, "strongly agree" that one should be tolerant of persons whose moral standards are different from one's own .... over a quarter of Clinton's white supporters in 1992 said that they intensely disliked Christian fundamentalists... despite the reams of data documenting the alignment of secularists with the Democratic party and the countermovement of religious traditionalists into the Republican party, the media, particularly network news, has tended to emphasize only the latter phenomenon... What viewers do not hear about is the secularist vote, which has gone two to one in the Democratic direction in the past three presidential elections"
Why the Leftist media downplay the religion-hating among Democrats is a really easy question to answer: Religion is an almost universal human experience and atheists are never more than a small minority in any national population. Most people have SOME religious beliefs. So being totally and vocally anti-religion would be a big vote-loser.
But are Democrats really anti-religion? Are they not just anti-fundamentalist? The simple answer to that it that it is the fundamentalists who really are religious. To call your average Episcopalian religious would be a joke and even American Catholicism is only a shadow of what it once was. But, aside from that, the article does give a lot of survey data showing that the influential core of the Democrats really are anti-religious in general. They are far more rejecting of religion than the American population at large.
And strong though it already is, the religious polarization of American politics seems to be getting stronger. As it says here:
"Christians in general, and evangelicals in particular, have been leaving the Democratic Party in droves. And why should they not, given how openly hostile the party of the left has become to every social issue embraced by Christians as well as the most trivial public expressions of Christianity? Were significant elements within the Democratic Party to have their way, every mention of Christmas would be banned, every Christian would be barred from public service and every homeschooler would be forcibly thrown to the lions of the public schools."
Or as this eloquent personal testimony says:
"I began voting for Republican presidential candidates, and thinking of myself as Republican, only after it became abundantly clear that people with my views on abortion, prayer in school and other moral issues were no longer considered welcome in the Democratic Party. A whole lot of us crossed over, taking our whiteness and our Christian beliefs into the party of the country-club set. We didn't feel so much that we had abandoned the Democratic Party as it had abandoned us. Borrowing the spirit of the "No Irish Need Apply" mentality of my grandparents' time, the Democrats posted a "no pro-lifers need apply" sign on their party doors....
So why the polarization?
So if the Republican Party has become the "white, Christian party," as Dean charges, it's partly so because the Democratic Party has made white Christians feel so uncomfortable in its ranks. The Democrats have bent over backwards to please minority groups - blacks, gays, angry feminists and atheists - at the expense of us old white guys (and gals - yes, we're not afraid to call our wives that) who grew up not feeling guilty about being white or Christian."
It is no mystery at all, really. Leftists are against ANYTHING that is "established" in the society they inhabit. They are always against the status quo, whatever that might be -- and America is a very religious country. To Leftists religion is a big, complacent target that they itch to tear down -- just as the Soviet Communists once did. Modern Leftism is just an attempt to achieve communist goals by stealth and attacking religion is an integral part of that. Leftists cannot stand any creed but their own -- with their own superior wisdom being the core of that creed.
And, as already mentioned, Left/Right politics in Australia are NOT religiously polarized. Why? Because Australia is one of the world's most irreligious countries so religion is not a target big enough for the Left to aim at. By American rules, Australia should also therefore be frantically Leftist. It is anything but. It is also one of the world's most conservative countries with a government that has arguably been more conservative than America's. In the early 21st century, it was less wishy-washy on free trade; It had STOPPED illegal immigration and -- despite Australia having had its own "9/11" in Bali -- was much more reluctant to introduce special security legislation that threatens civil liberties. There had also been no notable expansions of the Australian welfare State for many years. And it is one of the few countries that DID help out in the invasion of Iraq.
So the U.S. situation is clearly the result of U.S. Leftists attacking Christianity out of their hatred of ordinary Americans. American Christians have been driven into the Republican party because only there do they find respect for themselves and their liberties.
The acerbic Ann Coulter had a very amusing article on the hypocrisy about religion of the Democrat Presidential hopefuls in 2004. Some excerpts:
"When they were fund-raising, the Democratic candidates for president all claimed to be Jewish.... To ease Democrats into the Jesus thing, the Democratic Leadership Council is holding briefings for Democratic candidates teaching them how to talk about religion. The participants were warned that millions of Americans worship a supreme being whose name is not Bill Clinton... The only Democrats who go to church regularly are the ones who plan to run for president someday and are preparing in advance to fake a belief in God... "
It would of course be an absurd exercise here for me to attempt to summarize the vast THEOLOGICAL arguments about whether Jesus was a Leftist or Rightist. There is something to be said for either view. I do however offer a summary of the most relevant scriptural passages here and conclude that they at least offer no support for "liberation theology". As already mentioned, however, I do go into some detail about the matter in my Scripture Blog -- see here and here and here.
So, in conclusion, religion -- be it socialism or Christianity -- can be tyrannical and conservatives sometimes have to accept the lesser tyranny to avoid the greater one. And why it is that the only real choice that human beings ever have is between degrees of authoritarianism in government is quite another topic but, despite their partly contradictory conclusions, both Somit & Peterson (1997) and Rubin (2002) suggest that the answers are to be found in our evolutionary past.
Rubin, P.H. (2002) Darwinian Politics: The Evolutionary Origin of Freedom. Rutgers University Press.
Somit, A. & Peterson, S.A. (1997) Darwinism, Dominance, and Democracy: The Biological Bases of Authoritarianism. Westport, Conn.: Praeger.
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Comparisons of Christians with Hitler
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Hitler was not even a conservative
So why the alliance beween conservatism and Christianity in the USA today?
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