Odd bedfellows: Political Conservatism and Christianity
Right wing conservatives have become increasingly dependent upon Christian support at the ballot box in Australia and the US. But what does political conservatism as expressed by Donald Trump in the US, or Tony Abbott, Eric Abetz or Cori Bernardi in Australia, have to do with Christianity?
To conserve, from the Latin conservare means to protect or conserve. This simple definition can be readily accepted as an expression of core Christian values. But what is to be conserved and how is the conserving to be achieved? It is not good enough to simply preserve the past, understand why institutions or practices evolved and preserve the good in them in light of the present. When I took up my appointment as Bishop of Canberra and Goulburn the magnificent Cathedral in Goulburn was in a state of considerable disrepair and was not a space easily given to engagement and creative expression. The modest plans to address this issue were vehemently opposed by those who considered its internal configuration to be sacrosanct and unchangeable. What I and those responsible for the Cathedral desired was to preserve and protect the reason for the Cathedral’s existence, a space available and adaptable for the creative and worshipping life of both the local congregation and the wider community.
Real conservatism has little to do with externals and everything to do with the ‘heart of the matter’.
There is ongoing debate in Australia about sexuality and gender. The debate is fundamentally about identity. The biblical view is that our identity is an expression of the company we keep, or to whom we belong: i.e. we are children of God and severally sisters and brothers of one another. The bible knows little of an individual, but of a brother, sister, parent, child, neighbor, employer, friend etc. While the bible knew of same sex behavior, it was assumed to be deviant activity of heterosexual people. Understanding that a percentage of the population does not and cannot identity as heterosexual is a relatively recent understanding. So, what is to be conserved? First and foremost, what must be conserved and protected (treasured) is the life of each as a whole and wholesome human being. Secondly what must be protected and honored are relationships which enable intimacy, commitment, virtue, and fulfilment; all fundamental ingredients of human flourishing. Christianity cannot be about conserving an identity which is possible for some but impossible for others.
Now to the most obvious arena for conservation – the natural environment. It is astonishing that those who identify as political conservatives, or indeed as religious conservatives, behave in such a cavalier manner to the natural environment, an attitude that is the very antithesis of Christian insight. Even the cautionary principle is eschewed in a stampede to exploit. The biblical insight is unequivocal. The whole created order, inclusive of humanity, is a relational world. Everything and everyone relates to everything else, no action is without consequence. A consumerist view of the natural order, exploits without consequence and turns anything and everything into currency – wealth. Walter Brueggemann the great New Testament scholar contrasts consumers with citizens thus:
Consumers are those who, after they eat and are satiated use as a third verb variously ‘exalt self’…self-sufficiency, self-indulgence, self-reference – an ocean of self. Citizens are those who after they eat and are satiated have a third verb ‘bless and remember’, that is they turn life back to the Giver.
How is it then that political conservatives, so diametrically opposed to conservation at the heart of Christianity, are embraced by a Christian subculture? The answer probably has to do with individualism – with the wrongful prioritising of self.
The Anglican divine Richard Hooker (1554 – 1600) is supposedly one of the fathers of political conservatism, but his concerns have little if anything to do with those of today’ political right. He argued that a citizen of Britain owed loyalty to the crown (Elizabeth 1) and that this loyalty was in part expressed through commitment to the Church of the crown. He was opposed to both Puritanism on the one hand and Roman Catholicism on the other, arguing what needed to be conserved was unity of Church and State – a divine institution. It was the Anglo-Irish philosopher of the enlightenment, Edmund Burke (1729-1797), however who is credited with conservatism as a political force. He opposed the French Revolution and emphasized property rights and the free market.
But what is political conservatism today? Many deny it is an ideology, or even a political philosophy, regarding it instead as a disposition that resists theoretical expression—a “non-ideology” that attempts to avoid the errors of ideologies. Is it an ancient attitude, or a proposition that developed in response to Enlightenment rationality and its political products, liberalism and socialism?
Without ideology it may have been in its infancy, however, there can be little doubt that political conservatism is now deeply entrenched in its own ideology, an ideology that I assert to be stubbornly irrational.
It is an ideology that seeks to commoditize everything. This is stubbornly irrational because life, both human and nonhuman, clearly depends upon a high level of communal sharing. Without an appropriate and necessary sharing of the natural order, nonhuman species will increasingly become extinct, and humans will experience escalating inequality. Indeed, critics of political conservatism argue it has become an ideology in general defense of social and economic inequality.
It is an ideology that stubbornly prioritises the free market, resisting any form of regulation. This is irrational because the market is not free. It is manipulated by those who trade on currencies, it is weighted by the trillions held by hedge funds, and it is dominated by a financial market which is not interested in trading one commodity for another, but solely in financial gain.
It is an ideology which is wedded to the idea of trickledown economics, that is to say in a growing economy wealth trickles down to everyone. This is a proven deception because those who gain from a growing economy are those who have positioned themselves to take advantage, the rest do not.
It is an ideology besotted with economic growth. However, it is an unarguable fact that economic growth is an illusion without population growth. The economy grows in size, but not in depth, as illustrated by the long-term stagnation in wages. Australia and the globe generally are on a lemming run if our future is dependent upon population expansion in a finite world.
Why do conservative Christians find any of this so attractive and why so forgiving of the obvious frailty and often outright scandal of the purveyors of this lunacy?
Sadly one of the reasons is that there is a certain symbiosis between political conservatism and religious conservatism. The former provides the latter with a political platform and a power base to pursue its narrow moral agenda while the latter provides the former with a numerical base and an assumed virtue of righteousness.
More worryingly, both wear a mantle of certainty, an elitism that eschews ambiguity, even dialogue. The political right treats those who challenge their assumed claim to the high ground and destiny to rule, as the enemy, as we have seen in the relentless attack on the ABC and Trump’s ‘fake news’. Of equal concern is the arrogance of not needing to engage with people with greater knowledge, demonstrated by the Prime Minister’s thought bubble on the Jerusalem embassy, or the ignoring of environmental advice.
It is past time for Christians, not seduced by this agenda, to find their courageous voice and engage in debate about the world we would like our children to inherit. Please do not let the world assume Christianity is as portrayed by the right. The foundations from which we are rooted are good news for all, and lived well will lead to a peaceful, just and harmonious world. With John Macquarrie we can confidently proclaim:
The self-emptying of Jesus Christ has not only opened up the depth of true humanity, but has made known to us the final reality as likewise self-emptying self-giving and self-limiting.