Sometimes those of us who write in defense of the Tea Party or Christian conservatism fear that an actual encounter with Tea Partiers or Christian conservatives will be disillusioning. It’s easy to defend the principles of economic and social conservatism from a distance; but what happens when you actually encounter the people up close? You’re on record claiming that these are salt-of-the-earth people, good rational people (darn it) with a genuine faith and sturdy American values — but what if you’re wrong? Everything you’ve written makes sense to you from behind your desk, when you’re typing away at your laptop, but what if the liberal media is actually right, and these people are a bunch of barking lunatics?
I felt a little of that fear as I approached a Tea Party event in Boston a couple years ago, and I quickly found those fears unfounded. Yet I felt that fear again last Saturday as I drove the last few miles to the Iowa State Fairgrounds for the Faith and Freedom Coalition banquet and presidential forum. Those fears were not assuaged when I saw a withered old man on a street corner near the fairgrounds holding a sign that read: “Sodomy Ruins Nations.” Neither were my fears allayed when I saw a group of 22 men and women standing in a group outside the venue who looked as though they had just rolled out of bed and decided to act self-righteous, judgmental and disorderly.
However, as it turns out, the men and women who had actually come for the Faith and Freedom Coalition event were courteous, informed, reasonable, good-humored people — and the 22 in the group outside the venue were Occupy Wall Street protestors. ”This is what democracy looks like!” the OWS protestors chanted, over and over again. Well, true enough; protesting is a fine democratic tradition. But democracy really looks a lot like the 1000 Iowans who ate fried chicken off paper plates inside the Knapp Center and listened with understanding and appreciation to a far-ranging discussion of political problems and policies, in order to select a candidate who represents their values. As Ralph Reed said to me and Michael Gerson after the event, “This is what’s right with America.”
I agree. It’s not the only thing right with America. But there is something right about the Christian Right.
I’ve often been critical of the Christian Right in the Falwell/Robertson era, even as I’ve defended them against caricature. Mistakes were made, boundaries crossed. Yet I drove straight into the beating heart of the Christian Right — and was deeply encouraged by what I saw. Perhaps I had bought in, just a little bit, to the caricatures and condemnations of the Religious Right that stream forth from the major organs of media and opinion. Perhaps I had absorbed just a touch of their scorn. And, I confess, perhaps I had succumbed to the temptation to criticize in order to feel superior, in order to establish some distance between me and “them”. If I could defend Religious Righters from caricature, and yet simultaneously criticize them for errors and excesses, then it sets me apart as a new breed of Christian conservative, a better and more respectable version.
I still believe that we can and should learn from the mistakes of the Falwell/Robertson era. I think that certain regions of the American evangelical church essentially became owned-and-controlled colonies of the GOP. Since the GOP (at least in theory) stood for their values on life and family issues, Christian conservatives were too inclined to overlook the ways in which the Republican Party failed to stand for biblical values in other areas. Republican politicians sought greater power for themselves and so they expanded the size and the reach of the federal and state governments; the evangelical church should have been more critical of an adventurist foreign policy, of the failure of the GOP to move the ball further on the protection of a culture of life, and of the growth of crony capitalism and its corrupt imbrication of big government and big business.
Were some in the older generation of the Religious Right racist or sexist or promoters of any number of unsavory -isms? To be sure. But that’s true in other political groups as well, and less a reflection of the ideology of the Religious Right than of an old, dying but not-yet-gone way of looking at the world that still survives, perhaps, in slightly greater measure in the South — at least for a few more years. There are always bad apples. On the whole, however, the men and women of the Religious Right are kind and generous, reasonable and compassionate.
Some of their beliefs may seem old-fashioned or unscientific to the brahmins of the ivory towers. Some of their values may seem backwards to the cultural elite. I believe that evolution, for instance, is perfectly compatible with the Christian scriptures and presently the best available explanation for the development of species. I also believe that the children of illegal immigrants should not suffer by law for their parents’ decisions, that stricter gun laws are entirely reasonable, and that Christians should not support the death penalty. So I still have my areas of difference.
Yet I now feel no desire to distance myself from the people in the Religious Right. Rather, on Saturday I was proud to be in their midst. These are people who believe that life is an inestimable gift and a sacred treasure, to uphold and protect from the very first moment of conception to the very last breath. These are people who believe that marriage should honor the pattern shown in scripture, that children should be reared by loving mothers and fathers, that families form the best bulwark against poverty, and that our culture should give careful thought to the influences and temptations it puts in front of its young people. And these are people who believe that the government should form a final safety net, but that families and churches and local institutions should be the first line of defense, and the second and the third — that our commitment to the social good should be wise and should steward our resources for generations, rather than excusing and facilitating generations of poverty — that the government has a role to play in regulating the economy and defending against unfair business practices, but that its influence should be as minimal as possible in order to maximize freedom and maintain the efficiency of the free market — and that our market should encourage creativity, initiative and self-reliance, the dignity of man made in the image of a Creator God. They also believe that a culture that is richly seeded with what is truly true and good and beautiful, and leaders who are shaped by classical Judeo-Christian values, can have an extraordinarily beneficial effect upon our nation.
These are among my own deepest convictions on social matters as well. In other words, I think what the Religious Right has right is vastly more important than what it has wrong.
I’ll have much more to write in the coming days about this event, but I wanted first to sort through these feelings. I am conservative, and I am a Christian, and I am a conservative Christian. I welcome that. I choose to work for development from within, rather than setting myself apart as some sort of superior meta-critic. To everyone who has asked me how I can associate myself with the Religious Right, given all the negative associations in mainstream media and elsewhere, this is the reason. I still think they’re right on the most important things.