“Watch out for those crazy kids”: Further Thoughts on the Christian Left

Last time, I shared some thoughts on the Christian left and the obstacles it might have to overcome in order to become a bona-fide movement. I focused primarily on the threat posed by tribalism, and the pressures to conform that can come from both within and without. I promised four warnings and a fanfare, so onwards we go…

3. Watch out for those crazy kids

 

Stoker Bruenig alludes in her Salon article to the somewhat… contradictory nature of millennials’ preferred policies. They seem, if you’ll forgive a bit of glibness, to take a George McGovern approach to government programmes and a Ronald Reagan approach to tax rates.

Given that “cut taxes and hike spending” was essentially Ireland’s macroeconomic strategy for about a decade, I feel pretty qualified to announce: This Does Not Work. Eventually, things come to a head – and I’m not optimistic about which way millennials will go. Maybe I’m just too cynical about human nature, or maybe I just have a deep-rooted, pathological dislike of my own generation, but I think that if you ask the average middle-class millennial whether to cut anti-poverty programs or raise his own taxes… well, I wouldn’t feel too safe on food stamps.

Of course, as Sean Trende of RealClearPolitics never grows tired of repeating, political coalitions adapt over time and generational groupings change their political leanings and allegiances in unforeseen ways.

According to Pew’s survey, the Faith and Family Left only makes up approximately 15% of the general public at the moment – but that’s about the same number as “Solid Liberals”, who manage to exert plenty of influence on national politics. A resurgent Christian Left won’t, of course, capture every millennial, but wouldn’t need to. And if the politics of the future divide along libertarian/communitarian rather than left/right lines, that would be no bad thing.

 

But at the moment, it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that if millennials are leaning any way, it’s towards some version of libertarianism or Pink-Police-State libertinism. And there are other warning signs, as Michael Peppard writes at Commonweal:

(A resurgent Christian Left) would need to show regular attendance, financial support, and tenacious action. A movement needs, in short, committed bodies—not just responses to poll questions or clicks on a social action website.

Consider the responses to this prompt (in a Public Religion Research Institute survey conducted a year ago). Religion is “the most important thing in my life”:

Religious progressives: 11%
   Religious conservatives: 54%

Building a Christian left political movement will have to involve changing hearts and minds, and lots of them.

4. Be willing to work with others who share your ends, if not your means.

 

Elizabeth Stoker Bruenig and the New York Times’ Ross Douthat are two of my favourite current-affairs writers. Both are Catholics who take their faith seriously enough to allow it to inform and challenge their political worldviews.

Douthat, a man of the right, rejects the “makers and takers” view of the poor that’s too often articulated by the Republican Party. He and other “reformocons” have spent a lot of time and effort attempting to get the party to take poverty seriously. In this, he and Stoker Bruenig are united in pursuing the ends set out in the Catechism of the Catholic Church:

2426 The development of economic activity and growth in production are meant to provide for the needs of human beings. Economic life is not meant solely to multiply goods produced and increase profit or power; it is ordered first of all to the service of persons, of the whole man, and of the entire human community. Economic activity, conducted according to its own proper methods, is to be exercised within the limits of the moral order, in keeping with social justice so as to correspond to God’s plan for man.

They disagree – often strongly – about means. To take one example, Douthat is pretty sympathetic to Congressman Paul Ryan’s small-government approach to poverty reduction: here’s Stoker Bruenig ripping it to shreds.

These differences in means, by the way, are why it’s worth having an authentically Christian Left and Christian Right at all, rather than just one monolithic Christian Politics. It’s not about politicising religion – it’s about trying to come to the best conclusion without possessing perfect information.

The talking point that teachings of Christ don’t mandate any particular level of taxation or any specific government programme is worn from constant use, but no less true for that. Christians can disagree in good faith about the best way of relieving poverty, or caring for the environment, or supporting marriage.

Sometimes those questions of means will put Christians sincerely trying to live the Gospel on opposite sides of political battles. If I think that a Universal Basic Income would virtually wipe out poverty overnight, and my friend thinks that it would be a dependency-creating disaster, one of us has to lose. In a culture that invested ordinary political disputes with slightly less life-or-death significance, this wouldn’t really be a problem.

But sometimes those shared goals will actually put committed Christians on the political Right and Left on the same side.

Consider the recent rapprochement between Stoker Bruenig and Douthat over subsidising child-rearing, where both lamented a sort of anti-parenthood paternalism found on both the left and right (the sort that thinks that the state should step in if people leave their kids in a car, or let them roam outside unsupervised – the motivation behind the kind of “libertarianism” that thinks requiring a licence to raise children would be a good idea), and both endorsed some version of “just give money to parents” as a guiding principle for policy. In situations like this, whether the payment is a subsidy or a tax credit, and how big it is, is less important than the principle at stake – that children are good and necessary for society.

Countries further down the path of secularisation have had more time to get used to this. The recent debate over an attempt to legalise assisted suicide in the UK didn’t split across partisan lines – you had MPs, peers, commentators and other public figures from all parties and none taking up positions on both sides of the question. The idiosyncratic coalition that formed in support of human dignity was heartening to see – people were thinking for themselves, not letting political allegiances determine their views.

In a less partisan age, these kinds of alliances will only become more necessary, and the Christian left will have to be willing to embrace them.

I promised a fanfare, but this post grew in the writing, so I’ll give it its own blog postscript. That was a pun, for the record.

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