Last week, the nation’s capital was host to Value Voters 2013 Summit, a three-day political conference for predominantly religious conservatives. Among the smattering of social and economic issues at hand, the overall tenor of the Summit focused on eliminating Obamacare, expanding the tangible presence of Christianity through the public arena and military, and preventing the proliferation of easily available birth control and abortion. In speeches, lunches, and breakout sessions, American’s Christianists worked out strategies to bring the values of the federal government in line with their preferred Christian ethical dictates, using democracy as their chief tool.
It isn’t unusual for Christians living in democracies to use the vote to express their ethics, and to shape government to do the same. That the moral and ethical preferences of a given society should inform government is a foundational principle of democracy, after all. And American values voters are far from the first Christians to undertake the project of bringing their government’s policies in line with Christian ethics: European Christian parties have aimed to do the same for decades. But between American Christian voters and their European counterparts, a curious departure opens up: while European Christians generally see the anti-poverty mission of Christianity as worthy of political action, American Christianists inexplicably cordon off economics from the realm of Christian influence.
By all means, American Christianists are willing to leverage governmental authority to carry out a variety of Christian ethical projects, especially within the arena of family life. Michele Bachmann would make abortion illegal, and Rick Santorum has stated on multiple occasions that he supports laws against homosexual intercourse. But Christian politicians in the United States curtail their interest in making the gospel actionable when it comes to welfare. While the government should see to the moral uprightness of marriage, sex, and family, the Value Voters 2013 Summit was notably bereft of talks on living wages, labor rights, or basic income.
The notable exclusion of poverty from the Christian agenda would doubtlessly puzzle European Christians, whose support of Christian ethical approaches to family life have always been paired with a deep and vigorous concern for the poor. And European Christians haven’t been willing, unlike their American counterparts, to leave poverty up to individual charity or the market to handle. Quite the contrary: just as public morality is an arena fit for intervention by a Christian-informed government, so too is welfare. Consider the British Christian People’s Alliance 2010 election manifesto, a document intended to explain the imminently Christian party’s policy goals:
“The Christian Peoples Alliance believes that Britain will return to economic prosperity when government chooses instead to put human relationships in right order. This requires power, income and wealth to be redistributed and for greater equality to be achieved. These are deeply spiritual convictions and reflect a Biblical pattern of priorities…By the end of the next Parliament, the CPA will establish the reduction of inequality as a national target, so that the ratios of the incomes of the top 20 per cent are reduced to no more than five and a half times the incomes of the bottom 20 per cent.”
The CPA election manifesto goes on to explain that their aversion to inequality arises from a uniquely Christian concern for the health of human relationships, which suffer under the weight of massive social inequality. Their position on inequality is hardly an anomaly among European Christian parties. In fact, the European Christian Political Movement (ECPM), a confederation of Christian parties from different European nations operating within the European Union, states very similar goals in its own programme:
“Social justice is a fundamental Biblical teaching and Christian-democrat notion. Social justice demands an equal regard for all. That implies a special concern for the needs of the poor, refugees, those who suffer and the powerless. It requires us to oppose exploitation and deprivation. It requires also that appropriate resources and opportunities are available.In this way, we meet the basic requirements of all and each person is able to take part in the life of the community.”
Toward that end, the European Christian Political Foundation, which is the official think tank of the ECPM, recently commissioned a publication entitled ‘After Capitalism’, which is summarized thus:
“‘After Capitalism’ seeks to rethink the foundations of a market economy and argues that the Bible’s central theme of relationships is the key to rebuilding a system that promotes economic well-being, financial stability and social cohesion.”
It is notable that the multitude of parties that forms the EPCM are not necessarily leftist or wholly liberal parties. They do not generally align themselves with openly socialist parties in their home countries, though their policies toward welfare and equality would likely be branded as such by American Christians. And so the question remains: if European Christians feel the anti-poverty mission of Christianity is as worthy of political action as the ethical values relating to family life, why don’t American Christianists feel the same?
The answer is not entirely clear. Economic policy seems a strange place to wall off consideration of Christian ethics, but when it comes to policies that would expand welfare programs or extend particular benefits to the poor, American Christianists recoil, and tend to fall back on the rhetoric of personal accountability and individual liberty in matters of charity. But as European Christian parties have shown, limiting poverty to the arena of charity is a political choice. If the government has a moral role — which American Christianists certainly seem to believe it does — then why shouldn’t it participate in the same forms of care individual Christians are obligated to? Again, puzzling silence reigns when it comes to the self-proclaimed Christians of the American right.
But silence is often revealing, and in the case of the values voters of America, the deliberate but inexplicable relegation of economic policy to the realm of personal accountability is perhaps self-explanatory. It’s an enduringly tempting but poor ethical practice to center policies on what the other should do, without any regard for what I should do. American Christians are very pleased to make all manner of recommendations for gay people, women, pregnant women, and young people, but they’re very reluctant to turn the ethical consideration around and wonder: what should the role of a Christian politician with control over economic policy really be? Since that form of ethical reasoning would reflect too powerfully on what they, being the wealthy and politically powerful folks at the top, should do, they limit the conversation to the discipline of the sexually active, gay, female, and poor.
And I think there’s quite a lot to be said for imagining this as a problem of rhetoric. The US Christian Right has so little in common with the centuries of Christian parties preceding them that it’s almost impossible to see them as anything other than a product of the marriage of Christian rhetoric with fundamentally non-Christian (and even anti-Christian) political theory. The people themselves may well be ardent believers. But their politics is nothing more than already-existing property preferences and resentment toward the poor dressed up with some Christian language.