The GOP and Social Conservatives

This is exactly what I said would happen.

This is what I said almost a year ago:

Republican Christian conservatives, I suspect that your party as a whole will only care about you as long as you give it votes.

And this is what has happened, according to this morning’s New York Times:

Over the past four years, an increasing number of Republican leaders have argued that the party needs to embrace gay marriage, or risk losing younger, independent voters who polls suggest support it.

“It just makes the party look small and out of touch,” said Steve Schmidt, a Republican consultant who has warned that the party is hurting itself by being identified with opposition to gay rights. “Arizona has become an outlier state in which an extreme ring of the party is able to put forward legislation that damages the entire brand of the Republican Party.”

Just a few years ago, President Obama himself was not in favor of same-sex marriage. And let’s remember that it was a Democrat, Bill Clinton, who signed the Defense of Marriage Act in 1996. And now Republican leaders (at least according to Adam Nagourney at the Times, who may have added some of his own wishes to the lens through which he gauges Republican sentiment) are publicly doubting whether the same-sex marriage battle is worth fighting.

This is a stunning and rapid victory, at least at elite levels of power, for gay activists. I sense they are experiencing the heady feeling of winning a distinctly moral crusade—and they are only picking up steam in our country. Their Arizona win (the reason for the Times article) won’t be the last. There are voices vainly, hoarsely, pointing out that the crusade for gay rights is not chapter 2 of the civil rights movement. But my feel is that those voices will continue to be shouted down until they become a whisper. The theological fiber of the country is too weak; it can’t stand up to an onslaught of freedom arguments. A conservative consultant quoted in the Times nailed it (discussing the Arizona bill in particular):

The issue was framed in the worst possible way for those people who are supporters of the bill…. It became about human rights and human dignity and not religious conscience. As soon as it shifted from a debate about religious conscience to a respect for human dignity, it was a loser.

Ryan T. Anderson, Ph.D. candidate at Princeton and former student of Robert George, is one of the country’s foremost conservative spokesmen on this issue. He, along with George (and another student of George’s, Sherif Girgis), have done the best natural law thinking available on this issue. And it is valuable. They point out that the whole reason government is involved in the marriage business—in sanctioning marriages, helping structure them, and incentivizing certain practices within them (like bearing children)—is that the state does bear a distinct interest in the health of the families undergirding it.

And that’s what I care about: the health of families. I care because, by God’s grace and in my best moments, I love my neighbor as myself. I’m not opposed to same-sex marriage because I’m grossed out by the sexual mechanics. I’m not opposed to same-sex marriage because homosexuals tend to be more politically liberal than I. I’m opposed because “sin is a reproach to any people,” because sin is the worst kind of self-harm (I say with sorrow for my own sins), because God knows best how to make human lives happy.

“You’re imposing your religion on me!” comes the response. (And, more serpentine, “Yea, hath God said that homosexual acts are sinful?”) I briefly entertained the possibility a few years ago that I ought to take a libertarian line on same-sex marriage: if this country is meant to be a place where people retain freedom of conscience, freedom of religion, how indeed can I impose my beliefs on others? A lot of complicated political and moral reasoning has been done on this question (here’s a good book, I’m told), but one big reason I made a decision not to go libertarian was what I said in the previous paragraph: I love people. My political opponents can call me a bigot and a theocrat (and they will and have), but I insist I’m neither. I love my enemies, as Jesus instructed, I deeply do. I want them to be loved into light.

The Republican party can give up on me; I gave up on it a long time ago—at least as a reliably moral force. But I won’t give up my love for my neighbor.

Author: Mark Ward

PhD in NT; theological writer for Faithlife; former high school Bible textbook author for BJU Press; husband; father; ultimate frisbee player; member of the body of Christ.

7 thoughts on “The GOP and Social Conservatives”

  1. In my mind, the question isn’t whether you’re a theocrat, it’s why you aren’t a formal theocrat already? The logic that you just laid out vis-a-vis the state as moral guardian is essentially theocratic. Homosexual marriage is bad for society, the state punishes vice and rewards virtue, therefore the state should prohibit gay marriage. Since you are thinking theocratically on this issue, why wouldn’t you apply the same natural law logic to other issues?

    Our theological ancestors, the Puritans, certainly did. That’s why they had civil laws prohibiting adultery, blasphemy, and heterodoxy. After all, a healthy society was a society dedicated to worship of the true God; freethinkers, Quakers, and Baptists need not apply. Your position on gay marriage is a watered down version of that church-state tradition. Unless you follow the logic to its full extent, you are trying to eat your cake and have it too. To be consistent requires either the complete disentangling of church and state or their complete union.

    I myself hew along libertarian lines because I believe the alliance of the church and Rome (or Constantinople, or Geneva, or Charlestown, or Washington, DC) has done great harm to the purity and advance of the gospel. At its root, I believe the libertarian anti-coercion principle is implied by theological orthodoxy. My logical train of thought: righteousness cannot be coerced, the state can only coerce, therefore the state is not a fit instrument for spreading righteousness.

  2. I agree that not all sins are crimes. But, provisionally because I really shouldn’t spend any more time on my blog right now (!), I can say that certain sins become crimes precisely because they impact legitimate state interests.

    I’m not a theocrat—or a theonomist, more likely—because I don’t believe Christ’s kingdom advances with the sword at this point in salvation history.

    But I want to preserve a John-the-Baptist-to-Herod-like right to say to non-Christians, “Don’t do this! You’ll harm yourself!” I feel relatively indifferent as to whether non-Christian people refrain from sin for legal or moral reasons. I’m just as happy for them to accede to community pressure as to fear the long arm of the law.

    I think. I do admit this raises some thorny church-state issues.

    One more thought I don’t have time to write: Michael Sandel at Harvard (in Justice) convinced me once and for all that every political vision is a vision of the good. Every political vision is, then, a theological and religious one whether its proponents admit it or not. A soteriologically Reformed guy like me knows from weekly evangelism, let alone his Bible, that coercion is simply impossible. Only the Holy Spirit of God can ultimately change a heart. But I’m not going to let someone else’s vision of the good triumph by arguing that it’s a neutral, secular, supracultural principle. And that’s where the “liber-” in libertarian” gets me. I enjoy many benefits in a liberal democracy, but it’s a Greek bearing gifts. It suggests that a theologically dubious principle like “freedom” can answer our political questions, even solve our political problems.

    Done for now. Hoping a smarter friend will weigh in. Happy for the interaction, Paul.

  3. The devil is, as usual, in the details of precisely what “legitimate state interests” are. A question for another day, I suppose.

    Ironically, the Bible story you appeal to in a “John-the-Baptist-to-Herod-like right” points in the opposite direction of theonomy. A stranger in a strange land proclaimed the Word and was coerced (a rather extreme form of coercion) by governing power. It would be strange to extract from that story the idea that when the tables are turned, when King John the Baptist has the whip-hand, that it’s right and proper to make Herod tremble.

  4. From a friend who’s not trying to be anonymous (I just forgot to ask him if I should append his name):
    -I’d be happy to have laws prohibiting adultery and blasphemy
    -I think laws privileging orthodoxy over heterodoxy would be legitimate.
    -I don’t think the church and state should be joined; I don’t think the state should rule over the church; I do think the church should provide guidance to the state on public policy issues. I think he misunderstands your John the Baptist illustration.
    -Righteousness cannot be coerced is too simplistic. Some right behavior can be coerced. We don’t allow murder without punishment. Some right behavior can be incentivized.
    -But isn’t this beside the point? The Arizona law was about protecting people from government coercion to violate their consciences.

    What would Paul say about the critiques here? http://www.thepublicdiscourse.com/2012/03/5002/

  5. One of the ironies of this debate is that the state is trying to impose the moral values of homosexuality on those who dissent. The state is not morally neutral in this controversy.

    Maranatha!
    Don Johnson
    Jer 33.3

  6. I’m out of town (and on the iPad) at the moment so I’ll be brief. I think we have a definitional difference that informs our broader disagreement. I chose the word “righteousness” very carefully to describe the combination of right motive and right behavior. Governments can only coerce right behavior, not right motive (seriously, try and think of an example), therefore the state cannot be a direct instrument of righteousness. It can only ever protect free spaces in which true righteousness can flourish. Your friend reduces righteousness to right behavior and the rest of his proposals logically (and perhaps theologically) flow from there.

  7. The Hebrew and Greek word groups for righteousness are flexible. It is true that there are times when it is important to hold right behavior and right motive together. It is for this reason that we can say that civically good people are still unrighteous before God. However, sometimes the words are used to indicate right behavior in a civic setting (Ex. 23:6-8; Deut 16:18-20). In addition just and justice are also appropriate translations at times (on this latter point chapters 3 & 5 in Wolterstorff’s Justice: Rights and Wrongs are helpful).

    Since the Bible makes justice one of the primary purposes of government (Deut. 1:10-18; 1 Kings 10:9; Psalm 72:1-7, 11-14; Ps. 82:1-8; Pro 29:4, 14; Jer. 22:2-5), the those formulating policy must look beyond simple anti-coercion and must ask questions about whether people are acting justly/righteously and must ask questions about the common good.

    Perhaps you could spell out your libertarian anti-coercion principle. Is your position that the state does not coerce except for violations of the harm principle? If so, that seems to me to be a too limited principle to actually achieve justice-an attempt to avoid the substantive discussions about what justice is and what conception of virtue stands behind it precisely because there is disagreement on that score. Yet, it would seem that having those discussions openly and candidly is necessary in a civil society.

    Is it just for a society to permit the pervasive objectification and exploitation of women in entertainment? I suppose someone could argue that the state should not be coercive on this score given the harm principle (“just don’t watch it; it doesn’t do you any harm”). I think a Christian could make the case that such entertainment violates the rights due to women as image-bearers of God-both in regards to the actresses or models and in regards to the effect on women in a society thus coarsened. I further think that a Christian should be allowed to make this argument in public. To be compelling, he will likely need to say more. But the Christian shouldn’t be compelled to hide what many people may know to truly be deep motivating factors for him. Further in a pluralistic culture Christians may find themselves in a political party with non-Christians who favor traditional morality and thus agree with some of the Christian’s aims. Let’s say these people are all Congressmen and women. They might find themselves reaching across the aisle and enlisting the support of certain kinds of feminists who for their reasons share some of the same goals.

    The above scenario is not a libertarian approach to government, but it strikes me as a far cry from theocracy. This view of government might be termed Aristotelian. I think Sandel provides a good description: “If moral virtue is something we learn by doing, we have somehow to develop the right habits in the first place. For Aristotle, this is the primary purpose of law-to cultivate the habits that lead to good character” (Sandel, Justice, 198-99). Such a position falls short of sanctification, but it does enable government to be a terror to bad conduct and to praise those who do good (Rom. 13:1-7; 1 Pet. 2:14). On the flip side is Calvin’s observation that the moral law of God is given to curb sinners, both elect and reprobate (Institutes 2.7.10).

    This may raise again the question of whether this is simply an inconsistent version of the church-state tradition. Regarding consistency, it is worth noting that politics is the art of the possible. Even the Mosaic Law made allowances for the hardness of the people’s hearts. How much more contemporary legislation. Inconsistent? So be it. Regarding, whether this is a repristination of the church-state condition, I would note that that the view advocated above seems consistent with the positions of anti-church-establishment men such as Roger Williams and Isaac Backus. Edmund Morgan notes that Williams thought the government should enforce aspects of morality through the law. Morgan notes, murder, theft, quarrelling, lasciviousness, censorship of books in matters of morals, prescriptions on modest dress” (Roger Williams: The Church and the State, 127-28, 133-35). Stanley Grenz notes that Backus opposed an established church, laws regulating church affairs, and the belief that the gospel was necessary for government to exist. Nevertheless he believed that the gospel was necessary for a society to flourish and that morality was in the provenance of government (Isaac Backus, 164-65; 309-10). He supported laws against blasphemy, profanity, gambling, card-playing, and theater-going. James Leo Garrett, Jr., notes that Backus wanted to separate the church from state interference (and he and the Puritans both agreed that the state should not be run by the church) but he did not wish to separate the state from Christian influence (Baptist Theology, 162). That’s the position that I support.

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