I've been thinking more about the conflation of conservatism and Christianity among many people I know. In a recent issue of Newsweek, Michael Gerson describes three evangelical approaches to politics, embodied by a prophet (James Dobson), a priest (Billy Graham), and a kingmaker (Pat Robertson). Gerson argues that all three approaches are declining:
"Leaders such as Robertson mainly exercise broad influence in the imagination of liberals. Evangelicals, particularly younger evangelicals, are undergoing a shift in attitudes. Many have little interest in the self-destructive purity of the prophet or the raw pragmatism of the kingmaker. They remain culturally conservative, but uncomfortable with a harshly judgmental tone in their politics. They find the model of the religious right too narrow and are increasingly motivated by a broader range of social concerns."
Columnist Andrew Sullivan, meanwhile, was enthusiastic about Gerson's point of view:
"It seems to me that our society needs Christian witness - on charity, on caring for the environment, on protecting the vulnerable, on seeking peace, on opening dialogue - as much as it doesn't need Christianist intolerance, politicking and campaigning. It's especially important, it seems to me, that Christian witness also regain humility and an indifference to power. Forsaking a partisan identity is critical to this."
Part of the problem, I think, is that a conservative philosophy is largely one of restraint on most government spending , with an expectation that local, voluntary initiatives will do more to assist the poor and downtrodden than any government program. Conservative Christians involved in politics, therefore, project an image of being "against" assistance for the poor, "for" war, and far more concerned with stopping gay marriage than stopping AIDS. They want much of what we call mercy missions to be off the political agenda. Conservatism, in other words, is worlds apart from Christianity -- it fosters a space for effective mercy, but it doesn't embody mercy. Insofar as people identify Christianity with conservative political action, therefore, they are likely to come away with a slanted view of what our faith really means.
It can be problematic, then, when politicians trumpet their Christian credentials; if 90 percent of what a politician stands for doesn't advance Christian principles, but instead advances conservative principles, then perhaps the perception of Christianity, among the unchurched, is done a disservice when they perceive the politician to embody what a Christian is all about. Likewise, of course, when a notable Christian endorses such a politician. C.S. Lewis once remarked that what we need are not more Christian writers, but more great writers who are Christians. Perhaps the same applies to politicians.
The best innoculation, I think, to a wrong perception that Christianity is equivalent to conservatism is the mercy work of many good churches. For every politico a non-Christian sees claiming the Christian label, we want him to see a hundred Christians in his community, quietly, humbly doing the work of our Father. The more we can accomplish that, the harder it will be for people to identify Christianity with whatever happens to be popular among politicians who claim to act on Christ's behalf. "You will know them," Christ said of the good and the bad, "by their fruits." My prayer, in the current political season and the decades to follow, is that more non-Christians will come to know us in that way, by lifechanging encounters with loving Christians.