Tea Party v. Evangelicals

Ben Smith’s blog over at Politico.com is a must-read on any day, but today it is a stop-what-you-are-doing, go-read-it-right-now read. He looks at the growing suspicion among conservative evangelical voters of the libertarian impulses of the tea party movement. The immediate worry is that the focus on taxes, jobs, the economy and the role of government has displaced the evangelicals’ concerns on social issues such as abortion and gay marriage. But, as Smith points out, the rift is deeper than that.

The same rift exists in the Democratic Party, but to a lesser degree today than a few years back. Remember how in the 1970s, in an effort to defend Roe v. Wade, some Democrats took to saying "You can’t legislate morality." Mind you, this was only a few years after the civil rights movement resulted in a very specific legislation of morality. And, those same Democrats had a difficult time making a moral argument for universal health care, or protecting the environment, when they were saying such moral arguments had no place in the political realm.


So, the rift here is not really between right and left, or between Democrat and Republican. At its most basic level, it is a rift between modernity and what used to be called Christian anthropology. Modernity celebrates the autonomous individual and places freedom above other values in the public sphere. Modernity sees that freedom as the source of human dignity and rebels against any attempts to restrict that freedom. For the modern man, the absence of ontology is a blessing and maintaining man’s independence is the goal. Traditional Christian – and other religious – anthropologies, reach similar conclusions about the dignity of the human person, but root that dignity in human creatureliness and dependence. It is the Imago Dei – the fact that we are created in the image and likeness of God that is the source of our dignity, and that creatureliness imposes upon us the obligation to live in accord with our Creator.

In his famous 2004 address to the Democratic National Convention in Boston that launched his national political career, Barack Obama spoke about these twin impulses, citing Americans’ famous individualism but also the impulse to be our brother’s keeper. Sometimes, the two sit happily together: at the time of the Founding, some Founders were filled with thoughts of a New Israel, and others were imbued with the ideas coming from the Enlightenment. In the Vatican II document Dignitatis Humanae, you find an endorsement of the constitutional arrangements of the West based on modern notions of freedom as well as an endorsement of a view of the human person as radically dependent upon God.

Greater minds than mine will have to do for modernity what Aquinas did for Aristotle, create an orthodox synthesis of modern notions about freedom with the anthropology that we discover in the Scriptures and, especially, in the early Church Fathers. Those of us who range ourselves on the liberal side of politics have to admit that if no one has yet created such a synthesis, the possibility exists that no such synthesis is possible. This does not necessitate a war, of course, but it does mean that we must recognize a certain tentativeness to our ideological conclusions, a constant willingness to re-think our assumptions, and a humility about the conclusions we attain.

In the meantime, it is best to recall an insight of Jacques Maritain which went something like this. Some of us are born into the world with a liberal heart, others with a more conservative heart. Either way, it is a given. And, the better part of wisdom is to learn about the insights that are achieved by those who were born with a different heart from the one you received. If you have an essentially liberal disposition, learn about the wisdom the conservatives have to offer, and vice-versa. I think this can apply as well to the divide between a religious sensibility, rooted in the idea that we are radically dependent upon God, and a modern sensibility, rooted in the idea that our freedom is so precious it deserves pride of place. We must listen and learn from both schools, because both schools contain wisdom. I do not believe a Christian can give pride of place to freedom: Only love warrants pride of place in any Christian moral theory. But, I would fight to the death to protect my First Amendment rights.

Michael Sean Winters

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Beth Cioffoletti
8 years 10 months ago
I really like that Maritain insight.  I had heard it before, but never attributed to Maritain.  THANKS!
James Lindsay
8 years 10 months ago
It's not that complicated to place liberty within the mileau of natural law. It goes something like this (from my book, Musings from the Christian Left):

Originally, the moral nature of society was based on hierarchy and the divine right of kings. The Western Enlightenment replaced this with the recognition of God-given Free Will. We now believe that all citizens have God-given rights of self-determination. Extremists on both sides of any debate on public morals resist liberty, which they see as giving individuals a license to do anything and everything. Calmer heads know that this is not the case and admit that respect for Free Will does give individual liberty a certain amount of deference unless an activity is particularly harmful, and the restriction of that activity does not cause more harm than good.

Ideally, a truly free society is based on the rational will of all, which Rousseau called the General Will. The General Will is thought to be present when all in a society agree on a policy, when it is unanimous. When this is not the case government policy is carried out by the majority against the wishes of the minority. For the majority to carry out these wishes some form of police power is created, turning society into a police state to varying degrees. This is why enlightened societies set forth and guarantee basic rights for minorities in an attempt to limit the advance of a police state and to guarantee freedom to violate the moral prejudices of one's neighbors.

This is where the Christian Left embraces liberty in matters having to do with public morality and social issues. However, this embrace of liberty is not an abandonment of either Christian principles or Christian charity. Making public policy is always a moral balancing act. The Christian Left prefers that the coercive nature of the state be lessened while the charitable nature of the state is increased. Instead of jailing individuals for immoral or dangerous behavior, we prefer that they be treated, especially when the moral question at issue does not garner 100% agreement, such as in cases of victimless crime.

The power of the state is also limited by its inability to effectively deliver compassionate services. From foster care to mental health care to education, religious institutions such as Catholic Charities, Lutheran Social Services and the parochial school system seem to consistently perform better.
8 years 10 months ago
I believe this evangelical was and still is an Obama supporter.  There is a discussion of this over at First Things.  So to use this as something to criticize the Tea Party movement is really inappropriate.  See
8 years 10 months ago
Excellent insight into an issue that is really out there right now with Tea Partiers emphasizing individual liberties.  And yes, Ben Smith's blog was right-on also.  The whole individual rights/autonomy vs. our collective obligations to society, God etc. was summed up very concisely and elegantly by contemporary American philosopher Ken Wilber in his book A Brief History of Everything.  The entire thing is on pages 21-22 titled Agency and Communion if people have access, but I'll summarize:
We as people are individual, but  we are also parts of a greater whole, and to maintain our existence we must do certain things:  We must maintain our Agency, that is our identity.  But balancing that is the need for Communion also.  Whether we wish to admit it or not, we must fit in as part of a greater whole.  Even atheists must admit that a failure to fit into our environment spells disaster.  So there is this balancing act between the two.  The pendulum has swung way over in the direction of individuality for most Americans and especially the Tea Partiers and others with a libertarian slant.  People of the faith community know that paying attention to the Sermon on the Mount and other aspects of Jesus' ministry is just as important.


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