Friday, November 23, 2012

The Republican Party and Politics as Theology

If I were to attempt to define what went wrong with the Republican Party, it would be that they abandoned modern conservatism in favor of pre-Enlightenment conservatism and began treating politics and policy as a branch of theology.  I do not know what will restore the fortunes of the Republican Party.  But I know that until they stop treating politics as a branch of theology and embrace modern conservatism, health will not return to our democracy.

Needless to say, after making such a statement, it is only right that I define my terms.


Theology technically means the study of God.  But in fact, theology covers more than seeking to understand the nature of God.  It also means seeking to understand God's will, particularly God's will for us humans, and how we should obey God's will.  This what is known as moral theology, or Christian ethics.  It faces the constant difficulty of distinguishing between what is actually God's will (or a serious moral issue) and what is mere social convention.  C.S. Lewis addresses this issue beautifully on the subject of sexual ethics.  All Christians in all societies, he argues, should dress modestly and not provocatively, and may be straightforward in their speech, but not prurient.  But how to tell modest from immodest dress, or direct from prurient speech, is extremely culture-bound.  His advice is to follow the accepted mores of one's culture, regardless of what they are.  This can be particularly difficult when they are rapidly changing.  In that case, he recommends assuming the best about others so long as such an assumption is sustainable.  If Lewis were to look at the Religious Right today, he would presumably agree with them in condemning sex outside of marriage, and regarding homosexuality as a perversion.  But he would disagree that these goals can be achieved only by specific social conventions.

But if discerning God's will in individual conduct is difficult and dangerous, in politics and public policy it is vastly more so.  Again, any religious conservative would do well to heed C.S. Lewis on this.  Christianity does not endorse any particular political program, nor are the clergy the best specialists in coming up with one.  His own proposal for what a Christian society would look like would be one in which everyone worked for a living, making something useful, and there was no conspicuous consumption or status goods.  It would be hierarchical, with everyone obeying and deferring to their natural superiors.  And it would be joyful, rejecting worry or anxiety.  One can argue with him on any of these, but his basic point -- that Christian social policy is about general goals of what society should look like, no any particular concrete step to achieve them -- is sound.  Too often, today's religious conservatives assume that certain policies -- or worse, certain politicians -- are either wholly good or wholly evil, either the work of God or the Devil.  This leaves no room for the normal business of politics -- negotiation and compromise, often on matters of little or no intrinsic moral significance.

It is the assumption that God intends a certain social order or, worse, specific policies or politicians, that is what I mean by treating politics or policy as a branch of theology.

Next:  Pre-Enlightenment Conservatism

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