The Responsibility of Conservatism

fiscal conservatism & christianityIn last week’s post I considered the tight association between conservatism and Christianity. More than ever before, we are wading into cultural and political territory that is progressively foreign to the America idealized by the religious right. Thus, I emphasized that in the midst of widespread despair and panic amongst Christians, it is critical to fight for what is good and right by standing firm on Biblical principles, not out of a delusional effort to build the Kingdom through the legislation of Christianity. 
The intimate association of conservatism with Christianity has resulted not only in equivocation and varying shades of legalism. It has also raised questions about the consistency and social responsibility of fiscal conservatives who profess faith in Christ.But this result is not a bad thing. Self-evaluating questions need to be asked, hypocrisy needs be brought to light, and Christian conservatives need to understand how to improve their witness and balance fiscal conservatism without neglecting the responsibilities commanded by Christ.

To trace the most recent wave of fiscal fervor amongst conservatives, one need not look much farther back than the fall of 2008. The radical fiscal policies of Barack Obama, most infamously expressed in his exchange with Joe the Plumber, sparked viral outrage amongst conservatives nationwide. Scores of groups used the October bailouts as a permanent litmus test to determine whether their congressmen deserved another term in office, and the violent downturn in the economy brought fresh attention to the nation’s skyrocketing debt. In short, the political and economic inspired Americans to guard their pocketbooks tooth and nail. 
Since then, conservatives have been heavily characterized as heartless, penny-pinching misers pursuing fiscal ideals with almost gnostic devotion. Naturally, because of the tight link discussed in my first post, many Christians are included in this characterization. This cultural impression does not apply universally across the board, as thousands of American Christians are diligently at work showing the love of Christ in their world. But neither is its exaggerative claim necessarily without warrant. 
As a strong fiscal conservative myself, I agree with free market principles. Government spending is not the solution to societal problems; taxpayer money demands stringent use; people should be free to use their money as they see fit; slothfulness deserves no reward. It’s fairly self-evident that abandonment of these ideas badly damages a society, stifles innovation, and increases dependency on the government. 
But fiscal conservatism and Christianity are ideologically incompatible if you take away the most important factor: love. I’m not talking a synthetic, fuzzy universalism that incapacitates your rearview mirror with a plaster of “Coexist” stickers. I mean the kind of love that Christ calls us to exemplify with the sweat of our brows. To be compatible with Christianity at all, fiscal conservatism requires genuine compassion and personal sacrifice for those in need.
Why throw love into the mix? Consider the following reasons. (Note: “Raw fiscal conservatism” describes the extreme: an utter absence of any compassion in fiscal responsibility.) 
1. Raw fiscal conservatism indicates dependence on government. The irony is particularly true in this day and age. Fiscal conservatives, arguing against government spending, point to the swelling number of food stamp recipients, the loose standards governing unemployment benefits, the inadequacies of nationalized health care, the unsatisfactory results of education spending, and a menagerie of other problems. Many of these arguments are indeed well-founded. But take away government funding, and are churches and families equipped and willing to feed the hungry, aid the unemployed, care for the sick, and educate the children? Conservatism without alternatives simply leaves the needy in the government’s hands. If we let government attend to these problems, it is a sure sign that we as the Church have not been active enough in our society all along. 
2. By the same token, raw fiscal conservatism shows a lack of fiscal responsibility. As stated earlier, capitalism operates on the assumption that people know what’s best for them. Therefore, they are best qualified to handle their own money. However, the fiscal conservative who uses none of his God-given resources to voluntarily support others is fiscally irresponsible, however meticulous a bookkeeper he may be—just as we would call a perpetually wasteful spender irresponsible because he is not a good steward of his money. How do we determine who is a “good steward”? He who does not to lay up for himself treasures on earth (Matt. 6:19), who understands that we can carry nothing out of this world (1 Tim. 6:7), and who is “rich in good works, ready to give, willing to share” (1 Tim. 6:18). 
3. Raw fiscal conservatism cheapens human life. Conservatives must beware of the threshold at which fiscal responsibility becomes pure utilitarianism. When in irresolvable conflict, moral values trump fiscal priorities. Let me illustrate by saying that fiscal conservatism without love is pro-abortion. Abort the baby and support Planned Parenthood so it can thrive as a private enterprise, just like oil corporations or banking firms. Abort the baby and save the government thousands, perhaps millions, of dollars over a lifetime. After all, which is technically cheaper for the taxpayers, an abortion for $400 or a life on welfare?
4. Raw fiscal conservatism misrepresents Christ. Supporters of social welfare programs like to quote Matthew 25:40 as a justification for government intervention. But when Christ in His parable of judgment day instructed us to care “for the least of these”, He was drawing contrast to the sheep and the goats at judgment day—those who personally loved and cared for their brethren compared to those who lacked compassion. When fiscally conservative Christians serve only their own interests, they present a Gospel of prosperity. When fiscally conservative Christians sacrifice their energy and resources to serve and love others, however, they live out a Gospel that models the greatest sacrifice of the One Who poured out His blood and laid down His life for them. Raw fiscal conservatism urges the storage of treasure on earth. Fiscal conservatism graced with love and sacrifice is the work of those who have their sights set on Heaven. 
These points thus explored, let me further note a few important disclaimers. 


  • First, I wish to dissolve any implication that generosity and social justice gain us favor in the eyes of God. Charity does not save us; activity does not equal spirituality. Furthermore, sacrificial compassion initiated for anything less than the glory of God—even if helpful to society—is still vain (1 Cor. 13:3). God doesn’t give us kingdom work to make us feel good about ourselves, but to show His power through earthen vessels (2 Cor. 4:7). 
  • Secondly, “raw fiscal conservatism” as described above depicts a worst-case scenario: a penny-pinching attitude devoid of morality or even the slightest compassion for other image-bearers. Just because many Christians are not actively giving away their energy or resources does not mean they are automatically part of this heartless extreme. Again, generosity (or lack of therein) is not a ground for salvation. 
  • Thirdly, it is true that many non-Christians, both liberal and conservative, also actively practice sacrificial compassion, and many of them do even prefer a non-governmental solution. However, I am speaking specifically to and about Christians in the parameters of this post, since fiscal conservatism as practiced by Christians ought to be pursued in a manner glorifying to God. 
  • Fourthly, fiscal conservatism does not have a monopoly on Christianity. Many Christians strongly hold other political and economic viewpoints. I am singling out fiscal conservatism in particular because of its tight association with American Christianity.

On two different occasions I have been asked about the social responsibility of American Christians. The first occurred in a conversation with a Marxist who said that Jesus could not possibly be the solution for the problem of evil in the world because His people didn’t really do anything for a broken society. The second occurred in a conversation with an atheist transvestite who argued that conservatives aren’t really pro-life because they don’t exhibit social responsibility for mothers after they choose not to abort their babies.

These are fair observations. And thus once again I must note the culturally apparent link between conservatives and Christians. If American Christians choose to perpetuate the tight association between their political and religious beliefs, they have a Scriptural obligation to fill the gap with love and compassion. My point is not to denigrate political conservatism or American Christianity, but to show that the principles of a Biblical worldview apply directly and inseparably to the way Christians engage in both politics and their society. If we remain quick to clamor against governmental solutions, then as the body of Christ we must be equally prepared to provide the antidote.


Discussion — One Response

  • Paul Hastings July 19, 2013 on 1:57 pm

    Excellent article from my friend Owen Stroud speaking of the need for both social conservatism *in addition* to fiscal conservatism. If you’re serious about God’s Kingdom on earth this just isn’t something you can separate (yes, controversial… but why be a pansy?).