Last week, the nation’s capital was host to Value Voters 2013 Summit, a three-day political conference for predominantly religious conservatives. Among the smattering of social and economic issues at hand, the overall tenor of the Summit focused on eliminating Obamacare, expanding the tangible presence of Christianity through the public arena and military and preventing the proliferation of easily available birth control and abortion. In speeches, lunches and breakout sessions, American’s Christian Right worked out strategies to bring the values of the federal government in line with their preferred Christian ethical dictates, using democracy as their chief tool.
It isn’t unusual for Christians living in democracies to use the vote to express their ethics, and to shape government to do the same. That the moral and ethical preferences of a given society should inform government is a foundational principle of democracy, after all. And American values voters are far from the first Christians to undertake the project of bringing their government’s policies in line with Christian ethics: European Christian parties have aimed to do the same for decades. But between American Christian voters and their European counterparts, a curious departure opens up: while European Christians generally see the anti-poverty mission of Christianity as worthy of political action, the American Christian Right inexplicably cordons off economics from the realm of Christian influence.
By all means, the American Christian Right is willing to leverage government authority to carry out a variety of Christian ethical projects, especially within the arena of family life. Michele Bachmann would make abortion illegal, and Rick Santorum has stated on multiple occasions that he supports laws against homosexual intercourse. But Christian politicians in the United States curtail their interest in making the gospel actionable when it comes to welfare. While the government should see to the moral uprightness of marriage, sex and family, the Value Voters 2013 Summit was notably bereft of talks on living wages, labor rights or basic incomes.
The notable exclusion of poverty from the Christian agenda would doubtlessly puzzle European Christians, whose support of Christian ethical approaches to family life have always been paired with a deep and vigorous concern for the poor. And, unlike their American counterparts, European Christians haven’t been willing to leave poverty up to individual charity or the market to handle. Quite the contrary: Just as public morality is an arena fit for intervention by a Christian-informed government, so too is welfare. Consider the British Christian People’s Alliance 2010 election manifesto, a document intended to explain the imminently Christian party’s policy goals:
“The Christian Peoples Alliance believes that Britain will return to economic prosperity when government chooses instead to put human relationships in right order. This requires power, income and wealth to be redistributed and for greater equality to be achieved. These are deeply spiritual convictions and reflect a Biblical pattern of priorities…By the end of the next Parliament, the CPA will establish the reduction of inequality as a national target, so that the ratios of the incomes of the top 20 per cent are reduced to no more than five and a half times the incomes of the bottom 20 per cent.”
The CPA election manifesto goes on to explain that their aversion to inequality arises from a uniquely Christian concern for the health of human relationships, which suffer under the weight of massive social inequality. Their position on inequality is hardly an anomaly among European Christian parties. In fact, the European Christian Political Movement (ECPM), a confederation of Christian parties from different European nations operating within the European Union, states very similar goals in its own programme:
“Social justice is a fundamental Biblical teaching and Christian-democrat notion. Social justice demands an equal regard for all. That implies a special concern for the needs of the poor, refugees, those who suffer and the powerless. It requires us to oppose exploitation and deprivation. It requires also that appropriate resources and opportunities are available. In this way, we meet the basic requirements of all and each person is able to take part in the life of the community.”
Toward that end, the European Christian Political Foundation, which is the official think tank of the ECPM, recently commissioned a publication entitled ‘After Capitalism’, which is summarized thus:
“‘After Capitalism’ seeks to rethink the foundations of a market economy and argues that the Bible’s central theme of relationships is the key to rebuilding a system that promotes economic well-being, financial stability and social cohesion.”
It is notable that the multitude of parties that make up the EPCM are not necessarily leftist or wholly liberal parties. They do not generally align themselves with openly socialist parties in their home countries, though their policies toward welfare and equality would likely be branded as such by American Christians. And so the question remains: If European Christians feel the anti-poverty mission of Christianity is as worthy of political action as the ethical values relating to family life, why doesn’t the American Christian Right feel the same?
Economic policy seems a strange place to wall off consideration of Christian ethics, but when it comes to policies that would expand welfare programs or extend particular benefits to the poor, the American Christian Right recoils, and tends to fall back on the rhetoric of personal accountability and individual liberty in matters of charity. But as European Christian parties have shown, limiting economic justice to the arena of charity is a political choice. If the government has a moral role — which the American Christian Right certainly believes it does — then why shouldn’t it participate in the same forms of care individual Christians are obligated to?
No principled reason can be given for the distinction the Christian Right draws between harnessing the state to pursue social objectives and harnessing it to pursue economic objectives. It is a uniquely American distinction as far as Christian politicking goes. What the distinction reveals is that so-called values voters are just a particular flavor of right-wing political culture, one that opts for Christian language and rhetoric when communicating its message. But in that case, it is their freestanding political commitments that inform their Christianity, not the other way around.
The answer to this riddle is therefore not so mysterious. Although nominally interested in harnessing the state to pursue Christian social objectives, the American Christian Right is not detached from the culture it has developed within. Their politics is not one that is Christian in origin; rather, it originates from the same place all other right-wing politics originates, but mobilizes Christian rhetoric and meanings post-hoc to justify its goals.