... Is it really possible?
There is a great myth that pervades our culture, and this is the myth of the “conservative christian.” Now, while it is certainly true that there are people, many, many people, who claim to be such a thing, the question is; Are they?
Admittedly, I have my own personal disagreements with both christianity and conservatism. However, that is not really the issue here. My point is not to argue against either conservatism or christianity, but instead to show how completely incompatible the two truly are. Setting aside any outside arguments, are these two extremely influential ideologies even remotely compatible? I will argue that they are not.
The major reason that these two mutually antagonistic ideologies exist in such common collusion today is through an outright distortion of the more malleable of the two, christianity. It should be patently obvious to anyone who examines the two belief systems that there are fewer sets of beliefs that are less “christian” than contemporary American conservatism, yet an overwhelming majority of conservatives identify themselves as christian, and a very large percentage of christians identify themselves as conservative. However, when it comes to taking a stance on any number of contemporary social, political or economic issues, “conservative christians” invariably take a stance that is very certainly conservative, but as equally certainly not “christian” at all.
If you consider yourself christian, you adhere to the belief that Jesus of Nazareth was the son of god. This is the crucible of the faith. There have been many debates among christians dating back millenia about what precisely this means, debates about faith and good works, predestination, etc. These don't concern us here. The only question that does is this; can one truly call them self “christian” if they claim to “believe” in Jesus (whatever that means) but do very little to adhere to his teachings or emulate his life? I don't believe that you can.
Further, as I have said before, if you are christian, the words of Jesus are the trump card. Whatever the son of god says ought carry far more weight than anything the disciples, apostles or anyone else said, especially that vindictive, misogynistic fibber Paul. So I won't waste my time sifting through the words of anyone other than Jesus, and also don't consider anything anyone else says that seems to contradict what Jesus taught to have any authority whatsoever.
Now, one of the fascinating (fascinating like a train-wreck or natural disaster is fascinating) things about religious belief is that it isn't really based on much of anything. So even when you present someone who is religious with something as simple as “Thou shalt not kill,” they find all sorts of ways to excuse it if the person, or tens of thousands of people, they want to kill are of a different color, religion, economic class or creed. I know, weird, huh? You wouldn't think there would be much room for debate on that one, but they always wiggle their way out of it. So much of what I say here will fall on the deaf ears of many conservative “christians”, since they already have their own fabricated, completely-unsupported-by-Jesus'-teachings justifications for believing what they believe.
So, to get down to business, what do contemporary American conservatives believe, and what does Jesus have to say about these beliefs? Would he agree? Would he do the same things? In other words, WWJD? (Or as the bumper-sticker says, Who Would Jesus Bomb?) As much as conservatives love doctrine, as it gives them something to rigidly adhere to without ever having to waste a lot of time thinking, even among conservatives, there are some disagreements. There is no single, codified “conservative doctrine” that I can cite from. So instead, I am forced to make some statements that are broad generalizations, but I nevertheless stand behind these as reflecting what the majority of people who consider themselves “conservative christian” really do believe. (There are plenty of other types of conservatives, such as libertarians (which isn't really conservative at all, but whatever) who I'm not talking about here.)
First of all, conservatives claim to believe in a limited role of government. They believe government should stay out of peoples live, but ironically, they really only feel this way when it comes to matters pecuniary. They want the government to keep it's grubby hands off their money, but they actually push government interference in almost every other aspect of life. They believe government should interfere in citizen's decisions when it comes to issues of marriage (gay marriage), birth (abortions), death (assisted suicide), education (“under god,” prayer and creationism in schools). In short, conservatives want the government to tell people what to do, in virtually every aspect of our lives, except when it comes to the money that, of course, is printed by, and bears the name of, the U.S. Government.
Which of course, was Jesus' prescient point, was it not? “Render unto Caesar what is Caesar's and render unto god what is god's.” (Matthew 22:21) There is no ambiguity here, no room for interpretation. Jesus' message is clear, pay your taxes. Now, some conservatives might say, “I do pay my taxes, I just think we should have fewer of them.” Well, the next verse didn't say, “But petition your rulers to lower tax rates.” He even says that the tax-collectors (along with prostitutes) will be among the first to enter the kingdom of heaven. (Matthew 21:31)
But how did Jesus feel about governmental authority, any kind of institutional authority in other areas of life? He was pretty clearly against it, in every way. Jesus' career as a preacher is the story of one man taking on institutional interference in people's lives. In his day, this was represented by the Pharisees and the Sadducees, an unholy mixture of priest and lawyer (I know, can you even imagine? Awful. I shudder at the thought.) On the issue of judging the moral lives of others, Jesus was, again, unambiguously clear. When the adulterous woman was brought to him by the pharisees, and they asked if she should be punished by stoning according to the Law, his famous response was, of course, “Let he who is without sin cast the first stone.” (John 8:7) The question of interference in the quasi-moral (nearly always sexual) decisions of others is precisely what drives conservatives to demand government interference in its citizens' lives, from cradle to grave. It is precisely this type of interference that Jesus despised most. It wasn't that Jesus was a moral relativist, he simply left the judging of private actions up to god. Most interesting, in this particular passage, is the fact that Jesus was, according to christians, himself without sin, so he had every right to cast the first stone. He declined. Not exactly blowing up abortion clinics, was he?
Conservatives are also generally against any kind of government-run or sponsored social program that helps the poor, needy, mentally disabled, drug-users, prostitutes or any other social outcasts. Of course, these were precisely who Jesus spent all of his time preaching to, who he spent all of his time associating with, and of course, helping. The passages here are two numerous to cite, but whether it is helping the mentally ill (“driving out demons”) in Matthew 17, rubbing elbows with whores or the hated tax-collectors (Matthew 21), feeding the hungry with the fishes and loaves (Mark 6), restoring sight to the blind (Mark 8:28) or mobility to the lame (Luke 5) or curing lepers (Mark 1) Jesus was all about helping people out, especially people with Cadillac health plans and plenty of money in the bank... oh wait, what? He never asked for payment? He didn't care if they were poor? Huh...
Jesus apparently did not think that wealth should be a precondition to freedom from unnecessary suffering. Jesus specifically went out of his way to heal the poor, as every single one of the unfortunates mentioned above was. One of the reasons for this is that back then, just like now, illness or disability made you poor. Jesus recognized that health was essential to a productive life, and so he restored it wherever he went, regardless of the person's ability to pay. Now, unfortunately, no one roams the streets of our nation with the ability to lay on hands and cure any ailment. Now it takes money. Yet, conservatives insist that we perpetuate a system that precludes care to those who need it most in favor of those who can pay the most. This is disgusting, and among the most unchristian of all conservative beliefs.
We come to the next major area where conservatism and christianity are in utter disagreement- violence. Conservatives nearly always support military action as a justifiable, if not preferable solution, to nearly any political disagreement. Jesus was clearly a pacifist. In no instance does he advocate violence in any way, and violence of any kind is of course in direct contradiction to his one truly moral injunction to, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you,” (Matthew 7:12) since no one would wish violence on themselves (not malicious violence, anyway.) In more explicit terms of course we have Luke 6:29, where he directs his followers, “If someone strikes you upon the right cheek, I say turn the other to him as well.” Not even in self-defense does Jesus advocate violence. Once again, there is no room for interpretation here. Violence is unequivocally un-christian, no matter the excuse.
Did he practice what he preached? In the only example of violent confrontation in the gospels, in the garden of Gethsemane, when Peter draws his sword in his teacher's defense, and strikes off the slave's ear, Jesus magically puts it back on and rebukes Peter. (Luke 22:49-51) Beyond an obvious rejection of violence, even in self-defense, this could also be read, without much of a stretch, as the only word Jesus has to say on the Second Amendment.
The Second Amendment is, of course, conservatism's favorite amendment, and the only one many of them would keep, if they had their druthers. In the gospels' only instance of citizen's carrying weaponry, Jesus is pretty clearly against it. He doesn't rebuke Peter for having a sword, but if he rebukes him for using it, what is the difference? We have already seen that he forbids violence even in self-defense, or even, as in the garden, of someone you love, so what would be the point of carrying weapons which your faith disallows the use of?
Also, to return to an afore mentioned passage, John 8:7 (such an instructional little tale, with so many uses), the warning against casting the first stone, we can clearly see that Jesus was against state-perpetrated violence as well, i.e. the death penalty, something else conservatives overwhelmingly favor which is completely contradictory to their savior's teachings. The list just keeps growing...
Conservatives love money. A sign of a truly moral life, a sign of god's favor, is earthly wealth. Conservatives are very much in support of corporate power and freedom, against taxes on the rich, and generally celebrate the financial success of anyone who also appears to be christian.
Jesus however, did not love money. In another completely unambiguous teaching he declared, “It is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven.” (Mark 10:25) Not really much room for argument here. While theologians and biblical scholars love to argue about the nuances and translations and interpretations (they have to justify their existence somehow), Jesus point is clear: It is very, very hard to follow me, to be christian, if you are rich. The accumulation of earthly wealth is antithetical to being a christian.
Another place where Jesus reveals his feelings on the subject of money is when he overturns the tables of the money lenders in the temple. (Matthew 21:12) He clearly has no toleration for any mixing of faith and wealth.
In his sermon on "the lilies of the field," (Matthew 6:24-34) Jesus further reminds his followers that accumulation of earthly wealth goes against the principles of his teachings, since "no one can serve two masters," i.e. money and god. It is quite plain that not only did Jesus not advocate the pursuit of earthly wealth, he declared it positively sinful.
Jesus said nothing about sex. Whoa, wait... what? Yes, for all of the of the sexual puritanism of the last 2,000 years, Jesus said nothing about sex. Paul had an awful lot to say about sex, but Jesus, nothing. Again, if Jesus didn't get too worked up about it, how on earth does Paul become the authority? Did god “forget” to deliver some of the big stuff through his son (himself... weird)? If it was half as big a deal as christians make it out to be, shouldn't we expect that Jesus would have said something?
The only thing that Jesus does say that remotely touches on the subject of sex is to forbid divorce, unless the wife (only the wife, of course) is unfaithful, which he does four times (Matthew 5 and 19, Mark 10 and Luke 16). Jesus describes marrying another after divorce as the equivalent of adultery, which he clearly is still opposed to. I bring this up for a few reasons. First, because this is the only place we get any direction from Jesus on the subject of sex. He says nothing, nothing at all about homosexual sex or premarital sex, even though these are the two biggest demons of all, according to his supposed followers. The only thing he warns against is divorce, which of course, isn't a sex act at all, but because he equates it with adultery, which is a sex act. Through this moral math, he clearly is opposed to adultery, but not nearly as strongly as others of his day, as we saw (once again) in John 8:7. Most conservatives are ostensibly opposed to divorce and adultery, though studies show they commit these at no lower a rate than any of the rest of us. However, I think it would be rare to find a conservative who would rate divorce a greater sin than premarital sex or homosexual sex (a catholic might), even though Jesus very clearly forbids the former and has nothing at all to say about either of the others.
Conservatives are all about family values. That is pretty much their platform, and the rest of us supposedly hate families, hate kids, hate our parents and simply want to destroy their notion of “family values” out of spite. Conservatives use this crude club of “family values” to attempt to interfere in other people's lives in all sorts of ways, whenever they get a whiff of homosexuality, homosexual marriage, single-parenthood, out-of-wedlock cohabitation, premarital sex, polyamory (consenting adults having or sharing other lovers), or anything else that doesn't fit their extremely narrow view of marriage and family.
However, Jesus wasn't all that big into “family values,” believe it or not. In Mark 3:31-35, when told his mother and brothers were waiting outside while he was preaching, he replies, “Who are my mother and my brothers? I tell you, those who do the will of god are my mother and my brothers.” (“Dad” is never mentioned again, after his childhood.) Also, in Matthew 10:34-37 he explains how he “has come to set man against his father, and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law; a man's enemies will be members of his own household.” Jesus didn't really care about nuclear families or people's living arrangements, and, as we saw above, he didn't really care about what body parts touched what other body parts. To Jesus, association with those of similar ideological beliefs was “family.” Nothing else is really a factor.
How on Earth...?
Exactly. How on Earth did conservative “christians” come up with all these things they believe when they are clearly so opposed by everything their savior teaches? A long historical explanation would be out of place here, but it does, in many ways, date back to a time when the word of god was not written in the language of the people and the common citizen (subject, really, back then, which is what they would have us be today, not free to guide our own lives) had to rely on a self-interested priesthood for access to “truth.” Even with the translation of the Bible into the vernacular and the emergence of a self-reliant protestantism, many of these archaic beliefs stuck, because, and as an English teacher I can attest to this, most people are really bad at reading. Also, we of course have confirmation bias. If you grew up being told that being christian meant believing certain things, you're going to assume that that is what the Bible says, whether you actually find it there or not. Which brings us to the final point, which I have mentioned before, that very few people actually bother to read it. Not just the bits and pieces that get recycled every three years through the lectionary and explained from a pulpit, but the whole thing, everything, and thought about, digested and analyzed with your own mind.
Once again, I am not (here, anyway) arguing against the validity of either christianity or conservatism. I have my disagreements with aspects of both of these, and I find myself in agreement with both of them, from time to time. I am arguing, however, that these two profoundly influential ideologies are mutually exclusive. It is impossible to be both. Despite how proudly many Americans wear this badge, one cannot be both conservative and christian. Since conservatism is so well-defined in relation to contemporary social, political and economic issues, when one claims to be a “conservative christian,” they are really all of the “conservative, and really little, if any, of the “christian.”
It is truly unfortunate, for the rest of us, that they choose the poorer of the two.