By Tom Krattenmaker
As if we harbored any last doubts, we now have statistical evidence of a truth that’s seems more obvious by the year. “God” appears 12 times in the Republican platform this election season and just once in the Democrats’.
Couple this with the rhetoric of the candidates and GOP enthusiasts, and it seems clearer than ever that Republicans, the party of tax cuts for the wealthy and up-by-your-own-bootstraps regard for the poor, is the God party, the Christian party, in American politics.
If you’re like me, you have often puzzled over the combination of Christianity and hard-edged conservative politics and, like many progressives, you’ve probably asked how a religion of love, compassion and selflessness could lead to the positions and tactics that seem so at odds with what we think about Jesus.
Allow me to answer the question — by rejecting its premise.
Consider the very real possibility that Christianity is not what fuels Republican politics but rather that the two co-exist in today’s conservative movement, as they do in the hearts and minds of its members.
Not to say that GOP positions are untethered from Christian ideas and teachings. You’ll invariably find religious conservatives citing chapter and verse in their justifications for policy stands against gay marriage, for instance, or for keeping government hands off our wallets and religious practices.
But as surveys reveal, when it comes to some of the most contentious political issues of recent years — torture, for example, or the kind of safety net the country will provide for our poorest citizens — Christian Republicans tend to base their politics on factors other than the Bible.
A 2010 poll by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life found just 12% of white evangelicals indicating that their religious beliefs have a major influence on their views on immigration policy. Similarly, just 13% say the same thing about their views about government aid to the poor.
Other polls find that white evangelicals are more likely than other demographic groups to support the use of torture on terrorist suspects.
As progressive Christian author Greg Garrett writes, “We tend to make political — and other — decisions not out of Christianity’s highest values like compassion, generosity and responsibility, but out of secular American values like self-reliance, self-interest and acquisition.”
For secularists with a grudge against Christians, it’s easy to play the “hypocrite” card here. Aren’t the surveys confirming that the Christianity we see in conservative politics is only for show?
There’s a show element, for sure. But to say it’s only that is to grossly oversimplify the complex mix of beliefs, ideas and identities that go into the political dynamics we see on the campaign trails.
On the problem of poverty, for instance, progressives may sneer that Christian conservatives are clueless or engaging in mere lip service when they explain their favored solutions: charity, churches, a growing economy. But to charge them with having a cold, unchristian heart is to sling opinion, not fact.
When you think about it, what’s remarkable about conservative Christians’ political behavior is how unremarkable it is. Whether we are liberal or conservative, secular or religious, those of us who always act out of high principle can cast the first stone. (To state the obvious, liberals can be disappointingly human in their own ways. More times than I can count, I have seen white progressives say all the right things about racial justice but seem to forget their commitment when the opportunity comes to take inconvenient action.)
Hypocrites? The fairer, more accurate label is “human.”
But here’s the catch. When Christian Republicans carry on as though their political positions are automatically superior, somehow imbued with divine approval and above reproach or argument — when they act as though you’re against God if you’re against them — they make a poor case for their politics and their faith.
The election season furnishes no shortage of examples. Consider the anti-Obama ad hatched by the political action committee associated with Christian conservative Gary Bauer that has been running in North Carolina. A fictional husband and wife wax indignant over the way the president is “forcing” gay marriage on the country. The solution? Choose the ticket “with values,” the husband declares as the words “Vote Romney/Ryan” flash on the screen — as if to say that President Obama and his supporters have no values or, as Christian conservatives often charge, are snubbing their nose at God.
If benefit of the doubt is to be given, this kind of pious haughtiness simply won’t fly. And if pious partisans want to speak more convincingly to the unconvinced and show what’s compelling about Jesus and the GOP, they’ll get a better hearing if they dismount from their high horses and come down to where the rest of us humans live.
Tom Krattenmaker is a member of USA TODAY’s Board of Contributors and author of The Evangelicals You Don’t Know, to be released this spring.