Conservativism vs Humanitarianism In Church Theology [1]

For decades, perhaps centuries, it was taken for granted that the wealthy and powerful of society were aligned with conservative political interests. This expectation has been largely captured in old-school political parties like the Tories in the UK, Republicans in the US, and in New Zealand, the National Party and latterly New Conservatives. However, recent shifts in political allegiances have made it clear that cannot be taken for granted any longer. A recent post in “Christian Today” (a UK evangelical website) authored by David Robertson, contributing editor, proclaims boldly that “Woke capitalism is a threat to the world and the church”. Apparently, there is no threat at all to the world from conservative capitalism, but there is from this so-called “woke” capitalism. With respect the old saying comes to mind – this is essentially the pot calling the kettle black.

Just as it was previously taken for granted that wealth and power would naturally align itself with conservative political interests, it was also taken for granted that Christian faith would also be aligned with these same political causes. In evangelicalism today, particularly in the United States of America but also elsewhere in the Western world, such as in the UK, Australia and New Zealand, there is a strongly conservative political trend, but it is most commonly felt amongst white people in most of these countries, and less so amongst black or ethnic minority groups (in NZ, the Maori or Pasifika population), which tend to have a greater level of political allegiance to parties of the Left. The problem, of course, with declared political allegiances, is that the church itself becomes politicised, and people who hold different political views from the church that they are a part of, begin to feel unwelcome in that church. This issue is currently becoming a major dividing force in denominations like the Southern Baptist Convention in the USA.

It should be highly entertaining to readers of this blog to read the article on “Christian Today” which goes to great lengths to list all of the negative and harmful influences of “woke capitalism” whilst sidestepping the question of whether any such influences would have occurred as a result of the activities of conservative capitalists. In other words the article has to be read with the understanding of unconscionable bias towards conservatism and therefore the inability of the author to admit any possible harm to the world or the Christian faith from the beliefs of political conservatives.

In the real world however, political conservatism enjoys a less-than-unanimous level of support even in the evangelical Christian community, although it can still be reliably assume that in the US more than 60% of white evangelicals will vote for the Republican Party; the level is considerably lower amongst blacks, but not zero. This is simply because in that country at least, political conservatism is justifiably viewed as having a very questionable track record on the basis of human rights. In fact the same is probably true of all the countries mentioned above, and many others which are in the English-speaking or “western” spheres. The key reason why Christians are so inclined to align with political conservatism in most countries is because they wish to see policies in place that oppose legislative change on matters that they feel the government should be involved in, such as abortion and euthanasia. However, the issue is that conservative Christians have a view that a government should be inherently limited in scope to a small range of activities, such as operating a legal and defense system, and not much else. This is certainly the case in the USA, where social services and legal safeguards such as we enjoy in NZ, Australia and the UK are often absent especially in some states. This is the key reason why conservative political interests in the US have earned a bad name for themselves worldwide, as rightly or wrongly, money and power are seen as key imperatives for political priorities to the exclusion of other considerations. Political conservatism in the US has been historically and still is today associated with racial discrimination, economic and social marginalisation and voter suppression, among other key concerns.

In a country like New Zealand, there are two broad political approaches that Christians can take. The very common viewpoint of most conservatives is that the key moral imperatives that exist are in areas such as abortion and euthanasia. There is no inherent obligation of any Christian believer, or by implication of any government, to any other person. On the other hand, the humanitarian Christian perspective emphasises that it is everyone’s responsibility to help others, and that the Government should be empowered to ensure this. (These positions are necessarily simplified, and it is accepted that not everyone holds exactly the same viewpoint, but they are at least a starting point for conversations about faith based approaches to politics.) The main concern is that the theological basis for the conservative perspective is largely driven by an assumption that Christians should enjoy a privileged position in society, and perhaps to a lesser extent, that nations should be Christian based (a widespread belief in the US). Whereas in reality, the fact is that Christians in most countries are members of secular societies, and do not have a right to assert any particular kind of privilege over other citizens. The conservative Christian viewpoint essentially comes across as a highly judgemental view of the world, in which no Christian should be compelled to pay taxes to support ungodly or immoral activities. If large numbers of people die of starvation or disease who are not Christians, that is God’s judgement on them.

Humanitarians, on the other hand, could charge that Christians with such a conservative political outlook have embraced worldly and material pursuits such as financial wealth and riches, with little concern for how they obtain them, such as whether they have exploited others to get them. The predominant concern of humanitarians is to change systems in society that oppress people. Conservatives may focus on helping poor people, but not on changing society. This is because by and large, conservatives realise that the agency most able to bring about change in society is a government, and they want government to remain small and stay out of regulating people’s personal lives and choices. Humanitarians, on the other hand, recognise that governments have the ability to mandate change that is beneficial to the whole of society, rather than one particular group. There has been a great deal of humanitarian effort in the Church towards a more just society, with a range of examples throughout different countries, many of them focused on improving democratic representation of different groups so that they are able to vote and have their vote valued equally with those of others. Traditional conservatism in places like the United Kingdom did not favour a democratic election system such as we would consider normal today. Hence, there were the entrenched class stratifications of lords and serfs in feudal society that gradually was overturned when the government of that country transitioned from absolutist monarchy to representative democracy.

Much controversy naturally revolves around the particular brand of Christian politics that is called Nationalism, which got quite a showing in the United States in the brief insurrection at the Washington Capitol on January 6th, 2021. This is essentially the set of beliefs that the government of a country should be by way of a theocracy, or essentially a one party state ruled by Christians. It is no real surprise to find that this is a branch of conservative politics, alleged to be Biblical in its intent. The key problem with a Christian Nationalist view of politics is that it essentially denies the citizens of the country a free choice in their belief. As far as orthodox theological beliefs go, a choice of commitment to Christian faith and belief must be seen as a personal choice, and a free one at that. Hence, imposing a theocratic form of government would clearly carry the implication that such choice is denied. As commented on at some length in a previous series of articles, the main issue in adherence to faith that would be posed by the removal of free choice, as is the case with Christian nationalism but also with countries which have a State church and some other type of government, is that nominalism would be rife. If the aim of such governance would be the intention to build the church by imposing top-down beliefs, it could be expected that this would not be as successful as is the case in countries where Christian faith has a less privileged existence.

Here is the article in Christian Today