Christian Conservatives and Religious Freedom

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In earlier article on religious freedom in the United States, I dealt with attitudes of both secular and religious leftists, and how those groups have conspired to undermine freedom of religion both in the USA and abroad. While the left has actively engaged to destroy such freedom for more than a century, the so-called religious right also has its skeletons in the closet, something that I will point out in this article.

As a member of a conservative Presbyterian denomination, I hold to those "conservative" items of the faith such as the historical Christian doctrines on the divinity of Christ, the resurrection, and the inerrancy of the Bible. I am also what one would call "pro-life" when it comes to abortion, and especially the ultra liberal abortion laws in the USA. It would seem, then, that my outlook would mirror the political and social worldview that is attributed to the "religious right," but nothing could be farther from the truth. In fact, I believe that much of the political agenda of Christian conservatives is as harmful to our society as the near-totalitarianism push by the left.

Before dealing with the present state of Christian conservatism, however, I would like to look back to the 19th Century, where the present conservative agenda struck its roots. In the post-Civil War era and after the publication of Charles Darwin’s Origin of Species, the liberal-conservative splits began to manifest themselves.

On one side, the liberals who accepted the theory of evolution also rejected many of the historical tenets of Christianity and turned towards what would be called the "Social Gospel" in which attention would be turned towards creating a "Heaven on earth." Conservatives (or fundamentalists), on the other hand, rejected evolution, held fast to inerrancy of the Bible, and began to emphasize an otherworldly agenda in which the salvation of souls and separation from the "sinful" social practices of American society, with an emphasis upon temperance.

It would have seemed that the religious conservatives and the adherents to the Social Gospel had little in common, but unfortunately, that was not the case. Both groups embraced large portions of Progressivism and especially Prohibition. Where both groups found their political apex was in the 1896 U.S. Presidential candidacy of Democratic Progressive William Jennings Bryan, who was both a political radical and a Christian fundamentalist.

The marriage of Progressivism with its emphasis upon destruction of the decentralized federal system, economic regulation, and the creation of an imperialistic agenda in foreign policy issues to Christian fundamentalism with its emphasis upon Godly living and separation from society at first would seem to be a shotgun wedding. However, the goals of both groups were remarkably similar in many ways.

Not only did Progressivists and fundamentalists embrace Prohibition, but they also had a view of the United States as a beacon to the world. Progressivists emphasized things like democracy and the power of the state to create a utopia-like society. Fundamentalists, on the other hand, did not believe that original sin would permit the creation of utopia, but nevertheless came to see the United States as a "chosen" land tantamount to a new Israel — and Prohibition fit nicely into such a worldview. Thus, while fundamentalists and liberals could not be joined theologically, they did help to create a coalition that would launch one of the great disasters in the history of "social experiments."

Unfortunately, Prohibition was not the only disastrous right-left coalition. Both religious conservatives and liberals endorsed the U.S. entry into World War I. (See Murray N. Rothbard’s Journal of Libertarian Studies article, "World War I as Fulfillment" to better understand this statist religious coalition.)

A telling story belongs, ironically, to the most decorated U.S. soldier in World War I, Alvin C. York of Fentress County, Tennessee. Shortly before the USA entered the war in 1917, York had converted to Christianity and when the USA joined the effort, he originally declared himself a conscientious objector. However, his minister convinced him that defeating the "Hun" was part of God’s Righteous Cause.

When Prohibition crashed in flames in the early 1930s, religious conservatives had no other "winning" causes and with the Great Depression and Franklin Roosevelt’s direct appeal to low-income voters, fundamentalists as an organized entity did not enter the realm of politics again for a long time. For the most part, they were fully supportive of the U.S. efforts in the Cold War to stand up against "godless" communism, but had no open political agendas of their own, except to be loyal to "God and country."

That hiatus from politics changed with the cultural revolution of the 1960s, opposition to the Vietnam War, and the attempts by liberals — religious and secular — to force a new social agenda through the power of the federal government. It was one thing for homosexual and feminist activists to present their views within public forums; it was quite another for those groups to create and commandeer federal agencies to impose their viewpoints upon unwilling parties through force of law.

During the 1960s and 1970s, three events helped to galvanize the once politically lethargic fundamentalists. The first was the U.S. Supreme Court’s decisions to outlaw prayer in public schools. The second was the Democratic nomination of George McGovern in 1972, which combined the leftist elements — including those hostile to fundamentalist Christianity — into a national campaign. And the third event was the Supreme Court’s 1973 decisions in Roe v. Wade and Doe v. Bolton to outlaw legal restrictions by states for abortion on demand.

The last Democratic presidential candidate to receive a large number of votes from conservative Christians was Jimmy Carter, a "born again" Southern Baptist who was open about his Christian faith. It did not take long, however, for many religious conservatives to turn against Carter after it became clear they had no clout with his administration — and that the Democrats permanently were wedded to abortion on demand and the anti-prayer in school policies.

The Carter presidency also reflected the social insecurity felt by many fundamentalists who throughout the 20th Century became more and more socially marginalized. The oft-asked question, "Is there a Christian in the White House?" (that Christianity Today asked about Gerald Ford) demonstrated the desire among conservative Christians to have representation — any representation — in the nation’s capital.

By 1980, Christian conservatives were becoming politically organized for the first time since the early 1900s. Jerry Falwell formed the "Moral Majority," and Pat Robertson of the charismatic 700 Club began to devote more and more of his show to political issues. Carter’s general unpopularity and Ronald Reagan’s direct appeal to the Christian right swept large numbers of evangelicals into the Republican Party, where for the most part they have remained (except for the support of many religious conservatives for Ross Perot in 1992). Since then, religious conservatives have been an important marginal faction for Republicans, providing enough votes for them to change the fortunes of that party.

While the fortunes of the various organized groups like the Moral Majority (which Falwell disbanded) and the Christian Coalition have been up and down, it is clear that religious conservatives are generally supportive of a political agenda that includes the following: a "strong" armed forces (and unqualified support for U.S. attacks on other countries like Bosnia and Iraq), stringent anti-drug laws, repeal of Roe v. Wade, expanded use of state-sponsored executions, and prayer in public schools.

While I believe individuals are entitled to their own beliefs, I also think that the problem here is that religious conservatives — like their leftist counterparts — are pushing a nationalized program. In other words, they look to strengthen the powers of the federal government in pursuing their own agendas, which has had the effect — unintended or not — in seriously reducing liberty in this country.

Take the drug laws, for example. Religious conservatives believe that since some drugs can be harmfully addictive, they should be outlawed, and that the federal government that should be carrying most of the law enforcement water. As people continued to take drugs after Nancy Reagan’s "Just Say No" program kicked into gear, the Christian right and other conservatives demanded even tougher laws and more stringent penalties, and it is this social element that is clearly in favor of the most draconian aspects of the modern prosecutorial state, including expanded asset forfeiture laws that permit government to seize private property on the flimsiest of pretenses.

In fact, the "law and order" mentality of Christian conservatives (who appeal to Romans 13 to give near carte blanche to government law enforcement powers) is an important reason why the USA imprisons a quarter of the world’s prisoners (two million out of eight million). And by supporting those politicians who favor the constant expansion of the prosecutorial state, Christian conservatives have become the unwitting allies in the drive by secularists to curb religious liberties.

I say this because I believe the threats to religious liberties are tied to the continuing deterioration of private property rights, which has come part and parcel with the drug war and the expanded powers given to the federal government. In numerous communities, churches are restricted from many activities by zoning laws and "equal opportunity" laws. For example, a number of states and localities have passed legislation that in effect seize church property by considering some church buildings to be "historical" structures, which means that parishioners at those churches are not permitted to build additions or tear down old buildings to make new ones. As the courts continue to side with governments, anti-religious elements in government have become bolder and more abusive in dealing with Christians, and especially those of the conservative variety.

Many Christians are taking note of increased harassment by state authorities, but more often than not their reaction is to appeal to an even stronger — and more centralized — government. Like people on the left, the bulk of lobbying efforts by conservative Christian groups is concentrated in Washington, D.C., as these folks continue their efforts to nationalize their agenda. Whether they are calling for even stricter drug laws or laws forbidding certain abortion procedures, the Christian right seems to believe that the True Answer is found through concentration of state power.

It is, I believe, a self-defeating strategy. The growth of the central state will ultimately mean less religious freedom, and by not strongly defending private property rights, these Christians are undercutting the very institutions that would increase their freedom to practice their religion unmolested.

One also should not overlook the overwhelming support of the Christian right for the U.S. invasion of Iraq, another fiasco that destroys American credibility abroad and divides the public at home. Just because President George W. Bush is open about his Christianity does not mean that Christians should give him carte blanche when it comes to invading and bombing other countries that were not at war with us in the first place.

Instead, we have conservative Christians "standing by their man" just as the religious liberals stood behind the immoral and dishonest Bill Clinton. The difference, however, is that religious liberals are quite open about their desire to restrict the rights of those who disagree with them, and about their support of policies that destroy private property rights.

Yes, conservative Christians do not support the sexual agenda of the religious left, yet when it comes to private property rights and the growth of the authoritarian central state, it seems as though these two supposedly disparate groups are walking in near lockstep. This ultimately undermines freedom — and especially religious freedom — for everyone in our society.

June 12, 2003

William L. Anderson, Ph.D. [send him mail], teaches economics at Frostburg State University in Maryland, and is an adjunct scholar of the Ludwig von Mises Institute.

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