Christianity is a propositional faith grounded in the claim that the historic person Jesus of Nazareth was also God incarnate. Its influence on America’s founding was pronounced and its benefits to the world — social, economic, political — have been and remain immense.
Conservatism, properly defined, recognizes that the state cannot bring eternal redemption or recreate man’s nature through economic conditions or compelling conformity to state-given directives (witness the “New Soviet Man” if one wants to gaze upon a myth). Christianity recognizes that man is fallen, and thus that as Edmund Burke argued, liberty must be both active and ordered. It teaches that property is to be respected (“you shall not steal,” Exodus 20:15), that government and the church have distinct duties (“Render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s,” Mark 12:17), and that these duties are specific (for example, government is to “bear the sword” and punish crime, per Romans 13:1-7; the church is to spread the Gospel, per Acts 1:8).
Christianity also recognizes the primacy of the pre-governmental institutions of individual personhood and the family in which he lives. Governments exist to sustain and strengthen both personal virtue and dignity and also marriage and children. These affirmations are inherent to any conservative conception of governance and society.
The personal ethics of Jesus are designed for individuals and the church, not the state. The Sermon on the Mount was not a political manifesto but a call to the internal intensification of God’s moral law and its application to those who follow Him. There is no biblical mandate for redistribution of justly-earned property. Socialism is the state presuming for itself the wisdom of God: Judging who is worthy to own what and when. This is pretense, not justice.
At the same time, the Bible calls on government to do justice: “He who oppresses the poor,” writes Solomon, “shows contempt for his Maker” (Proverbs14:31), and given government’s charge to practice righteousness (I Peter 2:14), government fails in one of its most fundamental duties when it does not defend the weak and punish their exploiters. To carry this into a realm foreign to biblical mandates, namely the sphere of state-mandated economic outcomes, is to leap from the defense of the persecuted to the persecution of the unoffending.
Government action that “rewards the good” (Romans 13) effectively is a matter not of program but prudence: Tax structures that honor labor, enhance opportunity, create prosperity, and respect property are commensurate with biblical norms and provide a welcome life for ordinary citizens.
Such an approach is also consistent with another Scriptural principle, that the effectiveness of any action is one of the determinants of its moral value. Socialism has produced more oppression than any injustice it has ever sought to remedy. Ninety miles off the coast of the U.S., a “socialist paradise” called Cuba allows its people the luxury of driving in endlessly repaired 1950s cars while its leading junta lolls in post-capitalist excess. Socialism proves nothing if not, as Orwell argued, that under the dictatorship of the proletariat, some animals really are more equal than others.
Christianity teaches that private property is a moral good, sanctioned by God. To seize what has been lawfully earned and what is lawfully owned violates the 8th and 10th commandments. Suggesting that the state has the right to redistribute income or resources confers upon it an authority the Bible reserves to God.
Christianity exalts human dignity. Image-bearers of God (Genesis 1:26-27) have worth bestowed upon them by their Creator, and as such have rights intrinsic to their beings. Among them are life, liberty and the “pursuit of happiness” — a phrase Jefferson employed, in part, because he and his colleagues believed that “happiness” (in the classical sense of a life defined by virtue) is impossible unless one’s person and possessions — one’s property — are sacrosanct.
The Founders argued that natural law — what the Apostle Paul called “the law written on the heart” (Romans 2:14) — and divine revelation, as enscripturated in the Bible, provide the only firm basis for a just, moral, and free society. Their writings about these things are extensive and readily available.
The Bible’s commands about generosity are so many that an exposition of them is beyond the scope of this article. It is sufficient to note that Scripture calls Christians to imitate the generosity of God, a God Who “spared not His own Son but delivered Him up for us all” (Romans 8:32). Pretty high standard of giving, that.
And that’s why Christians throughout history have cared for those most in need in every way they can, from protecting abandoned infants in the days of Rome to defending the unborn and their vulnerable mothers today; from opening clinics in the slums of Kolkata to caring for AIDS orphans in sub-Saharan Africa; from standing with those persecuted for their faith in China to protecting religious liberty here at home. Name the need; you will find Christians seeking to meet it.
The hallmark of Christian faith is love: Love for God and for people, love for truth and for justice. Love is gracious but not insipid, compassionate but not tolerant of wrong. Jesus, writes the Apostle John, was “full of grace and truth” (John 1:14). It is this unique wedding of mercy and justice that Christians seek to bring to the public square, and which animates their conservatism as they serve and advocate in Washington and around the nation.
Rob Schwarzwalder, Sr. Vice President, Family Research Council, has been Chief of Staff to two Members of Congress and is a member of the Evangelical Theological Society.