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The Conservative Landscape

This is an election year, and Christian voters will have to choose a candidate. But how will they decide which candidate to vote for?

  • Roger Schultz,
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This is an election year, and Christian voters will have to choose a candidate. But how will they decide which candidate to vote for?

Voters have become increasingly confused over the meaning of the political labels which they hear in use every day. For Christian voters, the meaning of the label “conservative” can be especially troublesome.

Most of us don’t know it, but the terms “left” and “right” originated during the French Revolution. Radical Jacobins sat on the left side of the Assembly, and conservatives on the right — similar to Matthew 25, where Christ divides the sheep and goats. (On Judgment Day, all Christians will be “right-wingers” — separated by the Savior to the right with His sheep.) Until then, political terms — left and right, conservative and liberal — were fluid, difficult to define, and depended on the context. There is confusion today as to what conservative actually means.

What Does “Conservative” Mean?
Social conservatives, including evangelical Christians, emphasize social issues and traditional moral values. Banner issues for social conservatives are abortion and homosexual marriage. The best representative of this conservatism is Jerry Falwell, the pioneer of the Moral Majority. Originally apolitical, Falwell engaged himself after reading Francis Schaeffer and seeing the implications of Roe v. Wade (the Supreme Court decision which “legalized” abortion). Social conservatives, however, are stigmatized as single issue voters and political neophytes (even though most other issues pale in comparison to state-sanctioned murder of the unborn).

Economic conservatives stress fiscal, monetary, and economic issues. They want smaller and less intrusive government, reduced government spending, lower taxes, and a stable fiscal policy. Economic conservatives include those who are socially liberal. Arnold Schwartzeneggar is a good example of the “new Republican” — liberal on social issues (gays and abortion), but allegedly conservative on economic themes (budget and taxes). A Chalcedon Report reader recently told me that he might vote Libertarian in 2004. “They don’t have a good position on abortion,” he explained, “but at least they don’t ask me to pay for the abortions!”

The Bible says much about economic issues. God warned about the curse of high taxes and property confiscation (1 Sam. 8), which were signs of God’s judgment. But some things are more important than economics. A nation’s tax structure matters little when the government encourages idolatry and immorality.

Security conservatives emphasize defense and national security. During the Cold War, the overarching concern was the threat of communism and Soviet expansionism, as history turned on the epic struggle between Freedom and Marxism. Today, Americans focus on terrorism and the threat of Islam. The Department of Homeland Security strives to protect the country, although there is the danger of trading freedom for security, and undermining constitutional liberties.

1 Samuel 8 addresses security issues. Israel demanded a king (a centralized government), partly for security reasons (to fight their battles). They considered the old method of depending on God and His deliverer-judges outdated and risky. Rejecting God as king, Israel sought security through statist and militaristic means. The result, God warned, would be enslavement by their new security state.

Constitutional conservatives emphasize fundamental law and strict adherence to the Constitution. This approach is commendable, as the United States is a nation under law. American leaders are sworn to uphold the Constitution against all enemies, foreign and domestic, and Americans are blessed to have constitutional guarantees of liberty.

The Bible itself has an implicit constitutionalism. Israel’s covenant with God was ratified by the people of Israel (Ex. 24:7). Israel’s covenantal and constitutional obligations were enduring and binding, with a “loose construction” of the constitution strictly forbidden (Josh. 24:25ff). Kings were officially and formally required to write out the Law of God (Dt. 17:18). Samuel himself wrote down the principles of the Kingdom (1 Sam. 10:25) in a primer of constitutional monarchy.

Yet raw constitutionalism does not guarantee national success. In Frame of Government (1682), William Penn warned: “Let men be good, and the government cannot be bad; if it be ill, they will cure it. But, if men be bad, let the government be ever so good, they will endeavor to warp and spoil it to their turn.” A perfect constitution will not work if the people are corrupt. And though a remarkable document, the U. S. Constitution is neither perfect nor infallible. The Christian’s highest allegiance is always to the Word of God.

Compassionate conservatism, a term coined by Bush, refers to the benign power of government to effect positive change. (It is reminiscent of the elder Bush’s call for a “kinder and gentler nation.”) The federal government is to encourage noble causes, including conservative ones, such as Bush’s faith-based initiatives.

“Republicans want everything Democrats do,” the old saying goes, “just less.” Compassionate conservatism, I suspect, is largely a tactic for big-tent, big-government Republicans to attract moderate voters. “The ten most terrifying words in the English language,” Ronald Reagan used to say, “are ‘I’m from the government and I’m here to help you.’”

Marginal conservative is a good moniker for many on the Christian Right. We fight for principled candidates, refuse to support “the lesser of two evils,” but know that our guys have little chance of winning. We are thus relegated to the self-righteous fringe. Principled and ideological Christians may be tempted to believe that ultimate solutions in life are political. But we must not put on a pedestal one party or candidate, associating them with the cause of Christ. Politics is important, but life’s greatest issues are spiritual.

A New Conservative
Maybe it is time to promote a new type of conservatism — Christian conservatism. Christians shouldn’t be tied to a particular political party or agenda. We must recognize the spheres of authority that God has established in society (church, state, family). Above all, we must be committed to Christ our King (Col.1:13) and judge all issues by the absolute standard of His Word.

We must recommit to the authority and sufficiency of Scripture. If American conservatives are wishy-washy, it is because they are ignorant of God’s Word. Someone recently queried hundreds of pastors to see how many could identify the Ten Commandments. Not recite the commandments, mind you, but to give the simple substance of the Decalogue. Only a tiny percentage succeeded. American Christians may profess allegiance to the Ten Commandments with their lips, but the law is not written on their hearts. And when pastors are ignorant of the law of God, it is doubtful that people in the pews know more.

Deuteronomy 17 gives rules for the Hebrew kingdom and a paradigm for godly rule. The king must be a “brother” (meaning a countryman and brother in the faith). Royal power is carefully proscribed (kings mustn’t accumulate horses, wives, or wealth). Kings formally write out the law of God (thus establishing a limited, constitutional monarchy, and at the same time teaching themselves the law). There were obvious checks and balances (as priests carefully scrutinized the king’s transcription). Clearly, the Word of God must inform the affairs of state. God commands us to observe His Word fully — turning aside neither to the “right” nor the “left” (Dt. 5:32).

These were lessons that Jerry Falwell learned in the 1970s. “It was my duty as a Christian,” he wrote, concerning his new sense of activism, “to apply the truths of Scripture to every act of government.” It is a good lesson for all Christian conservatives. As he puts it in his autobiography, Falwell (1997): “We cannot forget God’s law as we live in man’s world. We must try to live by God’s law in both worlds, whatever it may cost us. We must work to convince others that God’s law is right and will bring health and long life to the nation.”1


1. Jerry Falwell, Falwell: An Autobiography (Lynchburg, VA: Liberty House Publishers, 1997), 360, 370.

  • Roger Schultz

Dr. Roger Schultz is Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at Liberty University.  He previously served as Chair of the History Department at Liberty and has taught at Virginia Intermont College, the University of Arkansas, and Oak Hills Christian College. He is a member of the Phi Beta Kappa Society.  He holds degrees from Bemidji State University (B.A.), Trinity Evangelical Divinity School (M.A.), and the University of Arkansas (Ph.D.)

His specialty is American religious history.  His essays and reviews have appeared in numerous publications and have been translated into Hungarian and Spanish.  Dr. Schultz frequently preaches in local churches and speaks at academic and Christian conferences.  The Schultzes have nine children.

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