The Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission (ERLC) recently published an interview with Daniel Williams, author of the book The Politics of the Cross: A Christian Alternative to Partisanship. The ERLC has never been the darling of conservative Baptists, but this interview is particularly problematic. Under the guise of rejecting “partisanship”, Williams argues that Christians should place less focus on issues such as abortion and more focus on economic issues, suggesting that debt forgiveness, tuition assistance, government healthcare, and minimum wage increases may be better policy goals than restricting abortion.
To his credit, Williams made some valid points. You need look no further than his response to the very first question to find a very astute and legitimate point
“the Republican Party has not always been the preferred home for theologically orthodox Protestants, nor has it delivered on its promises for many of the conservative evangelicals who have embraced it.”
More often than not Republicans at the Gold Dome are the biggest obstacle to good, conservative legislation. If Williams were simply arguing against blindly supporting all Republicans, he would likely get a hearty “Amen!” from conservative circles. We’ve been making this argument for decades. He also makes a very valid point about finding our identity in political parties.
“Christians need to avoid making either party a source of their identity or a litmus test for Christian faithfulness. That does not mean that the two parties are equal, and that it does not matter which option we choose. But it does mean that Christians should seek to transcend both parties in their thinking”
The call to reject partisanship sounds great. Blindly following a party or political figure will always end poorly. Unfortunately, that’s not what he means. Williams is not calling on Christians to reject party politics, he is asking Christians to blend conservative and liberal ideology. While he notes that the Democratic Party is entirely outside of orthodox Christian belief on social issues, he also argues that conservatives place too much emphasis on social issues.
“Christians who are partisan Republicans are in danger of making a selective version of morality a substitute for a consistent application of God’s principles. Over the past 40 years, the Christian Right has said far more about homosexuality than divorce or premarital sex, and far more about abortion than about the destruction of human life in any other context. At the same time, Christians who have been attracted to the Republican Party’s message have tended to think that moral regulation without personal sacrifice can curb sinful activity. They have thus advocated abortion restrictions without supporting more costly expansions that would likely be necessary to deter low-income women from having abortions.”
The reason the “Christian Right” has had more to say in the political sphere about homosexuality and abortion than divorce, premarital sex, or destruction of human life in any other context (I can only assume he is referencing war here) is because our understanding of the proper role of government. As he argues ad nauseum in this interview, the government can’t make society be moral.
We aren’t pro-life because we believe in moral regulation. We are pro-life because it is the first role of government to protect the lives of its’ citizens, and abortion is overwhelmingly the number one threat to American life. It’s not even close. We aren’t against homosexual marriage because of “moral regulation”.
We are against homosexual marriage because the definition of marriage is intertwined with our legal system, and redefining marriage has created major legal issues for religious individuals and institutions. These legal issues are a threat to the religious liberty that’s foundational both to American culture and Baptist ecclesiology. It’s not about “using the law to curb sin”, it’s about protecting the rights of American citizens, born and unborn.
Has the Republican Party failed to uphold Christian values on social issues? Absolutely. Conservatives know all too well what it’s like to have candidates court them with big talk about social issues, only to be ignored when those candidates get elected. The Republican Party is not failing to uphold Christian values because they focus too much on social issues, they’re failing to uphold Christian values because they won’t deliver the victories on social issues that they promise. That’s why conservatives in Georgia are so thrilled by the massive victories we’ve gotten recently, it’s not what we are accustom to.
In addition to misunderstanding (or misrepresenting) conservative social policy, it’s evident that Williams is advocating for liberal fiscal policy.
“By at least one count, there are 2,000 verses in the Bible that discuss God’s concern for the poor — including a number that come from the lips of Jesus himself. Given the pervasiveness of this message in every section of the Bible, this is a subject that every Christian who cares about the concerns of God needs to care about deeply. But beyond that, I think that we’ll find that if we orient our political policies around the needs of the poor, we’ll be able to more effectively address many of the other political issues that we care about, including abortion, defense of marriage, and racial justice….and when we do that, we’ll likely find that some low-income women who resort to abortions because they believe that they do not have the means to provide for their children will no longer feel the need to terminate their pregnancies. We’ll find that some low-income unmarried couples who have thought that marriage was out of reach because of their economic situation will feel empowered to get married. We’ll find that the systemic wealth inequality that has fallen along racial fault lines is at least partly alleviated — and with it, some of the inequities in the criminal justice system that make it much more likely that poor people of color will go to jail.”
The implied argument is clear: liberals get it right on fiscal policy; and adopting liberal fiscal policy could do more to save unborn lives than conservative social policy. In an ironic twist, Williams appears to be arguing that fiscal policy should be the primary political issue for Christians. If the money is right everything else will be too.
I don’t think Williams is necessarily arguing Christians should vote for liberals, but he is certainly justifying a Christian who may decide to do so. While his tone and rhetoric portrays an attempt at evenhandedness and fairness, the substance of his argument aims to suppress Christian support for the Christian values that Frontline exists to uphold.
Unfortunately, this brand of “christianism” has become popular in the age of Trump, where so-called Christian leaders feel the need to base their policy preferences on Trump. In an attempt to distance themselves from Trump’s behaviors, proponents of “christianism” have begun looking for ways to reject political conservatism. They are guilty of the exact same thing they want to avoid. Rejecting political policies because you don’t like Trump is no different than blindly accepting everything that Trump does. It’s entirely possible to support conservative policy without embracing Trump’s bombastic style.
The proper solution is to engage for the values of life, human dignity, religious freedom, principled government, God’s design, and parental rights in education; but to do it in a God honoring way. Being angry or hostile or mean tweeting people who see the world differently will get us nowhere. We can treat people with love and respect, taking an opportunity to build relationships with them and share the gospel, and still stand for Biblical principles. Christians should reject partisanship and politics as usual, but we should never abandon our values.