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From the January/February, 2011 issue of Touchstone


Special Election? by James Hitchcock

Special Election?

Christians Can Never Put Their Trust in Princes

The results of the 2010 election are a salutary reminder once again of the inherent ambiguity of politics for Christians, who must labor to build up the Kingdom while not expecting it to be achieved in this life. Christians have good reasons to be disturbed at the direction of the country, but it is not at all clear that the electorate’s repudiation of the Obama administration was primarily motivated by those concerns.

The economy was the governing issue, and the administration was rebuked for not having effected a recovery. In a sense, the president deserved blame, in that he offered himself to the voters in 2008 as a savior who would solve all their problems, almost by magic. While the demand to “get the government off our backs” was loud in 2010, most voters seemed to retain the ancient conviction that Washington can and should solve all economic problems, although realistically it is questionable how much government, given even the best of efforts, can actually achieve.

Moral Questions

From a Christian standpoint, this assumption of governmental competence is open to even deeper scrutiny, in that classical Christianity upholds the legitimate authority of the state, and gives no support to the kind of libertarianism that veers towards anarchism, but it also sees the dangers of an omnicompetent state, towards which most Western nations have long been tending.

The Tea Party movement, as the name is intended to proclaim, seems to be primarily a protest against taxes. But in itself, an anti-tax revolt is purely a matter of self-interest, without a moral dimension. Jesus quite explicitly justified taxation, and its morality depends on whether taxes are assessed fairly and how they are used. Deficit spending of a kind that will impose an intolerable burden on future generations is a serious moral offense, and taxes are the necessary condition for the omnicompetent state to continue to intrude itself into every corner of life.

The Republicans have vowed to repeal the Obama healthcare plan, a plan that encapsulates the moral dilemma, in that Christians cannot be indifferent to the many who cannot afford adequate insurance, but, despite claims to the contrary, the Obama plan is open to public subsidies of abortion and other immoral medical procedures.

Beyond that, the concept of “health” is elastic, something that potentially allows the secular state to reach into the inmost recesses of the person, in order, for example, to help overcome the psychological “rigidities” that are said to especially plague conservative religious believers.

Negative Benefits

Beyond specific issues, the Democratic party has made itself into an agency of secularization. Over the years, many of its chief representatives—the Catholics Edward Kennedy and Nancy Pelosi, the Mormon Harry Reid, the Baptist William Clinton, the Greek Orthodox Michael Dukakis—have offered themselves to the citizens as moral leaders more trustworthy than the clergy of their various churches. In 2008 Barack Obama was literally messianic, demanding (and getting) unreserved faith in himself.

But there is little evidence that religion plays an important role in the essentially libertarian Tea Party movement, and the Republican electoral successes will benefit Christians primarily in negative ways, merely by retarding aggressive secularism.

The pendulum will swing again, but it is now temporarily impossible to enact laws promoting abortion, homosexual “marriage,” and other matters offensive to morality, while initiatives by the White House, such as American support for international agreements that enshrine that militant secularism, can perhaps be impeded. But at the same time, this “gridlock” also precludes positive achievements, such as the Defense of Marriage Act. The Republicans are primarily naysayers, which for the time being is all that can be expected.

—James Hitchcock, for the editors

James Hitchcock is Professor of History at St. Louis University in St. Louis. He and his wife Helen have four daughters. His most recent book is the two-volume work, The Supreme Court and Religion in American Life (Princeton University Press, 2004). He is a senior editor of Touchstone.

“Special Election?” first appeared in the January/February 2011 issue of Touchstone. If you enjoyed this article, you'll find more of the same in every issue.

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