The Meek, the Other Cheek, and Why White Evangelicals Are Republican

December 13, 2012

Why is it that fundamentalist Christians vote overwhelmingly Republican? In the most basic sense, you would assume people who live their lives by the example of Jesus Christ would adhere more to the political party that promotes generous social welfare and care for the poor, rather than one which stresses self-reliance and is associated with a stronger military.

Evangelical Christianity is one of the best demographic predictors of voting in presidential elections. It is more powerful than age, income, or gender. (It is not as powerful as ethnicity, so black and white evangelicals tend to vote in opposite ways.*)  And that influence, for white evangelicals, is almost all in one direction: Republican.

Republican philosophy is certainly not in opposition to the teachings of Christ, but it appears less aligned with it than liberal views. Christ’s message, as I understand it, was about caring for your neighbor, and the weak and outcast. That is at the heart of modern liberalism. Most conservatives would not remove the social safety net, but they would make it less generous, and put a focus on letting individuals sink or swim on their own. And they tend to respect mainstream success a bit more, rather than feeling a connection with those at the fringes of society.

On national security issues, you see the same split. Christ taught that we should turn the other cheek when slapped.  Republicans focus on Peace through Strength. Most liberals are for a strong defense, too, but they are often less inclined to military action. So you might expect the followers of Christ to lean towards liberalism in this area as well.**

I think the reason they don't has to do with evolution of theology in the early Church. As I understand, by the second and third century AD, the ideas of St. Paul had shaped Christian thinking almost as much as the original teachings of Christ. His attitudes were, of course, in keeping with Christ’s, but he added an emphasis on personal morality and obedience. In the years after that, theologians like St. Augustine added a stricter, more conservative tone to Christian thought, including an important emphasis on the Old Testament, which presents a far harsher view of divine justice. The God of the Old Testament never turned the other cheek – he was more apt to take an eye for an eye and destroy the Canaanites. Finally, Christianity was adopted by the Roman Empire and it became the religion of the establishment in many respects.

Now, much has happened in Christian history since all of that, but it does give you a sense how the theology could become more aligned with a conservative party than a liberal one. Even for Protestants, the ideas developed over the first millennium and a half after the crucifixion left a huge mark on their views of proper conduct on Earth. Conservatives, of course, will also argue that there is a difference between personal generosity and establishing a government program. And, in fact, there is evidence that conservative Christians give more to the poor than other Americans.

But, in the larger sense, it is hard to escape the view that Republican voters are more focused on personal responsibly than joint community responsibility.  No Apologies vs. It Takes a Village. And they support a less lenient view of justice, in both criminal matters and international policy. So I think it is fair to say that conservative Christian political philosophy is more highly influenced by the Old Testament than the New. They are, politically, more like we would predict Jews to be…who, conversely, vote strongly Democratic. Go figure.

*Why aren't more black evangelicals Republicans?  I think because other historical factors outweigh the religious ones.

**The above is not a criticism of conservative views, just an analysis of them. For instance, not turning the other cheek in international affairs seems to me to a very wise approach.

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