Dr. David DeCosse
The Santa Clara
February 1, 2018
Should Christianity necessarily be understood as an ally of conservative politics in the United States?
For the last 40 years this has been the case. But at two recent Santa Clara University School of Law forums on the thoughts of Martin Luther King, Jr., the question was raised: Why can’t Christianity be understood instead as an ally of American progressive politics?
King, of course, was a world-changing activist and progressive political leader. But he was first and foremost a Baptist Christian preacher animated by Christian convictions. Yes—he knew Gandhi’s thoughts on nonviolence. But it was the connection between Gandhi’s thought and King’s underlying Christian convictions about justice and love that gave force to King’s message. Are there similar Christian resources that can be brought to bear today on behalf of a politics of equality, reconciliation, and community like King’s?
In part what gives rise to this question are the contradictions inherent in the overwhelming white Christian evangelical support for President Trump. The president is a habitual liar and a self-professed sexual abuser—both traits reflective of the kind of character defects that had white Christian evangelicals in the Moral Majority not long ago howling in protest against then-President Bill Clinton. Moreover, Trump’s racism—evident from his years-long birtherism to his recent reference to the “s***hole” status of African countries— presents a flat contradiction to any plausible reading of the fundamental commitment to human equality at the heart of Christianity.
As things have gone throughout history, such incoherent religious reaches for political power end up discrediting the religions doing the reaching.
But what is there in Christian thought that could provide a basis for an alliance between Christianity and progressive American politics?
Four things immediately come to mind.
Truth: Not telling a lie is not just some pious piece of Christian moral thought that parents pass on to children. Instead, seeking the truth and trying to tell the truth is a moral requirement for the equal treatment of people at the heart of democracy. Christian thought is uncompromising in its rejection of lies and affirmation of truth. Pope Francis’ recent criticism of “fake news” insightfully draws on such concerns.
Racism, White Supremacy, Immigration: Christian thought fundamentally affirms the equality of all men and women, whether they are Christian or not. Today there are powerful forces seeking to blend Christian thought into white nationalism. But this must be called out as a fundamental contradiction to the deepest meaning of the inalienable and equal dignity of each human being—black, brown, white, Muslim, Christian, whatever.
Property and Economic Freedom: We are living through a time of radical libertarian ideas in which distorted notions of freedom and property are driving policy. Christian thought both affirms private property and economic freedom—but it does so by embedding these concepts in a more fundamental reality: That God has created the world to provide sustenance for every human being. Time to stop calling on the miserable, navel-gazing thought of Ayn Rand and to start calling on the solidarity behind the economic ideas of Pope John Paul II.
Rejection of Political Power: Here is a paradox for a Christian engagement with politics. Without power it is not possible to do justice but with too much power will come the distortion of Christianity.
I think in the last decades the Christian grab for political power has turned off many millennials. I think going forward that any Christian engagement with progressive politics must watch this line carefully: Fine to contribute ideas and motivations and organization to political movements. But don’t risk your soul by assuming that the Church should be in power.
Dr. David DeCosse is a Catholic theologian and currently Director of Campus Ethics at the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics. As Adjunct Associate Professor of Religious Studies, Dr. DeCosse also teaches Ethics of War and Peace, Christianity and Politics and the Theology and Ethics of Thomas Aquinas. His articles have been published in outlets such as the San Francisco Chronicle, Philadelphia Inquirer and Religion and Ethics Newsweekly.