Opinion

Christian conservatives have a terrifying new bogeyman: The Christian leftist

And they're right to be scared...

A resurgence of the Christian left may seem a distant hope, but the idea of it has certainly spooked the Christian right. Such is the impetus for Distortion: How the New Christian Left is Twisting the Gospel & Damaging the Faith. It's a curious book from accomplished evangelical author Chelsen Vicari, who aims in it to address a "crisis" in evangelicalism — namely the rise of a Christian left.

Vicari's book is neither a principled critique of Christian leftism writ large nor a principled defense of a Christian right-wing; on the contrary, it's very narrowly focused on American Christians who align with the Democratic Party versus American Christians who align with the Republican Party. It's in favor of the latter, of course, but in so doing it visits a number of tired arguments that are only tenuously linked to Christianity, and are more thoroughly associated with secular partisan politics.

One such issue is the nebulously defined question of "big government." Though "big government" can as easily mean a carceral state, a surveillance state, a welfare state, or all three, Vicari appears to take it to mean a state with fairly modest provisions for the poor: food stamps, healthcare, and little more.

"The evangelical left," Vicari writes, "confuses the church's mission to further God's kingdom with unlimited big government." In arguing that Christians should not create states that provide social insurance for poor people, Vicari cites Jerry Falwell: "Jesus taught that we should give to the poor and support widows, but he never said that we should elect a government that would take money from our neighbor's hand and give it to the poor."

In other words, Vicari's complaint with the Christian left is not that their impulse is wrong — she agrees that all Christians, right and left, should recognize an obligation to support the poor as special figures of God's concern — but that the process they envision is wrong. Taxes, she argues, are wrong on the merits because they constitute "taking" from one person for the support of another, rather than relying upon voluntary charity. From this position one would expect a generally libertarian view: that the state is not an object of moral errand-running, and that taxes, being an inherently evil institution, should be used as seldom as possible, and never to undertake specifically moral projects.

This would be a consistent position. But it's not Vicari's position. And her inconsistency here highlights a general problem with right-wing Christians who claim taxes are an immoral method of carrying out moral projects.

In a later chapter, Vicari takes up a spirited defense of American military support for Israel. She argues that "American Christians… have a part in the Abrahamic covenant," noting that God said, "He would treat nations according to the way they treat Israel." Therefore, by her lights, "defending [Israel] is the Christian people's responsibility" — and by this she means Christians acting through the apparatus of the United States' military, funded by taxes. She does not argue, for instance, that Christians are obligated to pool their resources and privately fund a military defense of Israel.

If her distinction between the obligation of individuals to care for the poor and the obligation of states to care for Israel rests on the word "nation," she could look to Matthew 25:31 (the famous parable of sheep and goats) to see that Christ will equally judge all nations based on their treatment of the poor, sick, foreign, and similarly oppressed.

If Christians should always resist "big government," then what's bigger than a government that not only militarily defends its country's own borders, but those of a totally independent sovereign country? Or, if Christians should only support big government insofar as it's used in defense of people who are important to God, why wouldn't that extend to the poor, who win so much of Jesus' special attention? There is a reason that libertarians have an embattled relationship with hardline Republicans when it comes to Israel, and this conflict is why those differing accounts of the right use of the state are so hard to square up. The question is even more nonsensical when framed in theological terms.

And yet perhaps this tension is what occasions such a book. If the old guard on the partisan Christian right envisions itself to be crumbling, there's nothing more apt than a forceful restatement of terms, preferably with a fresh face. But if it's crumbling, it's because the foundations are weak, and illustrating that inadvertently isn't going to make its last gasps any more graceful. Far from being the death knell for the American Christian left, Vicari's book might be little more than a signal that this is the Christian left's moment to rise.

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