A Christian conundrum in conservative rhetoric?

Can Christian faith coexist with conservative rhetoric? My friend and colleague Erick Erickson asked that question in a Red State post last night, out of frustration with a certain strain of argument on the Right that seems … uncharitable, at least. Conservative populism married to social media seems to produce a strain of rhetoric that can appear anathematic to Christians who want to live their lives of faith while pursuing conservative policy goals.

To start, Christian conservatives were roundly assailed by other conservatives for daring to provide aid and comfort to children whose parents had shipped them across the border. Some could not distinguish between giving a child a teddy bear and supporting Mexican drug cartels. It was all one or all the other. In fact, many Christians, myself included, want expedited deportations and a secure border. But we also want to make sure the children, some victims of human trafficking, were taken care of, fed, and comforted.

But to some on the right, that is aiding law breakers. The anger and hysteria directed at conservatives engaged in private charity had all the makings of a leftist police state making us care about how we choose to spend our own money.

The second was bringing Dr. Brantly and his co-worker back to the United States. The number of angry calls into my radio program from well meaning conservatives, comments across social media, opinion columns, agreement thereto, etc. really boggled my mind. Here are two Americans risking their lives to help others and we are supposed to turn our back on them, leave them there, or criticize their decision to go in the first place? That’s not the America I know or love. The level of outright anger, fear, and bitterness over the decision to take care of American citizens and the lack of knowledge and understanding that formed the foundation for the anger, fear, and bitterness really left me wondering what is going on.

The last is the present situation in Ferguson, MO. The rush to win a fight and lay blame instead of mourning a loss and praying for a situation just leaves me perplexed. The rush to “change the narrative” with bad facts to replace bad facts by some folks who keep the ichthys on their car unsettles me.

I largely agree with Erick, although we should keep in mind at least one important distinction. The conservo-populist movement that Erick blames for the issues he sees is more libertarian than faith-based. Those activists are more likely to be the people with an Ayn Rand quote on their bumper rather than the ichthys medallion on their car. Erick’s younger than I am (and has better hair, darn him), but we’re both political products of the era of the Religious Right, when the conservative movement and Christian faith were more closely tied together. We have been moving away from that correlation for years, a trend accelerated by the rise of social media and the open-source political debates of the past decade — in which both Erick and I have thrived, it also should be noted.

(Update: I don’t note the shifting direction of conservative politics to blame libertarians for trolling as will be seen in the next paragraph, but to explain why Christian-based arguments get challenged more often from the Right — mostly in reasonable and rational ways. Conservatism has changed, and with that change comes new challenges for Christians of faith in reconciling their political and spiritual lives. Trolls represent themselves across the spectrum, but are mostly focused on their own notoriety.)

This new era of democratized debate has plenty of advantages, but also a few disadvantages. Of the latter, the intrusion of trolling and its perspective-distorting power is probably the worst for the ills Erick describes on social media and comboxes. But it’s not common, either, among conservatives or libertarians, or in general.  It’s difficult to keep perspective on the fact that the truly uncharitable voices that appear on those media platforms are few in number, if disproportionally noticeable in any debate. The voices screaming loudest may be doing so for the reason that they’re making up for the people who refuse to join their extreme positions and/or adopt their methods.

The question, at least as I’ve seen it, isn’t whether Christianity and conservative policy are compatible. I firmly believe that they are, but I also know that it takes skillful, detailed, patient, and yes charitable explanation and debate to make that case. The question really is whether Christianity is compatible with social media, where the odds are long at seeing skillful, detailed, patient, charitable explanation. Most social media platforms are not designed for that, although blogs certainly can be thanks to the unlimited format offered, which exceeds even the print and broadcast media in flexibility.

That said, I found myself dismayed by the reactions of people to all of the incidents which Erick lists. It’s possible to believe that the border needs to be enforced and children returned to their proper homes abroad while at the same time striving to provide them care and comfort in the present, as Glenn Beck and other conservatives did, including Ted Cruz. We can still wonder aloud about whether Christian missionaries in the US do enough at home without belittling Dr. Brantley and his works of corporal mercy in Africa. We can lament the death of an unarmed young man in the middle of America without jumping to conclusions about the nature of the incident and the legitimacy of force used before confirmable data and testimony are produced about it. Moreover, despite the shrieking in social media, most Americans probably feel the same way about all of these, whether they’re Christian or not.

So what is a Christian called to do? Abandon the social-media fields? I’d argue no, because we are called to demonstrate caritas in all aspects of our lives as Christians. That is the self-sacrificial love for our neighbors, opponents, and even enemies that Christ Himself instructed us to model; in fact, that’s the underlying message in today’s Gospel reading for Catholics in Matthew 22:34-40. It is incumbent upon us to model that caritas not just where it’s easy, but where it’s most difficult in order to help convert the world through love, rather than divide it through anger and resentment.

Erick expresses his pessimism “about my future in politics and the future voices on the right when cultural and social issues come to the forefront,” but that’s where I’ll disagree. I’m optimistic whenever we have the opportunity to openly discuss our values, our faith, and the policies we see as best fits for those and for our country as a whole. In order to have that opportunity, we have to stay in the game. But we have to be steadfast at modeling the tone and tenor of Christian dialogue, even when many around us tempt us to do otherwise — and perhaps especially when others tempt us to do otherwise.

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