Russell (RPJ): I read an interesting article recently from The Washington Post that explained, better than any article I’ve ever read, one important way conservatives and liberals talk past one another. It’s by David Hopkins and Matt Grossmann, who surprisingly aren’t quarterbacks for the Cleveland Browns. It’s worth reading if you have the time, but I’ll summarize their main point now. If you read the article, feel free to skip this summary. These two professors write that Republicans and Democrats in America think differently not just about the issues, but about how to frame the issues. “Each party’s supporters define the terms and stakes of political competition quite differently,” they write, “Republicans believe they’re battling over two opposing ideologies, while Democrats view partisan conflict instead as a fight between different social groups.” Republicans are more likely to think in terms of conservatism vs. liberalism, socialism vs. capitalism, traditional values vs. postmodern multiculturalism. Democrats are more likely to think in terms of men and women, black and white people, the one percent and the ninety-nine percent.
The authors continue, “One party is battling for an ideology; the other is battling for groups of people.” That formulation is a bit misleading, because Democrats also recognize the ideological nature of their cause, while Republicans contend that the worldview they champion is better for all groups of people. But the authors are, I believe, correct about the general shape of disagreements between the parties. They write, “Republican Party leaders encourage their voters to see the GOP as standing for a set of broad traditions and values. Democratic Party leaders push their voters to focus on the discrete interests of each social group within the Democratic coalition.” Put differently, Republicans are more likely to ask, “Is this proposed legislation faithful to the values of the Constitution?” Democrats are more likely to ask, “How will this proposed legislation affect the marginalized?” These are very different--but not incommensurable--ways of approaching political and ethical issues. What do you think?
David (DAB): This feels like a real throwback discussion; it has been strange to go through almost a whole election cycle without really talking about conservatives and liberals. I think the argument of that article absolutely bears on this election, but it is interesting how much 2016 has been about the people running, not about their policies or ideologies. In any case, the context that immediately shaped my reading of this article was not so much the current election, but the fact that I was preparing to teach an adult sunday school class at my church on Christianity and political citizenship. I had been “researching” (randomly googling while watching football) Christian political websites and had noticed a pattern: politically conservative evangelicals use the term “Biblical principles” all the time, while left-leaning folks talk more about the Bible’s or Jesus’ “priorities” (check out Franklin Graham’s “Decision America” pledge or peruse Jim Wallis’ Sojourners for examples of each)
RPJ: Your random googling is more constructive than mine. I usually end up at whippets in hats. What is the difference between principles and priorities?
DAB: Conservative Christians prefer candidates who share their “worldview” or Christian frame of mind and liberal Christians talk about looking for candidates who voice concern for the same folks they see God prioritizing: the widow, the poor, the sojourner/alien, etc.
RPJ: I get it. “Priorities” in the sense of biblical priorities. Jesus cared about the poor, the lepers, the Samaritans, the “least of these” in His society, so (according to Christian liberals) modern-day Christians should work for the marginalized groups in American society today. And “principles” like the value of hard work, the sanctity of human life, and freedom of religion-- these are (according to Christian conservatives) values for which one can find a cache of Bible verses.
DAB: I think this framework explains a lot of misunderstanding between the two groups. Conservative Christians, because they understand politics in terms of principles and absolute commitments, see liberal Christians as unprincipled and compromised, caught up in the culture...
RPJ: Or, perhaps, “useful idiots” for a bigger ideological agenda, duped into following a worldview antithetical to Christianity.
DAB: Right, sort of the Christian version of the general conservative prejudice that all liberals are either unthinking, bleeding-heart college kids, unwittingly serving a much more insidious socialist elite or members of a welfare class demanding government handouts. Then, on the other side, liberal Christians, because they understand the proper aim of politics to be matching Jesus’ care for the vulnerable, see conservative Christians as uncaring and insensitive folks who misunderstand what really mattered to Jesus...
RPJ: Duped by the ultra-rich into supporting economic policies that harm the needy (often including themselves).
DAB: Exactly, the Christian version of the liberal prejudice that all conservatives are either sinister CEOs or the backward hillbillies who obliviously follow their lead.
RPJ: So if you see politics in terms of a clash of ideologies, you will see apparently non-ideological rhetoric like “black lives matter” or pleas for welfare relief as expressing a dangerous hidden ideology.
DAB: Or a bending or betrayal of principle in favor of self-interest.
RPJ: If you see politics in terms of a struggle between groups, you will see apparently non-group-driven rhetoric (like cases for small government and strong homeland security) as concealing deep prejudices and a lack of compassion for the economically and racially marginalized.
DAB: Whereas many conservatives believe that implementation of their preferred policies will benefit everyone, including the poor, whom they care about, while many liberals are deeply principled in their convictions, which often run against their self-interest (i.e. wealthy liberals who support higher taxes on the wealthy).
RPJ: In a sense, this relates to Charles Krauthammer’s statement, “To understand the workings of American politics, you have to understand this fundamental law: Conservatives think liberals are stupid. Liberals think conservatives are evil.” The Christian version goes something like this: conservative Christians think liberal Christians ignore the Bible; liberal Christians think conservative Christians ignore Jesus.
DAB: That seems right. So what should we take away from this discussion?
RPJ: Well, recognizing that people start from different frameworks doesn’t mean that they can’t end at the same place. I wouldn’t say the disagreement is merely linguistic, but whenever two groups each claim “Christian” and “biblical” to support opposing sides on an issue, the right thing to do is figure out what they each mean by their terms. If nothing else, the principle/priority distinction is a useful shortcut in forging mutual understanding. If nothing else, I’ll use it next time I have to explain to my conservative friends how Obama’s social policies might be recognizably Christian (even if objectionable). And I’ll use it next time I have to explain to my liberal friends how a politics of self-reliance might be justified from biblical theology (even if insufficiently). Diagnosing how we misunderstand one another is a necessary step toward having more fruitful disagreements. Getting clear not just on the different content but the different shape of political reasoning is a step in the right direction. What stands out to you about “biblical principles” versus “biblical priorities”?
DAB: Well, you did a lovely job showing a way to reconcile the two, but I don’t like either. From my perspective, it is not clear that the Bible discloses either principles or priorities that translate directly into the best political policies or that specifically recommend one candidate over another. Even if we agree about the Bible's principles and priorities (and we often don't), it is not immediately clear how to legislate them. For example, let’s grant that we can distill the principle “human life is sacred” from the Bible: what does this mean for us politically? I can imagine, for example, that one application might be that the death penalty should be abolished, but it might also mean that taking a human life is so significant that murderers must be killed. Further, the fact that a candidate espouses a commitment to the sanctity of life does not mean he or she is the one who will best defend and promote that sanctity. I mean, it's pretty clear that a law motivated by the right principle might be terrible and a candidate who preaches Christian convictions might be incompetent. In short, we can make mistakes in our translation of Bible into principles, and getting the principles right is no guarantee that we’ve got our politics right.
You can say all the same things about “Biblical priorities”. Say we all agree to adopt Jesus’ priorities. Great. Getting the priorities right is no guarantee of getting our policies right. It might be the case that politicians with these intentions might be clueless and those who operate with no concern for the poor nevertheless implement policies which benefit the poor more than those explicitly trying to help. This was Adam Smith’s hope. I’m not saying Smith was right, I only mean to say that intentions and effects don’t always hang together.
My point, I guess, is that moving from the Bible to sound policy is hard and that advocating both “principles” and “priorities” glosses over all a whole chain of political judgment calls about which well-meaning Christians can disagree. People are basically saying “Bible, principle, principle, principle, something conservative” or “Bible, priorities, priorities, priorities, something liberal.” They are yada yada-ing the most important part.
RPJ: They need to mention the bisque, is what you’re saying.
DAB: Exactly. I think it would help mutual understanding if we were more explicit about the steps in our reasoning from Bible to politics. I also don’t think we should simply support candidates who seem Christian in one of these two ways. We need people who are good at the technical work of governance, whatever their principles or priorities. We need people who know how to make our schools work and keep our roads paved. Competence matters.
RPJ: So we should productively disagree about priorities and principles, but we can all agree that we need leaders who know what they’re doing?
DAB: I don’t know if we can, but we should.