War, Religious Liberty, and Priorities
Alan Jacobs is worried whether voting on a single-issue basis to protect religious liberty is overly selfish for a serious Christian politics:
While I am, as I have often demonstrated right here on this site, a vocal supporter of religious freedom, I’m also rather uncertain about how my religious convictions should affect my political decisions. The problem arises if we distinguish between individual and collective Christian action.
On the individual level, I know what I am supposed to do: if someone slaps me on one cheek, I should offer them the other; if someone takes my shirt, I should offer him my coat; if someone curses me, I should bless him; I should always seek the well-being of others in preference to my own. (Of course, this is not to say that I actually do what I know I should do.)
If that logic holds in the collective sphere as well, then perhaps Christian churches should not focus too much attention on what is best for them, but on what is best for their neighbors. They might have good reason, in that case, to accept constraints on religious freedom if that meant preventing unnecessary violence, death, and destruction from being unleashed on others.
Now, some Christians might also argue that the Church exists for others, so that promoting religious freedom, even at the cost of lives lost overseas, is still the selfless thing to do. And that could be right, but I think we all ought to be very wary of arguments that provide such a neat dovetailing of our moral obligations and our self-interest.
I honestly don’t know what I think about this, and still less do I know how to apply the proper principles to our own more complex political scene. But I do think it’s right to conclude that there are at least some potential circumstances in which religious believers, in order to be faithful to their religious traditions, would need to refrain from direct political advocacy for those traditions.
I’m pretty sure I don’t agree with the underlying premise that voters should aspire to cast their ballots in a selfless manner. Indeed, I think “selfless” is a red-herring. The objective oughtn’t be to deny the needs or wants of the self, but to see beyond them, to feel other selves as equally worthy of care (and yourself as equally unworthy of supremacy), and thereby to achieve a feeling of solidarity with those other selves. (Then again, I’m not a Christian, so your mileage may vary.)
I also think that, from a purely selfish or an enlightenedly-selfish perspective, there are arguments on both sides of this one. (I will take as a given Jacobs’s premises that there are real threats to religious liberty, and that there are real threats of unnecessary and destructive war, and that there’s a real difference between the two parties on both points – all debatable premises, just not ones I’m going to debate here.) Christians – men and women from communities like his – will be the ones unleashing that unnecessary death and destruction Jacobs fears. They will suffer – possibly from injury or death, but also from being required to become killers. Which is worse: to tell 100 people they will lose their jobs if they do not conform to new social norms to which they have religious objections – or to tell 10 people they will be sent to prison if they do not kill a host of strangers when ordered to do so?
Thinking less-selfishly, there are also points on both sides. Jacobs presumably believes that these unnecessary wars are deeply harmful to the collective economic, political and spiritual well-being of the country. He also presumably believes that efforts to exclude traditional Christian believers from full-participation in the civic life of the country is harmful to the country’s well-being. And unnecessary wars and religious persecution alike tear at the fabric of the civil compact that holds the country together.
I think it’s a mistake to try to find a trump card in these kinds of situations. Or, rather, the trump card may not be the issue that is objectively most important either to your own self-interest or some more enlightened conception. It’s going to be the thing that you simply can’t swallow, no matter how hard you try. In that regard, and to tip my hand about how I’d decide the question, let me make two analogies.
First, I get a decent amount of flack for writing for this website from friends who can’t understand how I could affiliate with a publication founded by Pat Buchanan. And I can explain myself in part by talking about all the ways that the magazine has changed since those days, and also by saying that, when I signed on, I warned the editor that I was “off-side” on a huge number of issues versus where the readership was, and was reassured that the magazine had no “line” and that I’d be free to write what I wished. I signed on because, even though I no longer particularly considered myself to be “on the right” or “conservative” in any meaningful political sense, I thought it was exceedingly important that there be a voice from that quarter standing against the militarism that was overwhelmingly dominant in the American right. And I made that decision in spite of the fact that the faction of the right that is most-friendly to anti-war arguments has, historically, also been least-friendly to the interests of my own people. With, in the 1940s, genocidal consequences. I just decided that this isn’t the 1940s.
And a second analogy. Before 1948, the United States army was segregated. Thousands upon thousands of African-American citizens served with distinction in an army that explicitly regarded their citizenship as second-class. How would you rank their dilemma against the dilemma Jacobs describes? And how would you explain to a veteran of that period, who swallowed that humiliation to serve his country, that you could not vote for the peace candidate because of his party’s treatment of your people, but would rather see his grandson fight for an unjust cause?
I can’t think of a good answer.