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War, Religious Liberty, and Priorities

Alan Jacobs is worried [1] 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.

5 Comments (Open | Close)

5 Comments To "War, Religious Liberty, and Priorities"

#1 Comment By William Dalton On August 27, 2015 @ 2:23 pm

“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?”

Americans of all religious persuasions should object to a government which would do either. But it is particularly incumbent upon the Christian, who holds to the faith principle of “turn the other cheek”, to demand that the State do wrong to him before it do wrong to anyone else.

Sometimes that’s the most persuasive way to stop the State dead in its tracks.

#2 Comment By William Dalton On August 27, 2015 @ 3:09 pm

“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.”

I was first attracted to Pat Buchanan well before the founding of this magazine. Foremost, I supported Pat because he was a dynamic and brilliant speaker on behalf of the cause of social conservatism. And I also stood with him in the Cold War against Soviet Communism, foreign and domestic. But when the Cold War was over and conservatives began to diverge in their attitude towards the use of military force to protect American interests, selfish or self-sacrificing, abroad, I became persuaded that Pat spoke the truth that other social conservatives lacked either the courage or the wisdom to believe and endorse. His opposition to the Gulf War seemed to me alarmist, but he convinced me that the U.S. should have taken a support role, rather than be the leader of the U.N. endorsed coalition to evict Iraqi forces from Kuwait, in what might later be seen as a misguided attempt to impose a New World Order in which national aggressions are stopped in their tracks. As with Buchanan, I was also drawn through the 90’s to such writers as Joe Sobran, Charley Reese, and Lew Rockwell, who were accused of anti-Semitism because they saw the perfidious nature of the American-Israeli relationship – how it corrupted American politics and American foreign relations, particularly as it enticed the U.S. into engaging in military operations and creating enmities with other nations it was unwise to do.

Now, I acknowledge, the end of the Cold War affected my view of the need to challenge malignant foreign powers, as opposed to containing them, more so than most Americans. For me the driving desire, shared with many with roots in the “old country”, was to drive the Red Army out of the lands it conquered in World War II, and, in particular to liberate my mother’s homeland of East Prussia. When the wall fell, however, and Soviet forces were withdrawn behind official Soviet borders, and home rule was reestablished in Poland, Hungary, and other theretofore Soviet satellites, it became apparent to me that the injustice done to East Prussia would not, and could not, be reversed. The ethnic cleansing of the post-war 40’s would not be atoned for, there would be no “right of return” to this homeland, there would be no restoration of German rule over once German lands. To uproot and remove the millions who had moved in and populated those lands for two generations would be as great an injustice as the former which created them. Some things, like the coincident founding of the State of Israel, and the vast human flight and migrations which ensued, had to be accepted as fact, for the peace of all.

But, with the illusion that old wrongs between nations can be put right by military force removed from my eyes, I discovered there was very little I could see good coming from an ever expanding use of the American imperium, from the wars in Bosnia, Kosovo, Somalia, down to Iraq and Afghanistan, and that such ventures conducted in the name of extending freedom and democracy or in order to remove a threat to world peace rested upon arguments which were at best ill-conceived and ignorant of inconvenient truths, and at worst knowingly tendentious.

So, I followed Pat Buchanan into the pages of The American Conservative, and Ron Paul into the campaigns of 2008 and 2012. And with each new American foray into misguided wars and support for war both Republicans and Democrats led our country, from Libya and Syria to Georgia and Ukraine, I was convinced that the social conservatism of these men, a trait they shared with many whose reason and wisdom were not nearly so dependable, was not nearly as important as their clear-eyed understanding of what foreign and military policy would truly serve U.S. interests in the world and what serves only the interests of our governing elite.

I will only vote for those, Republican, Democrat, or other, who display that same clear-eyed understanding.

#3 Comment By Charlieford On August 27, 2015 @ 4:13 pm

Foreign policy is almost entirely the unrestrained prerogative of the executive branch. Religious liberties are affected by the actions and decisions of all three branches.

That’s all I need to know.

#4 Comment By Sam On August 27, 2015 @ 7:29 pm

I’m still not seeing why this brain game presents such a dilemma for people. I’d be happy to draw the curtains before pledging servitude to the dark lord Aranaktu if I knew that fewer people were getting bombed.

I mean, I think everyone should have the freedom to openly worship whichever Eldrich horror they wish to, but come on- this is human life we’re talking about. Have a sense of perspective.

#5 Comment By EngineerScotty On August 29, 2015 @ 3:18 pm

It’s good you posted this, Noah, seeing as how Alan’s post disallows comments.

One of the premises of Alan’s original post, however, is false. Party A (obviously the GOP), has never been a reliable proponent of religious liberty–instead it zealously defends and promotes the religious prerogatives of Christians, and often Christians of specific denominations. (In fairness to the GOP; the social faction within this country that seeks to enforce Protestant dominance of the polity was largely Democratic five decades hence).

Even today, while members of the GOP wail and gnash teeth about the Pink Police State and the oncoming oppression of their tribe–we have GOP-dominated state legislatures continuing to do things like erect and defend public displays of crosses, the Ten Commandments, and other overtly religious symbols; harass Muslims with such things as anti-Sharia laws and attempting to obstruct (sometimes using state power) mosque construction, and manipulate public school curricula and activities to conform to religious doctrine and mores.

Perhaps some time in the wilderness, and some time of having the whip at their backs and not in their hands, will convince religious conservatives of the need for true religious freedom (something this liberal has long supported)–but right now such pleadings are the equivalent of hollering about “states rights” from certain quarters–its forum shopping and trying to make arguments tailored to a particular outcome in a particular instance, rather than any stand on principle.

Call me when the GOP is an ardent defender of the religious rights of Muslims or Hindus or indigenous faiths, rather than only of Christians and Jews, and then we can talk.

Until then–religious freedom, my eye.