Should the left get religion? Yes—a revival of the religious left would be good for America. Among white voters, church attendance has become a strong partisan indicator. Leftists are increasingly irreligious, and political divisions are taking on a spiritual aspect. This is bad for the church and for the state.
But could the left get religion? Kirsten Powers recently made the case for an “awakening of the Christian left.” I am a conservative, but I would agree that Christians can hold good-faith progressive views on political issues from environmental policy to gun control to tax rates. Despite our disagreements, I would be delighted if progressives were coming back to church rather than fleeing.
But to get religion, the left will have to change. Powers’ column, which was based on an interview with Pete Buttigieg, the Democratic presidential hopeful who is currently the mayor of South Bend, Indiana, illustrates how many on the Christian left leave Christianity behind to conform to the culture. Two issues that she picks out—abortion and sexual morality—illuminate this.
Jesus Didn’t Explicitly Talk About a Lot of Things
On abortion, Powers reports that “Buttigieg criticized right-wing Christians for ‘saying so much about what Christ said so little about, and so little about what he said so much about.’” She elaborates, complaining about “the religious right’s treatment of abortion as a litmus test for Christian faith, when in fact Jesus never mentioned the issue”—as if the lack of a record of Jesus prohibiting a specific category of unjust killing means it might be permissible. This is legalistic loophole-hunting. There are many horrible deeds that Jesus did not specifically prohibit.
Despite the diversity of our other political opinions, Christians should speak with a united voice in declaring that the government should not permit, let alone subsidize, the killing of developing humans in utero. Opposition to abortion should be a baseline for Christian involvement in politics, and progressive Christians who support bigger government in order to combat injustice should be loud supporters of the right to life.
Sadly, their voices and votes tend to disappear when it matters. According to Powers, Buttigieg’s favorite Bible verse is from Matthew: “Whatever you did for one of the least of these … you did for me.” However, “Mayor Pete” wants the government to allow the killing of the “least of these” until they are born, and the official position of the Democratic Party is taxpayer-funded abortion on demand until birth (and maybe even a little after). There is space for good faith disagreement on many political points, but no Christian philosophy of government can endorse America’s state-sanctioned massacre of the innocents.
As for the charge that “right-wing” Christians ignore what Jesus “said so much about,” it conflates what the church has to say to believers with what the church should say to the government. Contrary to what Powers and Buttigieg insinuate, declining to lobby for big government anti-poverty programs is not the same as indifference to the poor, or approval of greed. Jesus commanded us to care for the poor, he did not tell us the extent to which government should be used for that task, let alone provide detailed positions on topics like work requirements for welfare recipients.
Protecting innocent human life is among the first duties of government, whereas the size and scope of anti-poverty programs are open to honest disagreement. Caring for the poor is a moral imperative, while doing so effectively and justly is a realm of legitimate disputation.
Indeed, a Christian revival on the left would increase the amount of political disagreement between American Christians on many issues. Despite this friction, conservative Christians should welcome fellow believers who disagree with us on all sorts of political issues. However, we cannot compromise on abortion; even if we are all hypocrites, that does not excuse those on the left accepting the evil of abortion.
Can We Detach Sexual Morality from the Rest of Christian Teachings?
Nor can we abandon orthodox Christian teachings on sexual morality. It may be fashionable to endorse, as Powers seems to, Buttigeig’s same-sex marriage, but Christians must not do so. The extent to which many Christian moral teachings should be supported by the government is disputable; that the church should uphold them is not.
Marriage is an image of Christ and his church. It is the relationship God instituted and blessed as the means of united the two halves of the human race and creating new persons. Thus, rejecting the orthodox Christian view of sexuality and marriage necessitates denying much more than a discrete doctrine or two. Sexual morals are not severable from the rest of Christian teaching.
Rejecting Christian sexual teaching is a challenge to the entire Christian view of human persons and our destiny in Christ, as well as to biblical authority and Christian tradition. This is why those who deny part of orthodox Christian sexual ethics often end up denying it all, and even abandon essential doctrines such as the divinity and the resurrection of Christ.
Of course, conservative Christians have our own problems with sexuality. The sexual sins the majority of us are tempted by and are guilty of have often been overlooked and excused. Too frequently, there has been little grace extended to those whose temptations are not like ours, even as we easily claimed forgiveness ourselves. Not enough care has been given to those upon whom Christian sexual morality may lay a heavier burden.
But the right response to this hypocrisy is not abandoning Christian sexual ethics in favor of a new iteration of the pagan sexual morality that Christianity vanquished. Rather, it is to repent and cultivate humility and compassion while still proclaiming Christian truths and human nature and sexuality.
Among these truths is that sexual liberation leads to exploitation as an ethos of indulgence favors the powerful and privileged at the expense of the weak and the marginalized. Most prominently, sexual liberation is premised on abortion, which is often required as a failsafe. It is no coincidence that to the extent progressive Christianity has accepted abortion and embraced the sexual revolution, it has withered and become enfolded into secular leftism, with Jesus admired as a sage or social worker, rather than worshiped as the savior.
Conservative Christians should recognize that there are many political issues on which we may have good faith-disagreements with our left-wing brothers and sisters. We should engage with them in a spirit of love, charity, and even compromise. But we cannot abandon innocent lives to the violence of abortion. Nor can we renounce teachings on marriage and sexuality that are rooted in creation and represent the union of Christ and his church.