I sometimes get into trouble in the comments sections of conservative websites for my stance on the social side of modern conservatism. I usually stay away from those threads, but sometimes I express an opinion, and the fireworks follow.
Before going further, let me share my personal background. I grew up in the Church of Christ, a group of independent churches from the Restoration Movement. It’s a socially conservative church, and its members generally vote Republican. Its teachings informed my own values and perceptions of right and wrong, good and evil.
Later, I attended the University of Virgina to study government and politics. UVa is”Mr. Jefferson’s university.” Today, it’s as liberal as any other, but I loved the political philosophy of the Enlightenment. I studied the writings of John Locke, Thomas Paine, and, Thomas Jefferson himself. His influence permeates the university and its grounds, and I soaked it all in.
Before college, I was a Republican because of my Christian upbringing. Afterward, I remained a Republican not only because of my values, but because I believed individual liberty and limited government.
As years went by, not only did my political philosophy deepen, but my faith changed, as well. As I thought about the New Testament and everything I had been taught growing up, it struck me that I had spent my life looking at things the wrong way around. Christianity isn’t supposed to be code of laws. Christ made a sacrifice for us, but he gave us choices; intensely personal choices.
Jesus dined with prostitutes. Out of love. He took a Roman tax collector under his wing. He saved the life of an adulteress, telling her to “go, and sin no more.” He didn’t call them names. He loved them and offered them something better – a choice to believe or not. I couldn’t get over that. I became convinced faith is not only personal, but it is voluntary and non-judgmental.
Christianity is a personal faith. I do not “pray on the street corners” to impress others. It’s my own, for God alone to judge. Neither do I pass judgement on the faith of others. Each person is responsible for their own. I certainly cannot pick specks from the eyes of others when I have beams in my own.
Locke, Jefferson, and the other Enlightenment philosophers taught me the most important role of government is to protect individual liberty – our God-given rights to be secure in our person, property, and liberty. It provides a framework of mutual trust and security in which people can interact and prosper. Government only has the powers we cede to it. Every increase in government power costs a corresponding decrease in personal liberty, so it is important to cede only those powers absolutely necessary for these legitimate ends.
If government can be said to have a moral imperative, this is it, directly informed by our Judeo -Christian heritage. It enforces Christs instruction: do unto others as you would have them do unto you. Not in so many words, but protecting each person’s liberty fosters a mutual respect between individuals that benefits us all.
Government is force, but Christ did not order people to follow him. He never mandated works, and he never placed limits. He asked for faith, voluntarily given, and it is faith that begets works. From the Garden of Eden all the way through the New Testament, God gave us a choice to do good or evil, to be moral or immoral.
If God gives people that choice, what is government to take it away?
So long as individual behavior, moral or immoral, does not directly impact the individual liberty of another, government should have no role. I am therefore socially conservative on a personal level, but socially lenient politically.
Government spends vast sums of money and deprives millions of their property and freedom to punish essentially victimless crimes. Whether it’s the war on drugs, prostitution, or unisex bathrooms, all involve restricting freedom of choice and taking property (in the form of taxes) by force for what are essentially moral choices. Because Christian values are personal, I am tolerant of gay marriage and even abortion until the fetus is viable. Government should not be a tool to impose values on others.
I sympathize with social conservative positions on all these issues. The church’s teachings helped form my values. I find prostitution immoral, and I would never pay for sex. I have no desire to smoke marijuana. I would not want aa woman carrying my child to seek an abortion. But I separate the personal from the political. It’s only fair to the individual rights of others to do so.
Rolling back decades of an expanding federal government, restoring federalism, and reestablishing the separation of powers is a gargantuan task. Doing so will necessarily involve rolling back progressive intrusions into social policy. Government has no business promoting their social agenda, either.
Giving government power to enforce personal morality allows it to enforce values we oppose, as well – and it diminishes our liberty at the same time. We should keep individual liberty enshrined as the ideal, even when we disapprove of what people do with it.