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From the July/August, 2003 issue of Touchstone


“First, Do No Harm” by James Hitchcock


“First, Do No Harm”

Religion and politics are indeed a potentially lethal mix, and Touchstone’s judgments about the Democratic party have inevitably brought forth charges that the journal is blindly loyal to the Republicans. If so, it were a grievous fault.

One reason for criticizing Democrats rather than Republicans is that, with some exceptions, Republicans do not seem to have the same religious commitment to their party that many Democrats have to theirs. Touchstone’s judgments were inspired by a fascinating study1 showing that the more fervent a church member is, the more likely he is to vote Republican, while the large majority of self-described non-religious people are Democrats, with people who are anti-religious being the most Democratic of all.

Political liberalism, embodied in the Democratic party, serves as a kind of substitute religion in a way conservative ideology cannot. The political Left—from anarchists through Communists and Socialists to garden-variety meliorist liberals—possesses a certain unity, which is the dream of utopia, of making a better world through political action. Those who lose their religious beliefs, or who never had any, can find in leftist politics a great Truth to which they can commit their lives, something which gives them inherent and transcendent meaning, and which calls for sacrifice on behalf of something greater than themselves.

Conservative politics cannot serve the same purpose because it precisely denies these dreams of utopia and constantly urges that politics be kept within limited and manageable bounds, that grand schemes for social transformation are likely to result in great disasters, often not recognized until it is too late. Although some Christians devote their lives to politics, as one might to any profession, no Christian can legitimately put politics at the center of his life. But liberalism, apart from its specific tenets, demands precisely that.

The “Religious Right” is often charged with having made that same fatal mistake, and to the degree that the charge is true, it is indeed fatal. Some orthodox believers, buoyed by the Republican position on abortion, have become uncritical supporters of the party. Most, however, can say what Jerry Falwell said to explain his own entry into politics—that the state would not let believers alone; thus, it was necessary to become involved in politics as a protective measure.

Devout Christians seldom support the Republican party with the blind loyalty of some Democrats for theirs. If anything, the opposite is true, in that most serious Christians vote Republican only if Republican candidates seem to hold correct principles, and these same believers are often eager to support Democrats who also hold those principles. Rather than supporting Republicans who deny those principles, such Christians treat them as enemies.

Some free-market conservatives do seem to embrace their ideology with an almost religious fervor, the disciples of Ayn Rand (a proclaimed atheist) being the extreme example. But it is characteristic of the free market, as Adam Smith himself observed when the market was still embryonic, that it does not call forth the same passions, the same level of fervent commitment, as does religion. The market tends to foster a rather humdrum society in which individuals pursue ultimate truth in whatever ways they see fit. Impassioned devotees of the free market are rather like impassioned stamp collectors, investing their passion in an object that is not suited to receive it.

In its pure form (seldom found in the real world of politics) conservatism is a negative philosophy that enjoins on politicians what Hippocrates enjoined on physicians, “First, do no harm.” It conceives government actions as last resorts for dealing with specific needs no other agency can address, and it urges that the state withdraw once those needs have been met. In such a philosophy, whatever harm the state may do is primarily by omission, and no legitimate political program can ever inspire religious commitment.

Christians who embrace liberalism with a passion do so on humanitarian grounds that are said to be based on the gospel. Thus, some sincere believers see themselves in a predicament—abortion on the one hand, the welfare state on the other, an uncomfortable choice in which the believer may legitimately pick the latter and bristles at the claim that such a choice is morally wrong. But defining the issue in this way merely shows the degree to which political liberalism has already achieved a kind of religious status in the minds of such people.

Until the advent of modern religious liberalism, Christianity always condemned abortion and always upheld a sexual ethic centered around chastity, with legitimate sexual activity permitted only within marriage. These are not disputable claims. (More accurately, they are disputable only by falsifying the Christian history of almost two thousand years.) Thus, when the Democratic party embraces the “right” to abortion, or the legitimacy of sex outside marriage, it deliberately sets itself against Christian morality.

Jesus commanded his followers to help those in need, even making that a fundamental condition for salvation. Nowhere, however, did he even hint that this ought to be the responsibility of government. He did not confront Herod or Pontius Pilate to castigate them for not instituting some kind of welfare state. Neither, down through the centuries, did the various churches advocate this. Historically, most forms of welfare were precisely the work of those churches, with public welfare programs only slowly developing in early modern times, conceived as minimal efforts to alleviate the worst kinds of need.

During the nineteenth century some Christians (a very few) embraced some form of socialism as the true fulfillment of the gospel, and eventually there would even be self-described Christian Marxists. But it was primarily the liberal welfare state, as it emerged in the 1930s in response to the Great Depression, that convinced perhaps a majority of Western Christians that such was the appropriate way to implement Jesus’ command.

In principle, that assumption is not illegitimate. Changing historical conditions often make it impossible to apply Jesus’ words to modern society without some kind of theological mediation, and the welfare state might be considered a legitimate development of Christian understanding. But those Christians who assert a religious obligation to support the welfare state often seem unaware that such theological mediation has even taken place, or that it might still be subject to debate. They make a claim whose roots do not go back even a century and which would have been incomprehensible to Christians of earlier times. Support for the welfare state is not, and cannot be, a necessary dictate of Christian morality. It depends on a series of intermediate arguments claiming that the state is the appropriate agency to administer Christian charity and that it can and will do so in a proper way, a prudential judgment that is arguable but by no means unassailable.

By now, however, political liberalism has become so reflexive for some Christians that they no longer recall that series of prudential judgments and are impervious to the possibility that the arguments may be flawed. The rightness of the welfare state is simply taken as self-evident, even as a religious imperative.

But in important ways, the welfare state undercuts the very possibility of Christian charity in the classical sense, as the omnicompetent state, unhindered, assumes more and more of the responsibilities once discharged by religious institutions. (For example, the great network of Catholic social agencies, including hospitals, is now largely dependent on government money, and its agencies are rapidly losing their religious character.) The welfare state, in terms of money and power, is indeed a leviathan, with which even the largest churches cannot hope to compete. The welfare state may even discourage acts of private charity, as citizens are taught to assume that all problems are appropriately dealt with by public agencies.

In evaluating welfare programs, liberal Christians almost always concentrate on their economic effects, which is why they exist. But surely it is religious believers, above all, who ought also to look beyond economics, who ought to remind the public that economics is not ultimate.

One of the most basic criticisms of the welfare state is that it does not treat welfare recipients as fully moral persons but merely as “clients” in a permanent state of dependency. A properly Christian view of welfare ought to have as a principal component the goal of restoring recipients to a status of free self-reliance, a goal that often seems to be lacking among advocates of welfare programs, who instead see their mission as continually expanding the scope and variety of such programs and drawing more and more people into them.

It is not by accident that the abortion issue and the welfare issue have come to be seen as opposed to one another, because the welfare state now increasingly claims responsibility for aspects of people’s lives that the New Deal of the 1930s would never have conceived of. Thus, abortion is a “right” that ought not to be denied to the poor, nor should medical personnel or hospitals be permitted to refuse abortions out of religious conscience. Contraceptive services should be made widely available, and young people should be propagandized by schools and other public agencies to accept fully the sexual revolution. “Tolerance of diversity” is now the major good that the welfare state promises to foster, and it is routinely interpreted in ways inimical to Christian belief.

Those Christians who support the ever-expanding welfare state do not seem prepared to address the question how that state is to be prevented from deliberately acting as an agent for undermining Christian morality. To claim that true Christianity requires people to vote Republican would be a gross misuse of moral principle. But in America today, a Christian who is a conservative can at least claim that he supports the party that does the least amount of active mischief. There are serious arguments why Christians can be political liberals, but at present, few of those liberals appear willing even to consider the disturbing evidence of systematic mischief perpetrated by the liberal state.

1. Louis Bolce and Gerald De Maio, “Our Secularist Democratic Party,” The Public Interest, Fall 2002.

James Hitchcock is Professor emeritus of History at St. Louis University in St. Louis. He and his late wife Helen have four daughters. His most recent book is the two-volume work, The Supreme Court and Religion in American Life (Princeton University Press, 2004). He is a senior editor of Touchstone.

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“"First, Do No Harm"” first appeared in the July/August 2003 issue of Touchstone. If you enjoyed this article, you'll find more of the same in every issue. Support the work of Touchstone by subscribing today!

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