From time to time, people will ask me if I am a conservative. Usually it is because something I say, or the way I say it, just doesn’t sound right to them.
I usually smile and reply that I am.
But am I?
Or perhaps I should ask another question: “are there only two camps of people in our country now – conservatives and liberals? To fail to be in one camp automatically places one in the other?”
Has it come to that?
This matter of political labels is a particularly difficult issue for Christians. Jesus said, “If you have two coats, give your brother one.” Does that make him a liberal? The early believers in Acts had “all things common.” Was that socialism? One the other hand, St. Paul said, “if a man will not work, neither shall he eat.” Does that make him a conservative?
What do these labels mean for a Christian?
Last week, Jack Kemp died. He was truly one of America’s great patriots and public servants. He deeply influenced the nation’s political life through his influence upon Ronald Reagan. Jack Kemp was called a “bleeding heart” conservative.
He was conservative but…
He once wrote a book called Liberal Concerns; Conservative Solutions. I really, really liked that book. It gave me words to express my own political beliefs. Kemp was a fiscal conservative, which meant that he did not believe that government should operate with huge budgets and massive social programs. But he also believed all citizens had a responsibility to care for those who could not care for themselves. He cared about mass transit, health care and education and explored ways to address these needs of a well-ordered society that was consistent with his conservatisms.
He deplored the cold hearted “that’s just the way it is” kind of mentality that was increasingly gripping his party and his nation.
The reason I liked Jack Kemp was that a Christian simply cannot embrace an “everyman for himself, social Darwinist philosophy.” The Bible forbids that path in its opening chapters, with the story of Cain. So if a believer knows, really knows, that people suffer because of systemic failure or neglect – such as a lack of urban infrastructure – he or she cannot ignore it. (I was hungry and you wouldn’t feed me.)
Serving a mid city congregation for ten years forced me to become aware of urban poverty and of the systems and lack thereof that maintain that poverty. We could find work for our people but since there was no effective mass transit, (that situation has now improved in Phoenix) the people were forced to buy cars. Furthermore, the cars had to pass emissions. Furthermore, the cars had to be insured. Furthermore, the jobs did not provide health insurance, which meant that the workers either had to go to work ill – even if they were flipping hamburgers – or to miss pay (or get fired) for not showing up to work.
During that decade, I became aware that my pat and packaged answers to urban poverty, health care and mass transit were inadequate and cruel. However, when I tried to explore my concerns, fellow Christians would look at me with horror or amusement; I was either “one of them” or idealistic and naive.
Meanwhile, I watched families struggle in neighborhoods that were veritable hellholes of poverty and crime, trying to get up and get out before their children would have to go to bad schools, resist violent gangs and escape the scourge of drugs. The parents had to guide their children through this mess while trying to get rides to work and then trying to get home again before their children had to spend too many unsupervised hours; trying to keep the kids healthy without health care, trying to survive in the world’s wealthiest nation.
So I decided that an economy of the “quick or the dead” was not one I could embrace as a Christian. I remained a capitalist and a free-market person but I no longer believed in social Darwinism or liaise-faire capitalism. I was definitely not a libertarian, which was the direction my party and fellow conservatives seem to be embracing.
So what was I?
I was a Christian conservative. However, the word “Christian” would define the type of conservative I had become.
What I meant by that was simply that from now on, the words of Jesus would trump the words of Adam Smith or the actions of Donald Trump. The authority of St. Paul would supersede that of Jack Welch or of Rush Limbaugh. In fact, I would reject the group-think of my party altogether. I would continue to vote with my party most of the time but I would no longer take for granted that my party (or that American conservatism) was right. I would think for myself, as the light of scripture and the power of prayer molded my thoughts as well as my emotions. I would think about “the least of these” and the impact of my theories and my votes on the social structures in which they live. I would do these things because my Lord commands me to do them.
Those were my thoughts last Saturday when I learned that Jack Kemp was dead.
He did not become president. He did not become vice-president. He was merely a congressman and a football player who although a loyal Republican and conservative, had the decency to listen to the other side from time to time and to acknowledge the strength of their concerns.He was a man of integrity; a patriot who remembered that public service is a calling to be of service to the public.
May his tribe increase.