Lost amid day-to-day coverage of the Republican presidential candidates’ jockeying is the question of what kind of values debate we need to have heading into 2012. The economy has so far overshadowed “culture war” issues in this campaign, but rumors of the religious right’s death are greatly exaggerated. This is underscored by more than last month’s “Values Voter” summit in Washington or a recent debate in Iowa hosted by Ralph Reed’s Faith and Freedom Coalition (which drew all but one GOP presidential candidate). A group of wealthy donors has also announced an ambitious effort to swing the 2012 election by registering 5 million new Christian conservatives to vote. Conservative Christians have an enduring relevance to American politics.
As an evangelical Christian who believes the Republican Party does not have a monopoly on moral values, I believe this discussion is long overdue. The “compassionate conservatism” espoused by President George W. Bush and many prominent evangelical leaders has been supplanted by a Tea Party ideology that bears more resemblance to the anti-Christian philosophy of Ayn Rand than it does to the Gospel.
Whether the Christian duty to love our neighbors is compatible with a political movement that embraces radical individualism and rejects the ethic of collective responsibility is a central question as the GOP attempts to cement the Tea Party and the religious right into a cohesive base. Tea Party activists and Republican leaders have consistently targeted for cutbacks vital government programs that protect the poor, the elderly, children and other vulnerable Americans. Yet calls for shared sacrifice and proposals to modestly raise taxes on the wealthiest Americans in order to fund investments and protections that promote the common good are derided as “class warfare.” This is what passes for family values?
Social conservative leaders have shrewdly recalibrated for an election in which the economy is the top concern for voters. Baptizing as a “moral agenda” tax cuts for the wealthy, steep budget cuts to programs that save lives and deregulation of Wall Street takes a lot of nerve. But the Family Research Council — which organized last month’s Values Voter summit — and Christian conservative operatives advance a political agenda by suggesting that the priorities of corporations and the GOP fit snugly with the teachings of Jesus.
This might be good politics, but it’s bad theology. Most “values voters” with even a minimal degree of biblical literacy recognize that the Hebrew prophets and Jesus warned the powerful not to afflict the poor and comfort the rich. These bedrock Judeo-Christian principles are flouted by conservatives who demand cuts to nutrition programs that help low-income women feed their children even as they defend tax loopholes for some of the world’s wealthiest people.
At a time when our nation is plagued by the worst poverty rates in decades, religious leaders are not buying this narrow ideological agenda. In fact, evangelicals, Catholic bishops and Protestant leaders are leading a “Circle of Protection” campaign to defend government programs that provide a basic measure of dignity and security to those struggling to make ends meet. We are also urging a balanced approach to deficit reduction that doesn’t put the greatest burden on those hit hardest by the economic crisis.
Despite the media infatuation with the religious right, data from Public Religion Research Institute and other polls consistently show that a majority of Christians care about a broad set of moral priorities — protecting the poor from harmful budget cuts, comprehensive reform of immigration laws, supporting renewable energy and supporting family planning and other common-ground policies that prevent abortions. Such nuance is often lost in a political moment defined by polarization.
It’s time for a new values debate. Millions of religious Americans who believe in economic fairness, health care as a basic human right and justice for immigrants will vote in next year’s elections. They are not going to let the “religious right” speak for them.
The Rev. Richard Cizik is president of the New Evangelical Partnership for the Common Good. He was vice president for governmental affairs of the National Association of Evangelicals from 1998 to 2008.