WASHINGTON — At the Family Research Council’s recent Values Voter Summit, the religious right effectively declared its conversion to Trumpism.
The president was received as a hero. Steve Bannon and Sebastian Gorka — both fired from the White House, in part, for their extremism — set the tone and agenda. “There is a time and season for everything,” said Bannon. “And right now, it’s a season for war against a GOP establishment.”
A time to live and a time to die. A time to plant and a time to uproot. A time to mourn and a time to embrace angry ethnonationalism and racial demagoguery. Yes, a time to mourn.
There is no group in America less attached to its own ideals or more eager for its own exploitation than religious conservatives. Forget Augustine and Aquinas, Wilberforce and Shaftesbury. For many years, leaders of the religious right exactly conformed Christian social teaching to the contours of Fox News evening programming. Now, according to Bannon, “economic nationalism” is the “centerpiece of value voters.” I had thought the centerpiece was a vision of human dignity rooted in faith. But never mind. Evidently the Christian approach to social justice is miraculously identical to 1930s Republican protectionism, isolationism and nativism.
Do religious right leaders have any clue how foolish they appear? Rather than confidently and persistently representing a set of distinctive beliefs, they pant and beg to be a part of someone else’s movement. In this case, it is a movement that takes advantage of racial and ethnic divisions and dehumanizes Muslims, migrants and refugees. A movement that has cultivated ties to alt-right leaders and flirted with white identity politics. A movement that will eventually soil and discredit all who are associated with it.
The religious right is making itself a pitiful appendage to this squalid agenda. If Christian conservatives are loyal enough, Bannon promises that they can be “the folks who saved the Judeo-Christian West.” All that is required is to abandon the best of the Judeo-Christian tradition: A belief in the inherent value and dignity of every life.
This belief in human dignity leads to a certain moral and political logic. It means that the primary mission of Christians in public life is not to secure their own interests or to defend their own identity. It is to seek a society in which every person can flourish. This is the definition of the common good — which is not truly common unless it includes the suffering and powerless.
The common good is a neglected topic in our politics. It is not identical to market forces, or to legal rules that maximize individual autonomy. It is the result of prudent public and private choices that strengthen community — the seedbed of human flourishing — and ensure the weak are valued and protected. The idea of the common good emerged from religious sources, but provides a broad, political common ground.
If there is a single reason that Republican health care reform has failed, it is because party leaders could not make a credible case that the common good was being served. Even if individual elements of the various plans were rational, they did not add up to a more just, generous and inclusive society.
Who would now identify conservative Christian political engagement with the pursuit of the common good? Rather, the religious right is an interest group seeking preference and advancement from a strongman — and rewarding him with loyal acceptance of his priorities. The prophets have become clients. The priests have become acolytes.
It is possible for Christian conservatives to support the appointment of conservative judges without becoming a tribe of apologists and sycophants. It is possible to selectively endorse elements of the administration’s agenda without becoming Bannon’s foot soldiers.
There is more at stake here than bad politics. When Christians ally their faith with bias and exclusion, they are influencing how the public views Christianity itself. They are associating the teachings of Jesus Christ — a globalist when it came to the Great Commission — with ethnonationalist ideology. This should be a sobering prospect for any Christian. But few seem sobered. Instead, the faithful give standing ovations to the purveyors of division and prejudice.
When anyone or anything takes priority over the faith, there is a good, strong religious word for it: idolatry. And the word is unavoidable, as religious conservatives carry their golden calf into Bannon’s battles.
Michael Gerson’s email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.