Strengthening Constitutional Self-Government

No Left Turns

Religious right and left

In response to a comment on another post, I tried briefly to articulate the difference between the "religious ’Right’" and the "religious Left." Here’s what I wrote, offered in the hope that NLT commenters will help me refine it.

I’d state the difference between "Christian ’Right’" and "Christian Left" this way: the former are conservative in the sense that they wish to restore a family- and church-centered ideal, which they regard as under assault and having been eroded by the assault; the latter wish to create something historically unprecedented, at most inspired by a vision of "Godly" community. For the former, government can protect these "natural" or "God-ordained" institutions, which are the locus of human responsibility and the seats of charity. For the latter, government is the instrument of "inspired" individual responsibility and charity, remaking or transforming institutions to suit the vision, which is itself universalistic.

Because it insists upon the importance of family and church, religious conservatism isn’t really "individualistic." Because it regards all communal arrangements--other than the brotherhood (siblinghood?) of mankind (humankind?)--as matter of choice undertaken by individuals, "liberated" and transformed by government, religious liberalism is, in an attenuated sense, "individualistic."

As an example of how this difference plays out in governance, I’d point to the difference between conservative and liberal "faith-based initiatives." The former regards government as an instrument for expanding the reach of religious organizations, which are, or ought to be, the primary instruments of charity. The latter regards religious organizations as instruments for expanding te reach of government. The former emphasize religious liberty in respecting the missions and hiring standards of the religious organizations. The latter emphasize non-discrimination and social service professionalism, making the religious organizations as much like government agencies as possible.

To the degree that both the religious Right and the religious Left are religious, it’s the latter that is closer to a kind of "theocracy." It has the vision that authorizes the total transformation of society by government.

Discussions - 11 Comments

Yes, I like that. It was a very approachable explanation.

A further distinction might be the role of God. The Christian Left tends to see God as informing the efforts of man; the Christian Right more often sees God empowering the efforts of man.

Evidence of the latter can be found in Huckabee's comment that his campaign success is ultimately from God. From a Christian Right perspective such a comment is perfectly understandable. The comments were met with some disdain by the Left.

Very plausibly said, both Joe and Don; a good deal to reflect upon. Both rang true upon first hearing.
Joe, does your distinction coordinate with James Davison Hunter's Progressives v. Orthodox distinction? (Since he said the distinction was an intradenominational division.)


Yes, I suppose that was in the back of my mind, though it's been a long time since I read the book. I guess I should re-read it.

[T]he latter wish to create something historically unprecedented, at most inspired by a vision of "Godly" community.

So to be clear, the Puritans represent the religious left--at least in its embryonic form?

The Puritans looked backward to Jerusalem, didn't they? They didn't think in terms of worldly history and progress, did they?

Joe - The New England Calvinists had a strong view of Christian history, in which their efforts would play an exemplary part, no?

Joe, it seems like the distinction you're laying out is similar to that which existed between those who sought to prepare the way for the Second Coming by reforming human society (that is, the postmillennialists), and those who believed the Second Coming would be brought about only through supernatural means, with no human involvement whatsoever (premillennialists). Most of the Puritans fell into the camp of the former, while Mormons, Seventh-Day Adventists, and Roman Catholics fell into the latter.

There's an excellent discussion of this in Daniel Walker Howe's What Hath God Wrought: The Transformation of America, 1815-1848.


They were building a city on a hill, to be sure. But weren't the plans laid out already?

If there's a more precise way of explaining the difference between religious Right and Left in terms of their attitudes toward their projects in history, I'm open to it. Perhaps it would be better to talk about whether the Millenium has any sort of transcendent or divine dimension at all.


Thanks, that's helpful. Here's how I'd phrase it in the light of the comments: on the religious Right, there's a Millenial continuum from premillenialism to a largely church-centered postmillenialism. On the religious Left, everyone seems to be a more or less state-centered postmillenialist, with little or no concern about whether there will be an actual Second Coming.

Isn't the effort of the religious left to create a heaven on earth? Man is perfectible and therefore his society can be perfected, that it is all a matter of progress and education.

The religious right spans the spectrum from militantly premil (dispensationalists) to militantly postmil (Reconstructionist). And the two sides don't really get along. The postmils see the premils as pessimistic and prone to cultural retreat and defeatism. Their theology says things will inevitably get worse before they get better. The premils see the postmils as hopelessly naive.

So I agree that the religious right has generally attempted to restore something that has been lost against an assault. But I am not sure that the willingness to use government to achieve some greater good clearly distinguishes right from left. To some degree the postmil/premil distinction may confound that. Don’t Reconstructionists and other lighter forms of “dominionists” (a term that is often misused and can only really theologically be accurately used to describe postmils) call for significant use of government for good? They do want to restore something that has been lost (conservative) but then want to run with it from there (radical but not necessarily liberal).

The distinction you makes generally rings true to me, but I think a lot of the current religious right could be described as religious left by your reckoning. I am not sure this is from a philosophical commitment to leftism as much as it is to poor understanding and naiveté.

My impression is that the true religious left (Obama) is almost always theologically leftist or at least moderate as well. (Maybe there are a few exceptions such as Tony Campolo perhaps.) They wish to use the State and their faith to achieve “leftist” goals. Equality, justice, etc. They read leftism into the faith.

This gets at the Puritan discussion below. The Puritans were conservative (give me that old time religion), but also radical, hoping to totally remake society in a Biblical image. Their often equally Calvinistic Southern brethren were conservative, but not radical. Attempting to apply their faith in the real time and circumstances that God had placed them, not fundamentally alter it. The problem was that as the Puritans shed their theological conservatism, they kept their radicalism.

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