Several years ago J. Budziszewski penned a complementary set of articles for First Things on “The Problem with Liberalism” and “The Problem with Conservatism.”

In these articles he identifies several traits of each ideology and contrasts them with the teaching of Christianity. I’ve reproduced the outlines below, with some of his introductory comments and conclusions. You can read both pieces to see his arguments in full.

Note two things by way of prefatory comment.

First, note that these are general summary statements. Not every “liberal” will own each thesis, and the same is true on the “conservative” side. But there are people out there who hold to the different principles mentioned, whether the belief is explicit or implicit. So don’t get hung up with the response, “I’m a conservative and I don’t hold to X,” instead of evaluating whether or not his description of the Christian contrast is accurate and compelling.

Second, just because because neither political liberalism nor political conservatism is the gospel, it does not follow there there is a moral equivalency between the two. I think it’s too easy to draw that conclusion in the name of loving the gospel. It can still be the case that the consequences of one can be worse than the other.

On to the summaries.

Budziszewski writes:

Even though I am not a duck, I will sometimes seem to quack like a duck. I cannot be a liberal and I cannot even be in strategic alliance with liberals, but I may from time to time find myself in tactical alliance with them—just as with conservatives—defending the cause of particular laws, precepts, or policies that they too approve, but for reasons of their own. To keep my head, I had better be clear about what those reasons are and how they differ from mine. So although we cannot ask whether Christians can or should be political liberals, we can and should ask what Christians are to think of liberalism.

By “liberal,” Budziszewski is here referring to the “contemporary variety of government-driven social reformism.”

Here is his thesis:

My thesis is that, even as worldly philosophies go, political liberalism is deeply flawed. We may best describe it as a bundle of acute moral errors, with political consequences that grow more and more alarming as these errors are taken closer and closer to their logical conclusions. I am not speaking of such errors as celebrating sodomy and abortion—for these are merely symptoms—but of their causes. Nor am I speaking of all their causes—for this would require reading hearts—but of their intellectual causes. I am not even speaking of all their intellectual causes—for these are too numerous—but of the most obvious. No claim is here made that every political liberal commits all the moral errors all the time. Nor do I claim that all the moral errors are logically compatible, so they even could all be committed all the time. Certain moral errors support certain others, but others are at odds, so they must be committed selectively. One must not expect logical coherence in moral confusion.

And here are the nine moral errors he identifies with political liberalism, contrasted with the biblical worldview:

  1. Propitiationism: I should do unto others as they want. Christianity: I should do unto others as they need.
  2. Expropiationism: I may take from others to help the needy, giving nothing of my own. Christianity: I should give of my own to help the needy, taking from no one.
  3. Solipsism: Human beings make themselves, belong to themselves, and have value in and of themselves. Christianity: Human beings are made by God, belong to Him, and have value because they are loved by Him and made in His image.
  4. Absolutism: We cannot be blamed when we violate the moral law, either because we cannot help it, because we have no choice, or because it is our choice. Christianity: We must be blamed, because we are morally responsible beings.
  5. Perfectionism: Human effort is adequate to cure human evil. Christianity: Our sin, like our guilt, can be erased only by the grace of God through faith in Christ.
  6. Universalism: The human race forms a harmony whose divisions are ultimately either unreal or unimportant. Christianity: Human harmony has been shattered by sin and cannot be fully healed by any means short of conversion.
  7. Neutralism: The virtue of tolerance requires suspending judgments about good and evil. Christianity: The virtue of tolerance requires making judgments about good and evil.
  8. Collectivism: The state is more important to the child than the family. Christianity: The family is more important to the child than the state.
  9. The Fallacy of Desperate Gestures: “The perfectionist acts, at least in the beginning, from a desire to relieve someone else’s pain. The desperationist acts to relieve his own: the pain of pity, the pain of impotence, the pain of indignation. He is like a man who beats on a foggy television screen with a pipe wrench, not because the wrench will fix the picture but because it is handy and feels good to use.”

And here is his conclusion:

Here lies the power of political liberalism: Its moral errors are fortified with opiates. We may think that reality will break through the dream by itself, but reality is not self-interpreting; the causes by which errors are eventually dissipated and replaced by other errors are hidden in God’s Providence. All we can do is keep up the critique which is in the gospel, and in the meantime go on being Christians: our eyes lifted up not to the spectacular idol of political salvation, but to the Cross. Let those who will call this doing nothing; we know better.

On conservatism: Budziszewski is clear up front that not all of these errors apply equally to all conservatives. Rather he is identifying broad themes. Further, it helps to know that he is roughly defining a conservative as a person who “opposes the contemporary government-driven variety of social reformism in the name of some cherished thing which he finds that it endangers.”

Here is a short overview of his general perspective:

What then is a Christian to make of conservatism? The danger, it would seem, is not in conserving, for anyone may have a vocation to care for precious things, but in conservative ideology, which sets forth a picture of these things at variance with the faith. The same is true of liberalism. From time to time Christians may find themselves in tactical alliance with conservatives, just as with liberals, over particular policies, precepts, and laws. But they cannot be in strategic alliance, because their reasons for these stands are different; they are living in a different vision. For our allies’ sake as well as our own, it behooves us to remember the difference. We do not need another Social Gospel—just the Gospel.

Here are the eight moral errors, contrasted with the biblical vision:

  1. Civil Religionism: America is a chosen nation, and its projects are a proper focus of religious aspiration. Christianity: America is but one nation among many, no less loved by God, but no more.
  2. Instrumentalism: Faith should be used for the ends of the state. Christianity: Believers should be good citizens, but faith is not a tool.
  3. Moralism: God’s grace needs the help of the state. Christianity: Merely asks that the state get out of the way.
  4. Caesarism: The laws of man are higher than the laws of God. Christianity: The laws of God are higher than the laws of man.
  5. Traditionalism: What has been done is what should be done. Christianity: Any merely human custom may have to be repented.
  6. Neutralism: Everyone ought to mind his own business, therefore moral and religious judgments should be avoided. Christianity: While one ought to mind his own business, moral and religious judgments can never be avoided.
  7. Mammonism: Wealth is the object of commonwealth, and its continual increase even better. Christianity: Wealth is a snare, and its continual increase even worse.
  8. Meritism: I should do unto others as they deserve. Christianity: I should do unto others not as they deserve, but as they need.

Conclusion:

Citizenship is an obligation of the faith, therefore the Christian will not abstain from the politics of the nation-state. But his primary mode of politics must always be witness. It is a good and necessary thing to change the welfare laws, but better yet to go out and feed the poor. It is a good and necessary thing to ban abortion, but better yet to sustain young women and their babies by taking them into the fellowship of faith. This is the way the kingdom of God is built.

It is not by the world that the world is moved—yet how it pulls. Ah, God, help us let go of the heights and the depths, the thrones and dominions, the powers and principalities; to be not conservatives, nor yet liberals, but simply Christians. “Not by might, nor by power, but by my Spirit, says the Lord of Hosts.”

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9 thoughts on “How Christianity Differs from Both Liberalism and Conservatism”

  1. Marshall Fant says:

    A thought on your discussion of Conservatism: I believe numbers 3 and 6 are at odds with each other in traditionally defined conservative ideology, and most likely the author is referring to the two sects in conservatism–the ‘moral values’ sect and the Libertarian sect. The Libertarian sect would reject any sort of natural-law argument for moral laws, while the Conservative would be more willing to institute laws the he sees in line with natural-law morality (such as defining marriage as between a man and woman, outlawing drugs, etc.). Thanks for the article.

  2. Quinn Steffen says:

    Isn’t the the 7th juxtaposition between Conservatism & Christianity a departure from the cultural mandate and the protestant work ethic/reformed view of vocation? The love of money is certainly sinful but is the fruitful, lawful acquirement of wealth to be steward really apposed to biblical teaching?

    1. Justin Taylor says:

      I wonder if it’d help here to distinguish between “reception” and “accumulation.” Wealth is not wrong, but lack of generosity is. We are told to fear riches.

      1. Quinn Steffen says:

        Yes, I would certainly agree with that. Do you suppose that is what he meant?

  3. Bruce Russell says:

    Re: Meritism: often people need what they deserve in a limited sense in order to be saved from what they deserve in the ultimate sense.

  4. Andrew Lohr says:

    Jesus is libertarian, as I like to post, in the sense that a smaller government than we now have would fit the Bible better: I Sam 8 advises that taxes of 10%, eminent domain, and national service are reasons to avoid a form of government. Rom 13 and I Tim 2 give very short lists of jobs for government to do. Of course His “libertarianism” also included personal generosity–He gave his life–so giving at the expense of others, as liberals and crony capitalists do, is antithetical to Calvary.

    Libertarianism (small government) works, too: Harvard does schools, Worlv Vision does welfare, Disney does parks…in Britain even the lifesaving coast guard is a private charity. And consider the advantages of business over government. Accountability: if I don’t like McDonald’s I go to Burger King right away–I don’t have to keep paying for McD. Diversity: burgers and tacos and pizzas and subs, and even the radical sushi extremists get what they want, all at the same time. Not Obama or emigrate.

  5. Dan says:

    Where libertarianism fails is in its ethic or morality. The idea that you can do whatever you want so long as it does not infringe directly upon the liberty of others (e.g., polygamy, marijuana, etc.) is not biblical.

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Justin Taylor


Justin Taylor is senior vice president and publisher for books at Crossway and blogs at Between Two Worlds. You can follow him on Twitter.

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