Is morality relative? It’s a question that has haunted philosophers and theologians for eons, and no less today than ever (in fact, it’s the first suggestion when you type “is morality” into Google’s search engine).
When it comes to politics, the morality conundrum rears its head quite bluntly. American politics have rarely been more polarized, with each side convinced that there’s is the party of morality, viewing the opposition's moral deficits as nigh unforgivable.
The hard truth is something many ideologues won’t like to hear: morality isn’t partisan, because party morality is never a guarantee. Parties aren’t religions; they are government bodies, ever-changing and utterly dependent on the humans shaping them. And you know as well as I how fallible humans are, not to mention the government.
That said, there is a strong correlation between theological and political values, and the duality dates back to our Founding Fathers, whose personal brands of Christianity undoubtedly influenced some of our country’s earliest documents. If no one felt strongly in a moral capacity about our country’s issues, past and present, change would never come. We are morally obligated, I believe, to be active and informed citizens as an extension of our faith.
Having studied to become a minister before getting into the political consultant business, I’ve put a lot of thought into the ways in which religion and politics intersect and divert. My reasons for pursuing theology weren’t so different from my reasons for pursuing politics: Both churches and political parties look to help the community. Both model good citizenship, or claim to. Both seek to help people and make the world a better place. And, importantly, both have guidelines on what’s right and what’s wrong.
Trouble arises when you claim that one party is the party of Christianity, and thusly, morality. Minimal research will tell you this isn’t a hard and fast rule, though I believe there are good reasons many religious folk lean right. According to Pew, Catholics and Protestants are split down the middle between left and right, depending by race, by class, by location and other factors. And yet, Christian values do not change; they simply can support either side, given the lens of the believer.
I’ve seen too many willing to brand their fellow Christians as hypocrites over political differences. Christians who publically mourned the loss of Hillary Clinton in November while alienating their conservative brethren, for example, clearly crossed a line. The same can be said of the various memes circulating on social media that attempt to smear one side as anti-God, crudely diluting a matter that is both complex and close to the heart.
While religion is at its core about influence, people of different faiths can live next door without infringing upon one another more than a few twinkling Christmas lights. The same is not true for political parties in America today. One’s party’s success could be the other’s greatest nightmare; they are clashing forces with tangible consequences. Or at least, that’s what November’s election seemed to promise, though it’s never quite as black and white as the media suggests.
The disparity is fascinating, and hard to understand. Jonathan Haidt wrote about the topic in his 2012 book, The Righteous Mind. “Once people join a political team, they get ensnared in its moral matrix,” the social psychologist wrote. “They see confirmation of their grand narrative everywhere, and it’s difficult—perhaps impossible—to convince them that they are wrong if you argue from outside of their matrix.” Though he and I may not share politics, we do share opinions in this regard.
I often think back to moments growing up and discussing religion and politics around the dinner table with my parents and siblings. Values are ingrained early on, but it’s not until later that we realize our opinions aren’t right by default: you need to be able to defend them, yes, but also empathize with other perspectives. (Another topic of discussion was sports, which I think has a dogma of its own, though that’s a subject for another article.)
What’s interesting to me is that, while political matrixes collide, the basic matrix of Christianity is one most of Western society agrees on. Many of its tenets (no stealing, no murdering, etc.) inform our country’s laws, while others (be faithful, be kind; live your life to glorify God and be others-focused) are shared to a degree by Americans of all creeds. Those who don’t believe in Jesus are unlikely to find issue when you follow the commandments or Beatitudes in the day-to-day, because they are already baked into our country’s ethos.
Our obligation as citizens, religious or otherwise, is to vote our conscience with eyes wide open. As such, I take issue when people use religion to justify blind and total support for a candidate. When this happens, we sell our soul to a leader, and it’s a slippery slope. We all need to realize that the people who represent us are just that: people. Likewise, the people who vote with us are not all necessarily good and moral people by their party affiliation alone.
As an example, many Christians (minorities in particular) voted for President Barack Obama, and thought him near-infallible. Even when the deeply unpopular ACA rollout made a mess out of healthcare, to the detriment of the middle class. Even when he failed to give our ally, Israel, the support our country owes them. Even when his accomplishments, after two terms, were few and far between. Maybe they liked the optics too much to care — or maybe their moral matrix was inescapable.
The Bible is a big text that takes years of studying to fully understand, and even then, some will read only what they want to: as justification for what they already agree with. But we should keep in mind that at its most simple, it’s about God’s love to us and our admonishment to live a life dedicated to Him and others.
So let’s use our morals to guide us in politics, not to sugarcoat or absolve them. Government has its problems, like all institutions; we should not trust it the way we trust in a higher power. We should think of morality not as a mass of absolutes, but a multitudinous entity that informs good people to make very different decisions.
We’re a largely Christian nation, so there will always be feedback between religion and politics, but so must there be a healthy separation. Otherwise you end up compromising your very personal beliefs in order to align with the supposed morality of your party, or leader, and may fail to hold them accountable when it’s necessary.
One of our greatest issues, after all, is that we get too caught up in our own moral matrixes to understand one another. Conceding that morality is not quite fluid, but largely circumstantial — and that we have much in common, no matter our politics — is the first step to breaching partisan divides and advancing policies for the good of all citizens.
Nathan Sproul is a political consultant who has served in positions on five presidential campaigns and spearheaded national projects on behalf of the Republican National Committee. As the founder of Lincoln Strategy Group in Arizona, Nathan Sproul oversees a global collective of political strategists and public affairs managers.
Editor's Note: This piece has been updated to its newest version, which includes removal of what was formerly the twelfth paragraph at the author's request. The aforementioned removed paragraph concerned the voting tendency of evangelicals and a split of that vote in the last election.