The Corner

Notes on ‘Not a Christian Club’

I’ve received a lot of nice feedback on my column today, as well as some thoughtful criticism. Also — surprise! — some unthoughtful criticism. There’s one thing I’d like to clarify or expand upon. My problem isn’t with Christian conservatism or the role of Evangelical Christians in the Republican party. Sure, I have my disagreements (as do countless flavors of religious conservatives amongst themselves). For instance, if I had my druthers, presidential candidates would stop splitting hairs on how old they think the earth is. Also, as a libertarian-friendly conservative who thinks federalism is the way to settle most political debates, I probably would object to some Christian conservative ideas at the federal level but be pretty sympathetic to them at the local level. 

Anyway, what interests me is the way diversity erodes social capital. From the column:

 A few years ago, Robert Putnam, a liberal sociologist, reported this finding: As racial and ethnic diversity increases, social trust and cohesion plummets. “Trust (even of one’s own race) is lower, altruism and community cooperation rarer, friends fewer,” Putnam found. “People living in ethnically diverse settings appear to ‘hunker down’ — that is, to pull in like a turtle.”

The villain isn’t racism or bigotry or anything so simple. The phenomenon is much more complex. Indeed, it’s not clear why this happens, but it’s clear that it does. Economic inequality and cultural attitudes do not matter much. “Americans raised in the 1970s,” Putnam writes, “seem fully as unnerved by diversity as those raised in the 1920s.”

Part of the explanation stems from the fact that people with shared experiences and cultures draw strength from working together, whereas with strangers, language often becomes guarded, intentions questioned.

The GOP is not a Christian club, but there’s no disputing that Christianity is a major source of strength and inspiration for many Republican activists. This is nothing new and, generally speaking, there’s nothing wrong with this. The abolitionist, progressive, and civil-rights movements were all significantly powered by Christian faith.

Evangelical Christians, or just plain Christians, are a major source of energy and passion in the GOP and on the right generally. And that’s a good thing. The part I find interesting is how the force of diversity saps, or rather can sap, the internal cohesion of mediating institutions. Ask, say, a Catholic charity to put its faith on the back burner to accomodate atheist or Jewish volunteers, and you’ll get more diversity but less esprit de corps. It’s not because Catholics are bigots, far from it. It’s just that certain groups attract people with shared values, cultures, and experiences. Take away that appeal, and you take away the appeal for many of the most loyal and dedicated members. Anyone who’s familiar with the debates over historically black colleges, single-sex schools, or countless other institutions out of tempo with the times, will know what I am talking about. 


Indeed, one of my biggest problems with contemporary liberalism is its contempt for civil society. Its efforts to create a national community and champion a “we’re all in it together” politics all to often deliberately come at the expense of the “little platoons” Edmund Burke talked about. But that’s a subject for a longer piece I’m working on. 


As I mentioned in the column, I go to a lot of events where the invocations and other remarks are often unapologetically Christian, even when I — a non-Christian — am the guest of honor. I’m sincere when I say this never bothered me. It is my view, as a conservative, that just as the majority culture has a responsibility to treat minority cultures with respect, minority cultures have the same obligation. What I didn’t mention in the column is that the talk about Jesus Christ, or even religion in any respect, usually lasts at most a few minutes. What unites these groups, and dominates their discussions,  is a love of country and a commitment to conservative and libertarian principles. The diversity of adding a few non-Christians to the room has no significant effect on the groups’ cohesion. (But, just to bolster my point about diversity, if you added some people to the room who didn’t like America or who were, say,  socialists, the only things left to talk about that wouldn’t sow discord would be the weather or sports).


Which is to say, the GOP isn’t a club for Christians, but it is, loosely speaking,  a club for conservatives and traditionalists. It’s appeal — rightly — is to people who didn’t like Barack Obama’s promise to “fundamentally transform” America. Some of us old fogies might think America has room for improvement and reform, but it’s not in fact in need of “fundamental transformation.” Similarly, I don’t think the GOP is in need of fundamental transformation. But it, too,  certainly has room for improvement. One small, but significant, place for improvement is to find a way to talk about traditionalism without necessarily doing so in explicitly religious language.


And, let’s remember, the GOP is better at this than many claim. It did, after all, nominate a Mormon to be its standard-bearer. The prophesied Christian uprising against a Mormon candidate never materialized (but the secular one sort of did), because the right largely already follows a principle of moral consensus but theological pluralism. It just doesn’t explain that very well. 


The Latest