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In God, and the GOP, They Trust

A belief in free will puts frequent churchgoers in the Republican fold.

May 19, 2004|David Klinghoffer

If the last presidential election was any indication, the outcome of November's contest will be decided in large part by voters' religious commitments. The more often you attend church, the more likely you are to vote Republican. What polling data don't tell us is why the religiously observant vote as they do.

The statistical trend is striking. In 2000, Voter News Service reported that the 14% of voters who attended religious services more than once a week voted for George W. Bush over Al Gore by 63% to 36%. Meanwhile, the 14% who never went to services supported Gore over Bush by an equally commanding margin, 61% to 32%.

What is it about the policy positions and cultural attitudes described as Republican or conservative that makes them so attractive to religious voters? What principle links, say, a passionate defense of gun ownership and a strong preference for low taxes? The link can be summarized in three words: individual moral responsibility.

For more than a century, our culture has been divided on the question of whether individual moral actors may justly be held responsible for their deeds. Marx and Freud rocked the 19th century faith in moral responsibility and freedom of will, arguing that human beings are unknowingly in the grip of, respectively, powerful economic and psychosexual forces. Later analysts would discover other latent structures in society that supposedly determine our moral choices.

Today, the ideological struggles of liberals and conservatives mirror the clash initiated by Marxists and Freudians with 19th century individualism. Conservatives encourage individuals to make their own choices, except where those choices invariably harm the innocent (as in abortion) or undermine the pillars of civilization itself (as in gay marriage). Liberals see the function of government as parental, with citizens in the role of children too unaware and irresponsible to cross the street by themselves.

Consider the following admittedly broad generalizations:

The gun control debate pits conservatives, who are content to place moral responsibility on the gun owner, against liberals, who think that that responsibility can safely be placed on only the state.

Liberals tar conservatives for their apparent stinginess on government social spending, but conservatives respond that society should depend more on individuals to support the needy. Heavy taxes are a sign that society has relieved the individual of that responsibility.

Affirmative action bothers conservatives, who think even a person from a historically oppressed race is free to rise above the suffering of his ancestors. Liberals doubt that transcending the structure of institutionalized racism is always possible.

The Iraq war troubles liberals, who think that only the collectivity -- in this case, the international community in the form of the United Nations -- should take responsibility for making war. Conservatives argue that the individual moral actor, or a single country when it comes to war, can make that decision for itself.

Conservatives dislike the myriad safety regulations -- for example, anti-smoking laws and lawsuits -- promulgated by liberals. The question is whether a person is responsible for his own health, or whether the collectivity, the state, needs to step in and assume responsibility.

On education, conservatives accept the judgments of individual parents as to children's best interests; hence the enthusiasm for school choice and home schooling. Liberals feel better when society -- the state, the teachers unions -- takes the responsibility to educate children on itself.

And so on. Generally speaking, liberalism distrusts the individual, while conservatism trusts him enough to give him a chance to make the right, or the wrong, decision. If he makes the wrong one, he will have to answer to his own conscience, or to his God.

Looked at this way, it becomes apparent why religious Americans gravitate to conservatism. By far the majority of them are Christians and their biblical religion is premised on the idea of individual moral responsibility. Traditionally, religious faith presumes that God commands us to act in certain ways -- which in turn presumes moral freedom. Otherwise, how could God hold us responsible if we refuse to obey?

Not all Democrats fully accept the strictly "liberal" view, of course, but they belong to a party that, of the two main parties in American political life, is the one identified with the belief that moral choices are profoundly conditioned by circumstance and therefore aren't truly free. It may be too much to suggest that God himself is a Republican. Then again, it may not.

David Klinghoffer is a columnist for the Jewish Forward. His most recent book is "The Discovery of God: Abraham and the Birth of Monotheism" (Doubleday, 2003).

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