I recently read a Tweet that posed a rhetorical question: “Is the cruelty of Republicanism a result of their Christianity?”
First, the question requires agreeing that Republicans are a cruel party. I assume by this the one posing the question is referring to some of the very dramatically cruel gestures conservative politicians have made, often to cheers from their adoring throng of voters, things like:
- Trump’s insults of women and boasting of sexual assault; also his racist comments, his mocking of a disabled reporter, and so forth.
- Separating the children of asylum seekers from their parents with no tracking mechanism to return them to them
- Deceiving asylum seekers and sending them to Martha’s Vineyard
- Kari Lake making a joke about Paul Pelosi, the 82 year old non-politician who was assaulted with a hammer by a right-wing conspiracy theorist who wanted to maim Nancy Pelosi.
- Don Trump, Jr making a joke about a Paul Pelosi Halloween costume while Mr. Pelosi was still in the ICU.
Aside from political stunts like these, perhaps the “cruel” remark was more about the comfort within Republican voters for things like racism, sexism, homophobia and transphobia, seeing “wokeism” as a far worse threat to society. This is an opinion apparently shared by BYU’s own Clark Gilbert as previously discussed on other posts by different bloggers.
I recently read a book called The Cruelty is the Point by Adam Serwer, explaining why conservatives resist social change that improves lives for traditionally marginalized people. The more cruel the dialogue, often the more successful the politician.
But is all this inflammatory cruel talk based in Christianity? And does conservative Christianity make people more cruel or less cruel?
The crux of this question is whether Christianity really says what some claim it does. Most of the political analysis reveals that often Republican voters who claim Christianity are not actively involved with any denomination. Their Christianity is more theoretical than practical. They see it as a way to justify their beliefs, to add heft to their existing opinions, and to bolster their own standing. In these cases, religion is a post hoc justification for things they already believe and want.
To determine whether Christianity makes people more cruel or less cruel, we would have to know how cruel they would be without it. If the cruelty is linked to Christianity (the Tweet’s claim), then there are various theories why this might be so:
- Their personal cruelty was attracted to a cruel strain in Christianity. Cruel people join cruel sects. Birds of a feather.
- They weren’t cruel naturally, but Christian teachings in conservative congregations made them more cruel. (Perhaps a link to grievance narratives or persecution complex / a literal demonization of enemies).
- They were cruel, but Christianity made them temper their naturally cruel impulses; it improved them, but they are still more cruel than others, just less cruel than they would be.
- Everyone’s cruel, and it manifests differently depending on which tribe you choose.
- They see the world as fallen and to survive, cruelty and toughness are required. They see God as vengeful against a world of sinners. They see themselves as fighting “sinners” like God does. (This is of course another justification narrative).
- If you say the word cruel a lot of times it sounds really weird. Cruel. Cruel. Cru-el.
Personally, I don’t see any connection between my own Christian views and cruelty, but with or without Christianity, I’m mostly a pacifist–live and let live. I believe more in comfort and acceptance of others, not marginalization, even of my rhetorical foes. Any way you slice it, though, I am not a conservative Christian. There are plenty of Christian sects out there that are not conservative. The cruelty discussed in the aforementioned Tweet thread is more strongly linked to Republican voters than Christians who vote Democrat or for other parties. Christianity can’t really be said to be the source of cruelty (or its justification) when it doesn’t function that way universally across all sects.
But, and this is an important distiction, I utterly reject the notion that loving God and loving one’s neighbors is in conflict or requires a prioritization of God over neighbors. To me that is antithetical to what Jesus taught, despite the fact that some of our conversative leadership are suddenly preaching this idea. I see no evidence for this viewpoint in the New Testament, and no real precedent within the Church for this new focus. This feels like that post hoc justification for cruelty that I mentioned above, particularly for homophobic and transphobic cruelty, victim blaming of women, and blaming the poor for their plight. It’s a traditional cruelty with a long-standing history, but that doesn’t mean it’s really what Jesus wants or preached. It’s the status quo cruelty of a pre-1990s world, similar to pre-civil rights views on race and women. When social movements and progress educate us, we learn to do better. If religions oppose gaining empathy for our fellow humans, then yes, they are the source of additional cruelty in society. And apparently outlawing education on racism is also in the playbook. Of course.
So, back to the original question (is the cruelty of the Republican party the result of Christianity?) my own view is that the Republican party uses Christianity as a weapon to add heft to its own aims and values, not that these values originated in Christianity which can be seemingly twisted to mean whatever someone wants it to mean, with or without any textual support or precedent.
But to the bigger question I asked, whether Church makes people better or worse, my answer is both and neither. Maybe it’s like alcohol that just exaggerates the person you already are. If you have a cruel streak, it can be used to justify that and make you even more cruel because you think it’s the “right” thing or you are surrounded by others who agree. If you are not cruel, there’s plenty of opportunity to serve others that funnels through Church. As Victor Frankl observed in Man’s Search for Meaning, after being liberated from concentration camps, some people were more empathetic and others were more hardened and self-centered in their behavior.
Consider the attitudes that might crop up in any given Ward Council, discussing the needs of a ward member who needs help. How long do we need to help them? Why isn’t the family doing more? What’s the minimum we can do so we don’t wear out our resources? Why isn’t he more self-reliant? Is she taking advantage of the church? Has she paid tithing? Is he being grateful enough to warrant more help? Do they come to church? Have they contributed in the past? Is her illness a byproduct of her own bad choices? Why doesn’t he have a support network? What’s our liability? Are we supporting luxuries or needs? Are they being at all demanding or are they happy with whatever we give them?
Of course, resources are not infinite, and many of these questions are relevant to the scope of help. But some of these questions have mixed motives. It’s easier to limit help to someone we can blame for their predicament or someone who isn’t grateful enough or who didn’t plan ahead well enough or who expects too much, etc. etc. Some people are wired to serve others; some are wired to judge them. Religions are fantastic at accommodating both types of people, and the judgmental ones often rise in the ranks because they are seen as tough-minded decision makers, not bleeding heart squishes. I’m certainly wired to be more judgmental than service-oriented, but in my case, the Church pressures me to serve others. I take Jesus’ words seriously to put myself in another’s place and act accordingly. It would be so much easier to be an a-hole.
At core, I’m mostly just selfish and lazy when it comes to service. I’d much rather just live my own little life and not have to bother. I don’t really have the cruel streak I see in others sometimes whether at Church, on Twitter, or in politics. It takes my breath away sometimes how awful people can be. I may not always help, but I try not to hurt other people. Did I get that from Christianity or is that just my temperament? That’s the same old nature / nurture question that seems to be at the core. The Church hasn’t made me more cruel, or I don’t think it has, even though I’ve encountered some alarming cruelty from my fellow congregants. Would they be more unfettered in their cruelty without the Church? Or is the Church helping them justify and normalize their cruelty? I suspect the latter, but if it wasn’t the Church, they would find some other justification.
What do you think?
- Does Church bring out the best in people or the worst? Defend your answer with examples.
- Do you think the current political discourse on the right has led to more cruelty or revealed what was there but hidden? Why or why not?
- Does Christianity create more cruelty or is it just used as a justification? Why do you think as you do?