“Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world.” James 1:27
Leading up to the 2008 presidential election, I let it be known to anyone who would listen that I was going to vote for Barack Obama. After years of leftist activism, it was exciting to be able to vote for a candidate who embodied much of what I believed to be true. For me, the previous eight years under President Bush had been a wasteland of oppression, war-mongering, and greed. Obama presented me with the voting opportunity to help usher in a new age of compassion, justice, and equality.
This is, in large part, why I read with interest the recent HuffPost Politics article by Susie Meister titled “Why I Left the Right: How Studying Religion Made Me a Liberal.” You see, my experience was the exact opposite of Susie Meister’s. Ideologically, my journey took me deep into liberalism before reversing course into conservatism. Similar to Dr. Meister, my journey was shaped by my faith in King Jesus.
My ideological journey to November 4, 2008, had been fairly streamlined, with the exception of an event three years prior that eventually turned into an ideological pivot. That pivot, which at that point was still to arrive, had been a long time coming – almost two decades, beginning in debate class my senior year of high school.
Bill Clinton had recently been sworn in as president, and in my hometown of Pensacola, Florida, the angry political buzz swarmed around President Clinton’s proposed military base closures. Considering that Pensacola is a military town, the angry concern made sense. In class, the teacher chose Clinton’s proposed base closings for a debate topic. I was tasked with arguing the affirmative. Prior to my debate prep, like basically everyone else around me, I was adamantly opposed to any military base closings. During my prep work, however, my mind was changed.
Entering class on the day of the debate, I was proud of my preparation, and anxious to convert others to my new position. I don’t remember much about the debate, but I do remember the anger I elicited. Afterward, I was shocked at the level of ire from my classmates and my teacher. One of my best friends, Bill (who is currently serving as a U.S. Marine), was livid. And probably justifiably so; his dad’s job was on Clinton’s chopping block that I had just adamantly defended. I do remember smugly chiding the opposition for not being willing to sacrifice themselves for the greater good. As I stated, Bill’s anger was probably justified.
Bill and I moved past that argument, and remain friends to this day. But, that debate is what dislodged me from the conservative moorings of my family, friends, and culture, and propelled me towards liberalism.
Over the next decade, I became entrenched in liberal activism, including, among other things, participating in Adbusters’ protests. Ralph Nader was my guy in 2000, and I passed out fliers encouraging people to vote for the progressive activist. I didn’t just preach tolerance, but affirmation of the LBGTQ community. Friends and I were protesting the war in Iraq before George W. Bush had dropped bombs on Baghdad. I even went so far as to quit eating meat and join PETA.
By the time 2004 rolled around, I was deeply committed to social justice as defined by liberal ideology. LBGTQ rights were deeply important to me, including same-sex marriage. While uncomfortable with abortion (although not uncomfortable enough to keep me from looking into one during a girlfriend’s pregnancy scare), I believed that as a man, I had zero right to tell a woman what to do with her body; pro-choice is, after all, the default position for leftists. A candidate who wasn’t a proponent of single-payer health care wouldn’t have received my consideration. For me, liberal ideology was a position of mercy, compassion, and justice.
And then I became a Christian.
Unbeknownst to me, the Holy Spirit was planning on reshaping my definitions of mercy, compassion, and justice to better match the definitions of God.
My pastor father and Christian schoolteacher mother had shared the gospel with me throughout my life. I had even attended Bob Jones University. But, growing up, the concept of a sovereign God had never made sense to me, and I entered adulthood as an atheist. My twenties were spent pursuing the hedonist pleasures that were guilt-free thanks to my liberal ideology. I wasn’t expecting nor did I want to become a Christian, but God had other plans. And on a late night in early July of 2004, God revealed Himself to me, provided me with saving faith and repentance, and I bowed the knee in faith and submission before King Jesus, putting my entire hope and identity in his sinless life, death on the cross for my personal sins, and his literal and bodily resurrection from the dead. I became a Christian who was also a Democrat.
The church I began attending was very conservative. Over the next year, I had many discussions about politics in which I attempted to convert my new Christian friends to liberal ideology. I used the many verses in the Bible that speak of feeding the hungry, caring for the oppressed, and defending the rights of the weak in defense of liberalism and for passing judgment on conservative principles. My friends in that church graciously listened and kindly engaged me. But I moved to South Carolina still firmly entrenched in liberal ideology, albeit as a Christ follower.
Over the next couple of years, my new church family modeled similar graciousness and kindness as I preached the doctrines of liberal politics. As the 2008 election drew near, several fellow Christians gently asked me how I could vote for a candidate who supported abortion. Their questions weren’t accusatory, but expressed genuine interest. They politely listened as I explained that while I wasn’t comfortable with abortion, there are tangential issues that make abortion complicated and which kept me from telling women what to do with their bodies. They patiently walked me through the Bible and showed me how God’s concern for life trumps Western ideological constructs. I remained unconvinced, and proudly pulled the lever for Barack Obama. But those discussions laid the seeds that would soon sprout into the flowering of conservative principles within me.
During the fall of 2008, I encountered further change. Bothered by the fact that I spent large chunks of time every day studying theatre theory, and very little time studying theology, I purposed in my heart to spend at least as much time studying theology as I did theatre. By God’s grace, I adhered to that commitment.
By the time President Obama was sworn in, I had begun to question my wisdom in voting for Obama. The first chink in my ideological armor was abortion. As I read the Bible, the divinely inspired book’s narrative structure confronted me with God’s concern for the preservation of life. God created life. It was man’s sin that ushered in death, and death is the most unnatural thing in God’s creation. And at the first entrance of death into His creation, God promised to send a redeemer to conquer death. Throughout the Bible, death is a consequence of sin; life, however, is brought about through the saving acts of God. God is concerned with preserving life.
Once God’s righteous concern for the preservation of life was revealed to me, it was a small step to questioning the validity of abortion. Abortion ends the life of an individual who has made been in the image of God. No theory of individual rights can override our responsibility to preserve life. And any ideology that is willing to destroy life at its beginning is an ideology that violates the dictum in James 1:27 that true religion protects children. It should go without saying, but murdering a child is the exact opposite of “visiting orphans in their affliction.”
Further, my growing understanding of what it means to be in Christ challenged my socially constructed notions of individual rights. As Christians, we have been bought with a price – the blood of Jesus. We are no longer our own, but belong to King Jesus. Any policy that places the desires of men and women to rule over their own bodies above the concerns and commands of King Jesus is rebellion against God. According to the Bible, women do not have the right to murder their children.
Released from the ideological restraint of abortion, I was then able to honestly assess my other positions in light of who God is and what God expects. For example, it didn’t take me long to begin to question my previously preferred economic policies in light of King Jesus’ command to feed the hungry. Economic policies that impede the means of production create a society that doesn’t maximize its ability to produce wealth; everyone ends up with less, including afflicted widows. I had to ask myself, “If I’m going to truly care for the hungry and oppressed, can I support economic policies that fail to provide for them?”
More importantly, the tenets of liberalism don’t allow room for an individual’s personal guilt before God. Liberalism and progressive Christianity teach a doctrine of victimhood that places the blame for sin outside of the individual and on society at large. That removes the need for a Savior to save people from their personal sins. The salvation of humans from personal rebellion against God is the heart of the Bible’s story. Along those lines, the last half of James 1:27 was the most painful prick that my liberalism had to kick against.
During my first few years as a Christian, I frequently quoted the first half of James 1:27 in defense of liberal policies. That’s almost a requirement if you’re going to name Jim Wallis as an influence. Shaming conservatives with “religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to visit the orphans and widows in their affliction” is on the first page of progressive Christianity’s playbook. Unfortunately for my liberal identity, I read the entire verse.
The last half states that “religion that is pure and undefiled before God” includes keeping “oneself unstained from the world.” James’ use of language that parallels the Old Testament that requires sacrificial lambs to be unblemished in connection with his use of the word “world” is the key to contextualized exegesis. And the question, “who defines ‘unstained?’” is of utmost importance.
We know from the Old Testament that sacrificial lambs pointed forward to the final paschal lamb, Jesus Christ. As images of something greater, those sacrificial lambs were to be pure and free from imperfection, reflecting the need for a redeemer who obeyed God’s law perfectly and was free of sin. As Christians, we are in Christ, and God sees us through the lens of our unstained Savior. According to James 1:27, however, through the power of the Holy Spirit, Christians are to desire and pursue a life that is unstained by sin and rebellion against God.
Throughout His revelation of Himself in the Bible, God defines what it means to be in rebellion, or, rather, to sin. And sin is anything that violates God’s righteous standards. In James 1:27, the “world” is in rebellion against God. Within the context, “world” references this age; an age of rebellion that existed when King Jesus walked the earth and extends throughout history until the final day when King Jesus returns. As Christians, one of the ways in which we remain “unstained from the world” is by having our priorities and definitions provided by God and not our society.
As I grew in the knowledge of God, this became problematic for my political ideology. Possibly the most glaring example is sexuality. Throughout the Bible, alongside the passages to care for the oppressed, God reveals His definition and parameters for sexuality. Liberalism is intimately tied to the sexual revolution. And that revolution is part of humanity’s continued attempt to build the Tower of Babel. How could I, as a Christian, align myself with an ideology that refuses to bow the knee before God in regards to sexuality? As I continued to study theology, the answer became increasingly obvious – as a Christian, I couldn’t, in full faith before my holy God, identify as a liberal.
My ideological journey was obviously much more nuanced and with more surprising ups and downs than can be articulated here. And my journey into conservatism isn’t without certain reservations. However, by God’s grace, my conservative principles are shaped by who God is and not the other way around. Conservatism may not be Christianity; but conservatism aligns with the Biblical worldview much better than liberal ideology. Studying who God is taught me that.