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Should Seventh-day Adventists be Republicans?

I grew up in a mostly apolitical family. I only remember one strongly-voiced political opinion: that John F. Kennedy shouldn’t be president because he would let the papacy take charge of the country, and so would begin the persecution of Seventh-day Adventists. We had a family small business—a farm—and perhaps that’s why my father once told me, casually and without a lot of conviction, that he’d voted Republican, since the conventional wisdom was, and is, that Republicans are friends of business and advocates of low taxes. But I remember more discussions about which candidates would favor religious liberty, because before anything else they were believing Seventh-day Adventists who feared that government interference in religion could be dangerous to people with unconventional religious beliefs.

I have never seen political rhetoric as strident, and political differences as stark, as they are now. Which is why it’s important to point out that parties morph and evolve over time. Only the labels have remained the same. With a few exceptions, what is called liberal now would have been fairly centrist in the 50’s through the 70’s. (Someone’s saying that Obama is a socialist is a sure diagnosis of scant knowledge of history and a gullibility to Tea Party talking points.) Back then, legislators of both parties (I think of anti-war Republican Mark Hatfield and anti-spending Democrat William Proxmire) seemed more capable of thinking for themselves. Nixon proposed health care reform, Ike warned about government overspending on defense, Reagan plugged corporate tax loopholes and proposed raising capital gains taxes—all unthinkable for today’s Republicans—while Democrat Bill Clinton ended welfare as we had known it, began the process of sending American jobs out of the country, and participated in the deregulation that led to the financial sector crash of the 2000’s. The accusation that Democrats raise taxes and Republicans lower them doesn’t line up with history, either: both have raised taxes, including the iconic conservative Ronald Reagan. (In our lifetime the national debt has usually gone up faster under Republican presidents than Democratic ones.) And remember that while it was a Republican president who ended slavery, a century later ending discrimination was fought most of the way by the descendants of Lincoln’s party.

Add that politicians rarely do what they say they’re going to do anyway, and in some cases do the opposite of what their party stands for and you will understand that most of us vote for the ideals that we project on to a particular party or candidate, rather than actual results.

There is much on the conservative side of the political divide that naturally appeals to us. We Adventists like the idea of earning our own way. We have been among the best at creating the climate for what sociologists called “social lift”, because we encourage sober, responsible living, good health, hard work and education. (I’m one of the beneficiaries of that: my great-grandparents were uneducated immigrants, my grandfather went to the 2nd grade, my father to high-school, and I’ve earned a doctorate.) At our best, we stand for teaching a man to fish rather than giving him a fish.

Most of us are middle class, a group that has traditionally felt that we don’t get anything from government—not true, but widely believed. And so, naturally, we think our taxes are misspent. We are inclined to believe that if everyone would get off of welfare, the government’s problems would be solved (although the sum of all forms of low income assistance is small compared to either defense spending or middle-class entitlements). We also advocate moral behavior, and so are attracted to leaders hard on crime and against abortion. We have disliked organized labor, an opinion backed if not formed by Ellen White.[1]

All this I can understand. What worries me now, though, is the number of Adventists who say they’re attracted to the Christian aspects of the conservative movement. My parents thought the Republicans held the high ground on religious liberty, and I don’t know enough about the history of that period to dispute it. But in recent years we hear more and more from the conservatives about not just moral values, but evangelical Christian values. It has become impossible to get elected as a Republican without being a conservative Christian and promising governmental advocacy for ideas conservative Christians hold dear. Were Lincoln running today, it’s unlikely he could even be nominated by his party: he was a member of no church, never publicly confessed a creed, nor publicly used religious beliefs to justify his policies.

JFK’s faith aside[2], there wasn’t as much talk about voting religious causes back then as I hear now. Back then the conservatives’ main enemy was at a distance: communism. Now the conservatives’ enemies seem to be liberal Christians, Moslems, educated people, secular people, gay people, welfare recipients, even the principle of the separation of church and state[3]. Issues like prayer in school, birth control and abortion, teaching creationism, displaying the Ten Commandments and other religious symbols on government property, are brought up again and again. The public now insists that candidates present their religious pedigree for inspection, and make them requalify on the religious points at every whistle-stop.

I maintain a humble uncertainty about the precise details of the eschaton, but there is a principle from The Great Controversy that I hold strongly: that it’s dangerous for government to cross wires with religion. As much as I appreciate Christian teachings, I don’t want them advocated or enforced by my government because they are Christian. Remember: many of the early North American settlers came here to escape the entanglement of church and state in Europe.

I value the Jeffersonian secular humanistic political philosophy, not because I’m secular, but because not everyone has the same religion. In Golden Rule terms, I value for other religious people the same governmental disinterest in their religion that I want for mine. I’m willing to sacrifice some things—nativity scenes on the town square, “under God” in the pledge of allegiance, restrictions on building mosques, prayer at high school graduation, creation taught in schools, government funding of some medical items or procedures, and other things that are disputed mostly for religious reasons—to keep church and state separate. I believe that when government begins taking requests from religion, before long it may well start calling the shots to religion, too. Today, someone else’s religion—tomorrow, mine.

This may be one-issue politics, but as a person in an unconventional religion, I think this one issue is pretty important. In recent years, even some of our denominational religious liberty leaders have become confused about the very issue they were supposed to advocate for: I was surprised to read in a church periodical a few years ago that we should be in favor of the display of the Ten Commandments on public property. Just on a religious liberty platform, it seems to me that we Adventists should be supporting the more secular candidates rather than the more religious ones, and that we should evaluate them on the basis of character, not church attendance.

There are other issues that puzzle me about this Adventist-Republican alignment: a credulousness about poverty and opposition to collective action against it, support of a strong and aggressive military (an enterprise of which our Adventist pioneers understood, as we seem to no longer, that another important commandment of the ten is at stake), and an uncritical trust in the inherent morality of unregulated free market capitalism.

Still, one can hardly hold up the Democrats as the good guys. I place little trust in either party. In the end, human governments will fail. They always do. Most of the time voting is choosing the least bad option. I accuse the Republicans here only because at this particular time in history they seem to believe explicitly Christian policy is a selling point.

My expectations are low: I will choose a government that defends everyone’s freedom to act according to their own convictions above one willing to force my good convictions on others. And that some conservative Seventh-day Adventists don’t see the contradiction between their eschatology and Republican talking points is a little frightening.


[1] The labor movement is tricky to parse, because the truth is that back in the 19th century workers in some industries, like mining and textiles, were treated horribly: made to toil under inhumane conditions, little attention given to their safety or health, no job security, and paid in company store scrip rather than money. The labor unions fought back against these abuses, with great suffering. (Read, sometime, about what happened in the mines of Matewan, Kentucky and Ludlow, Colorado). But on the other side of these victories, the unions became abusive themselves, in our lifetimes destroying companies with their greed, and at their worst taken over by organized crime. As often happens in politics, the pendulum swings to extremes.

[2]  JFK’s defense of religious liberty at the Greater Houston Ministerial Association during his campaign sounds exactly like the classic Seventh-day Adventist position: “I believe in an America where the separation of church and state is absolute… and where religious liberty is so indivisible that an act against one church is treated as an act against all.”

[3] Rick Santorum said several months ago that President Kennedy’s famous 1960 speech pledging to keep religion and politics separate “makes me want to throw up.”

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