Christian Conservatives: Lips vs. Heart

It has been my experience that when discussing politics or conservative politicians, people frequently bring up the purportedly religious nature of the conservatives.

My wife and I were visiting a couple in our neighborhood, touring their house, and chatting about what was going on in our lives. The woman reminded us that she had seen us on TV at the SLC Democratic party on TV on election night 2004. We talked briefly about politics, and the woman asked “How can you not like President Bush? Just the other day he basically bore his testimony in his speech.”

In Relief Society a couple of years back, my wife rolled her eyes when, in a discussion on integrity, some sister raised her hand and cited Bush in a discussion on integrity. “I’m grateful we now have a president with integrity” she proclaimed. “He’s always talking about his faith.”

In a comment on my post about oil profits, one person here claimed Bush was “God-fearing.”

Are we that unfamiliar with the scriptures? Are we so unwilling to apply the concepts taught in the scriptures to real life?

Yes, the conservatives are experts at using the language of religion. Does that make them religious?

The Pharisees in the New Testament were also very conversant in the language of religious. They quoted the scriptures, and they knew the codes of their faith. They said all the right things technically. They gave offerings, prayed publicly, went to the Temple, and performed all the other external obligations of their faith.

But were they truly spiritual and in tune with the Gospel? According to the Bible, it seems not. Both John the Baptist (Matt 3:7) and Jesus (Matt 12:34) disparaged the Pharisees as a ” generation of Vipers.”

The key to truly understanding this comes from the Savior when, as the Religious Right frequently does, the Pharisees came to denounce Jesus’ disciples (and by connection, Jesus himself) for not adhering to their superficial and narrow interpretation of morality.

“This people draweth nigh unto me with their mouth, and honoureth me with their lips; but their heart is far from me (Matt 15:8).” See also Isiah 29:13, Mark 7:6, 2 Nephi 27:25, and Joseph Smith History: 19.

Just because a person or group of people use the language of religion or perform the external observances of religion does not make one spiritual or in harmony with the Lord. Indeed, it seems to me that we have reason to be wary of those who very publicly and loudly pronounce their religiosity:

1 Take heed that ye do not your alms before men, to be seen of them: otherwise ye have no reward of your Father which is in heaven.

2 Therefore when thou doest thine alms, do not sound a trumpet before thee, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, that they may have glory of men. Verily I say unto you, They have their reward.

3 But when thou doest alms, let not thy left hand know what thy right hand doeth:

4 That thine aalms may be in secret: and thy Father which seeth in secret himself shall reward thee openly.

5 And when thou prayest, thou shalt not be as the hypocrites are: for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and in the corners of the streets, that they may be seen of men. Verily I say unto you, They have their reward.

6 But thou, when thou prayest, enter into thy closet, and when thou hast shut thy door, pray to thy Father which is in secret; and thy Father which seeth in secret shall reward thee openly (Matt 6:1-6).

It would be foolish to assert that religion is a purely private matter and has no place in the public realm. But the Savior’s caution seems to suggest that we should be careful about taking at face value those who make a show of their religion.

There are those who incorrectly believe in their pride that they are close to the Lord because of their external righteousness.

21 Not every one that saith unto me, Lord, Lord, shall enter into the kingdom of heaven; but he that doeth the will of my Father which is in heaven.

22 Many will say to me in that day, Lord, Lord, have we not prophesied in thy name? and in thy name have cast out devils? and in thy name done many wonderful works?

23 And then will I profess unto them, I never knew you: depart from me, ye that work iniquity. (Matt 7: 21-23).

Worse yet, there are also those who cynically use the language and forms of religion in order to take advantage of the power religion has in society.

Christ explicitly warned his followers about such people, and how to detect them.

15 Beware of false prophets, which come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ravening wolves.

16 Ye shall know them by their fruits. Do men gather grapes of thorns, or figs of thistles?

17 Even so every good tree bringeth forth good fruit; but a corrupt tree bringeth forth evil fruit.

18 A good tree cannot bring forth evil fruit, neither can a corrupt tree bring forth good fruit.

19 Every tree that bringeth not forth good fruit is hewn down, and cast into the fire.

20 Wherefore by their fruits ye shall know them (Matt 7:15-20).

There are conservatives and Republicans, both voters and elected officials, who are very sincere about their faith. Of that I have no doubt.

But I fear that many of the leaders of the conservative movement have very cynically co-opted the language of religion for their own ends. They are not concerned with following the guidance of the Lord, but in using the name of the Lord for their own ends.

What are the fruits of the machinations of the leaders of conservative movement?

  • Thousands dead and billions of dollars spent on a war based on false pretenses.
  • Use of torture in multiple instances, as well as the defense of such practices.
  • Denial of basic rights in incarcerating alleged enemies.
  • Legal deterioration of civil rights (ie, the Patriot Act).
  • Executive abuse of power in telecommunication surveillance.
  • Multiple financial scandals among conservative leaders.

Just for a start.

These are not the fruits of “God-fearing,” “righteous,” pious men.

Let me be absolutely clear. Such sins are not the exclusive domain of the conservatives. Liberals have had their share of sins, most recently evidenced by the apparent scandal of William Jefferson.

The difference is that, by and large, it is not the liberals and Democrats who have been draping themselves in the robes of piety and religion. It has been the conservatives beating their chests about God being on their side. Christ seems to have found this hypocrisy much more offensive than simple lack of religion.

Some Democrats, having seen the political success of conservatives in using the language of religion, have begun mimicking those tactics. This is no better from the mouth of Hillary Clinton than from President Bush.

In LDS culture, there is a great deal of concern about “swearing.” We tend to be very worried about the use of the name of the Lord and the various other “four-letter words” as expletives (although we seem to have no problem using made-up substitute words—heck, dang, darn, gosh, et al—in exactly the same way). This is considered largely to originate in one of the ten commandments “Thou shalt not take the name of the LORD thy God in vain; for the LORD will not hold him guiltless that taketh his name in vain (Exodus 20:7).”

I do indeed believe that when we flippantly use the Lord’s name as an expletive, we take his name in vain.

But how much more in vain is it to use the Lord’s name for self-serving political purposes?

Reagan advisor and Presbyterian elder Clyde Prestowitz has sounded a note of caution to all those who co-opt the language of religion. “Politicians who use God as a prop for their campaigns should remember that ‘God is not mocked.’”

Let the conservative movement beware.

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18 Responses to “Christian Conservatives: Lips vs. Heart”

  1. Julie Says:

    I usually don’t make comments. I’m just not all that sure of myself, but I wanted to tell you that I really liked this post, Derek. I agree with the basis of it 100%. I wholeheartedly agree with the inward/outward stuff. I think we’ve even had a conversation or two about it.

    (But I still feel a lot more comfortable saying “Dangit” than “Damnit” and won’t encourage my children to do differently.) ;o)

  2. Greg Says:

    I have to tell you, this is one of the most stimulating blogs I’ve read. I find myself checking back a bit too regularly just read you next postings!
    In other words, I concur . . .

  3. Cstanford Says:

    I know this post is nearly a year old, but I just recently found this blog, and this post, along with your other Church and State posts, are some of my favorites so far.

    I’m glad to see that other people notice the examples from the Book of Mormon of keeping religious authority separate from civil authority. I’ve been working on a political/economic commentary of the Book of Mormon and have put what I’ve written so far on my own blog (should be linked at the beginning of my comment). And this post goes well with my reflections about Amalickiah and people like him these days, who gain popularity by saying what people want to hear. It blows me away that LDS can be so susceptible.

  4. jennifer Says:

    I remember an Ensign article from a few years back that related to this dilemma. Sorry the author’s name escapes me. The gist was that Christ really taught people to love as God by looking on the inward heart (or as you say in your post, study the results or fruits) rather than on casual appearances. It takes time and patience to get past appearances – and some use very crafty deceit.
    My prayer throughout our myriad national crises is that the truth will be apparent to all – that we can see who is honestly working to better our nation and the world by caring for others, and who is only concerned with lies and greed. The people of this country are mostly kind and good – maybe a bit gullible – and given a broader view will not tolerate the neocons antics.
    And I’m curious if your wife said anything in that RS class with the comment linking Bush to integrity. I would probably be too stunned to speak and I need to find a way to speak up when appalled.

  5. Derek Staffanson Says:

    Thanks for your thoughts, Cstanford. I’ll be interested in reading your commentary. I think there is a lot of social/political lessons to learn from the BoM, most of which are sadly ignored.

    Jennifer, Sara’s reaction was about like yours. Dumbfounded. She is also rather shy, and doesn’t like speaking up in class. Even I am always a bit unsure how to react to such things. On one hand, I’d like to take a stand and correct the misstatement. On the other, I don’t believe our church meetings are appropriate places for overtly political discussion, and my contribution would only further the politicization. Catch 22.

  6. Allie Says:

    Wow. I hadn’t discovered your blog yet when you wrote this, but it’s really good. Do you mind if I put a link and/or copy the post in my blog?

  7. Derek Staffanson Says:

    Feel Free, Allie!

  8. Jayneedoe Says:

    The New Yorker magazine
    Letter from Washington
    Party Unfaithful
    The Republican implosion.
    by Jeffrey Goldberg
    June 4, 2007

    “DeLay says that when, in the coming years, he is not fighting the indictment in Texas (he insists that he is not guilty) he will be building a conservative grass-roots equivalent of MoveOn.org. “God has spoken to me,” he said. “I listen to God, and what I’ve heard is that I’m supposed to devote myself to rebuilding the conservative base of the Republican Party, and I think we shouldn’t be underestimated.”

    Jaynee

  9. Gnostic Says:

    Good post. But “Let also the [opposite] movement beware too.

    Do you really see a big difference between conservatives and liberals?

    The Mormons, in particular, need to be unplugged. Currently most of them are blind, blinder than anybody else in the country. And since our nation is the blindest of all in the world, you can figure out where Mormons stand in their blindness.

    Mormons should read Matt 7:15-20 more seriously. They should notice that their leaders are cunningly preventing them to read even their own scriptures. I have continually detected how the Church manuals prevent to read, not speaking of studying, the inconvenient parts of the Doctrine. But I guess nothing is able to awaken Mormons from their tranquilized state, of their total sedation. The Mormonism today is actually anti-Mormonism. It has nothing in common with true Mormonism. The Church has gone very far astray.

  10. John Says:

    Did it ever occur to you that right wing religionists are entirely and utterly godless, and in Truth and Reality psychotic!

  11. Gnostic Says:

    A typical Mormon response. How can blind see their blindness? Moreover when they are comfortable in their own….

  12. Kim Says:

    Thanks for quoting a great scripture. I think President Bush generally brings forth good fruit. He’s not perfect, but I believe he’s a good man and that he sincerely believes in God. I am not blind or plugged. My own good judgment has led me to believe he is overall a very good and decent person. I do not believe he ever used the Lord to bring about his own purposes. Whether or not you agreed with his decisions, he made them with the purest intentions to do what was right.
    You, on the other hand, are attempting to use the Lord’s scripture to bring about your own political purposes – to convince us all that President Bush is the bad guy and Repulicans are not to be trusted. I think you are the wolf in sheep’s clothing, since you are parading yourself as a Mormon, leading other sheep to your liberal wolf pack.

  13. Forest Simmons Says:

    Derek,

    You chose some great scriptures on this topic. In addition we could include all of the scriptures that tell us to beware of false christs.

    Some people assume that to be a false christ you have to claim that you are the resurrected Jesus of Nazareth. But “christ” is the Greek equivalent of the Hebrew “messiah,” which menas “anointed one.” So a false christ is a false messiah, i.e. someone who claims to be a savior. “Just follow me and I’ll lead you to safety.”

    So these false messiah’s abound in our world, especially those political leaders who claim some special endorsement from god.

  14. dallske Says:

    Gnostic: An essential aspect of the Restored Gospel is continuing Revelation that requires change. God is not in charge of a stagnant Gospel. Also, even though I have a hard time listening to many Apostles and past Prophets, I have never felt that they push us AWAY from Scripture, maybe history, but not Scripture.

    Kim: Convincing us all about Bush? Republicans? I got the general feeling that we were talking about conservatives, but maybe I missed something. Yes you can be a conservative while Republican, but you don’t have to be. Also, the post was very cognizant about the fact that there are possibly several righteous right-wingers, but the fact is, that religion has become a convenient platform for conservatists to perform, whereas liberals focus elsewhere.

  15. Anthony Says:

    I think the blog poster was absolutely spot-on.
    Back when I was a Republican, I was a hardcore Reagan supporter. Of course, I was also in the Marines…
    I left the Republican Party, or as Reagan said about the Democrats, they left me. I can remember in 1992, watching the Republican convention, and after Pat Buchanan’s ‘Culture War’ speech, the rest of the convention left a bad taste in my mouth. I still think of Ryan White and Kimberly Bergalis (google them if you don’t recognize the names), and how the cynical burgeoning neo-cons tossed them to the wolves.
    Ever since them I have been a registered Libertarian. I see absolutely no dichotomy between being a Mormon and a Libertarian–I have my values, but I want to win converts through persuasion and good example, not force.

  16. Andrew Says:

    Excellent! I think many conservatives have made it too easy for politicians. A simple repeating of a few key “Christian” phrases and they get the vote.

  17. TiresiasRex Says:

    Bravo, bravo for this post! “By your fruits you will be known…” and you hit it right on the head re: the legacy of the former administration. Pious? Maybe. Compassionate? Hardly. Respecting God and God’s creation? Oh, don’t even get me started…

  18. Ken Thorne Says:

    Derek, I think your post is very well stated and addresses an important issue head-on.

    I have a particular distaste for mixing religion into politics. I have voted against candidates for doing so. I will vote for religious people, but not if they tell me I should because they are [fill in your religious affiliations here].

    Politics is a very muddy and frequently dishonest arena, and no religion is benefited by being dragged into it.

    I find the support of any political party based on religious beliefs to be just as dangerous. Does any religion want to be firmly associated with a political party? The reputations and agendas (as a whole) of these organizations are not compatible with true religion.

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