Partisan Grace

A friend recently asked why there was no room for the Christian notion of grace in conservative politics these days. Conservative policies seemed to him unnecessarily harsh to those without power and wealth. Whether or not that is an accurate criticism of conservative policies, I actually think he got the question backwards. Grace’s place and meaning in a liberal or conservative ideology obviously depends on how exactly you define grace, but for a working definition I’ll assume something like ‘unmerited favor’ or perhaps more generally the kindness to offer something not earned.

The project of modern liberalism carries within it the rejection of community defining expectations that are required in order to form the kind of relationships in which grace is a possibility. Put differently, the presence of grace is only possible in a community in which expectations of one another are concrete enough to go unmet; liberalism rejects any such expectations other than, perhaps, that a live person stay alive. You can still offer to give to one another out of pity or obligation or duty or whatever other motivation, but when there is no such thing as merit in the first place, the gift can’t be unmerited.

Conservatism carries with it expectations, some implicit and others explicit, that there is some concrete and measurable standard for what life ought to be and thereby what an individual life ought to look like or contribute to the common good. When the expectations of what an individual ought to have contributed are not met, giving anything to the person who does not merit the gift is an act of grace.

In this way, it is liberalism and not conservatism that has no room for grace. However, there are two realities that must be made explicit so that naming the problem and seeking a remedy do not simply deepen the ideological divide.

1) Liberalism as we know it is a response to the kind of conservatism we know. Liberalism’s rejection of community defining standards is actually a rejection of the lack of grace found in conservatism for many different kinds of people who don’t fit the model of what life ought to be (not that conservatives all agree on the specifics, but there is at least a tacit agreement that there should be things about life we take for granted). Liberalism as a theoretical project strips meaning from grace; but liberals as they actually exist are in many ways the embodiment of the grace that is seen to be lacking in conservative practice.

2) No one is entirely liberal or conservative and our lives make no sense without the presence of both. We always inherit a world of expectations and assumptions that we did not create and that we spend our whole lives working through, accepting and rejecting various parts at different times. Without a brand of conservatism to reject, liberalism means nothing. Without the force of liberalism, conservatism cannot respond to the inevitability of new experiences, technologies, and relationships in the dynamic world in which we actually exist.

Grace in the Christian life is about finding the creative tension whereby we can do both at the same time. We have to become a) a strongly defined, tight knit family of God in which we drive each other, through encouragement and accountability, toward meeting the high expectations of the new life Christ offers; and b) humble and open servants who exist precisely for the sake of those who are not yet inside that family; who never think ourselves so smart or clever as to think we know the exact size and shape of new life in Christ; and who see that we too receive every good gift not because we have earned anything but through the action of God’s grace. Put more simply, we have to a) conserve our identity in Christ and b) seek liberation from everything except the love of God and what that love entails.

Christians have to be conservative enough not to replace ‘the traditions and peoples in which we come to know God’ with ‘human rationality,’ but liberal enough not to think we have a complete definition of what life in Christ looks like. Christian grace only makes sense at the intersection of this tension.

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