A Christian political party

Posted May 30, 2018 2:20 p.m. EDT

ATLANTA -- In the eyes of many conservative Republicans, religion doesn't get the respect and protection that it deserves. And by "religion," they generally mean their own particular brand of conservative Christianity, which they believe is under assault.

It's a strange persecution complex, particularly in an era when their party controls every lever of governmental power -- judicial, executive and legislative -- in Washington and also in the state of Georgia.

To the degree that conservative Christianity wields less influence than it once did, that decline in power is due entirely to forces well outside government, such as declining church membership and a changing culture. Government can't reverse such trends, and it's misguided to even try to use it for such a purpose.

Nonetheless, we get Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle, running for the GOP nomination for governor on the basis of "defending our Christian values." You get Geoff Duncan, in a Republican runoff for lieutenant governor, promising voters that he "will never back down from defending our Christian values." You get Jim Beck, the GOP candidate for insurance commissioner, prominently describing himself in TV ads as "Christian. Conservative. Republican," and Brad Raffensperger, in a GOP runoff for secretary of state, describing himself in similar terms in his own ads.

Or, to put accurately if less subtly, "Vote for me because I'm Christian."

In an era of tribal politics, faith is being used to signal that you're "one of us," as opposed to "one of them," and judging by how many people are using it, the tactic must be effective. (And yes, I understand that to even notice such a phenomenon will bring charges that I am part of the effort to silence Christians. Because that's how this persecution thing works.)

Still, I have to question how welcoming that talk of "our Christian values" makes the Republican Party seem to Jews, Muslims and others not included in that word "our." Politicians such as Sam Olens, the former attorney general and a man of the Jewish faith who was once talked about as a GOP candidate for governor, are explicitly excluded by such talk and put at a significant disadvantage.

And as our Founders understood all too well, religion and politics are a dangerous mix. That's why, with the First Amendment, they attempted to guarantee that government would never be used to favor one faith over another. In Article IV, Section 3, they took it a step further: "No religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States."

That language is a restriction on government; it is not a restriction on voters or even candidates. If you want to choose your leaders on the basis of their religion, if as a candidate you cite your religion to elevate yourself above other candidates, legally you are free to do so. But it does come at a cost.

If you inject your faith into politics, if you cite your faith as a qualification, then you make your faith a political issue. It becomes fair to ask, for example, whether you can campaign on defending Christian values and also campaign on the basis of how virulently anti-immigrant you can be, as Cagle, Brian Kemp and others are doing. As it says in Leviticus:

"When a foreigner resides among you in your land, do not mistreat them. The foreigner residing among you must be treated as your native-born. Love them as yourself, for you were foreigners in Egypt."

A candidate who espoused that brand of "Christian values" wouldn't have much future as a Georgia Republican.

Jay Bookman writes for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Email: jbookman(at)ajc.com.

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