How Republican lawmakers' fear of death can make life a living hell for the rest of us
Hungry child eating bread (Shutterstock)

It can be difficult to sift through the ingredients in the strange mixture of political conservatism and conservative Christianity represented by many Republican politicians. It can be especially confusing if one is trying to reconcile Christian attitudes toward “the poor” and the conservative championing of capitalism. After all, one of the most prevalent images that emerges of the Jesus of the Bible is that of a man who was full of compassion toward those in poverty and toward those who suffered. How is it possible to reconcile the man who blessed the poor, telling them that they would inherit the kingdom of heaven, with a political philosophy that makes life harder for those in need?

Entire libraries full of books written on Christian theology and conservative politics exist, so it is impossible to explain this level of complexity in a single article. But those looking for a place to start should consider Max Weber. Weber was one of the founders of Sociology. Among his many works were those that sought to understand how the followers of religions that emphasize the promises of “other worlds” live out their lives while they are here on earth. Weber wrote studies of how the practice of Taoism affected its adherents’ daily lives, and he wrote a similar book about Buddhism and Hinduism. But, the most famous of these studies was The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism.

Catholic theology, prior to the series of challenges beginning in 1517 that became known as the Reformation, provided its lay followers with advice on how to make choices that would help to earn salvation—that is, eternal life after earthly death. Each Catholic was capable of choosing to do “good works” that would get one into heaven. And the Church recognized that human perfection was impossible; thus going to Confession gave each person the opportunity to confess the sins of everyday life to the priest, who was endowed with the power of absolution. So long as the Catholic observed the Sacraments of the church, followed the holy teachings, and strove to do good works, there was a good chance of being rewarded with eternal life. The ultimate form of life was the monastic: men and women who joined monasteries, foreswore the pleasures of the flesh—including the love of family—and devoted themselves to a life of good works and service to God.

And yet, despite the creation of a system by which Christians could feel themselves to be “saved” from damnation, many still felt anxious, worrying that their behavior would still not be good enough to earn eternal life. One of the supposed advantages of the system of theology offered by Reformer Jean Calvin was the eradication of a need to “earn” a place in heaven. In Calvin’s system, Christians could do nothing to affect whether they were going to heaven or not. Instead, God had decided before he had created the world the individual fate of each person. Even before the Fall of Adam and Eve, God had assigned each Christian a place in the afterlife. One couldn’t bribe God into letting one into heaven. All the good deeds in the world would not make any difference if God had decided that a person was not among the Elect. Taking the burden of worrying about salvation out of each person’s hands was supposed to be a great relief from the everyday obsession with good works.

Weber's reading of the history of Calvinism is that,  rather than relieving Christians, this new way of looking at salvation had created all sorts of new anxieties about the afterlife. If it was not possible to influence God’s thinking on this matter, how was a person to know that he would be going to heaven? The answer offered by Calvin and others was “faith.” One needed to have faith that one was saved. “Man is saved by faith alone." Variations of this teaching were promulgated among Calvin's followers.

Except that people were still anxious. That anxiety, however, was interpreted as a lack of faith. In order to be relieved of the burden of worrying about one’s eternal life, one had to have the confidence—the faith—that one had been saved. There was no reason to spend all one’s time doing good works, and there was certainly no need to shut oneself away in a monastery. One needed to find a purpose, what an earlier reformer, Luther, had called one's beruf (calling)--which could be an earthly profession. The Reformed Christian should find useful things to do with one’s time—industry, for example—and working hard. The confidence in one’s salvation was supposed to be the underpinning for living an industrious life. Given the historical rudimentary capitalist system that was in place, infusing this system with Christians eager to prove that they were super-confident that they were among God’s chosen was just the fuel that the system needed, according to Weber, to turn into the capitalism that drove the industrial development of Europe and America.

By taking the emphasis off good works, Christians were free to stop helping their neighbors. In fact, in some cases, a neighbor’s poverty was a sign that they were not faithful enough. In other words, while it was impossible to know whether God had chosen you for salvation, the fact that you were living a life of industry and purpose, and were being successful at it, was a good clue that perhaps God was favoring you. And your neighbor’s poverty might just be a sign that they weren’t in God’s favor.

Weber was, of course, taking a complex system of beliefs and boiling it down to the bare bones of some of its principles. And my writing about it is a further simplification of Weber’s book. But I do think understanding how anxiety about the afterlife often plays a part in the attempts to create a “Bible-believing” society, are helpful when trying to understand what drives the seeming insanity of the Christian right. While those of us who have only a distant relationship to Christianity might be mystified by why “peace, love, and understanding” is not what motivates the religious right, spending more time understanding the history of Christianity may provide greater clues. How else to make sense of ostensibly Christian communities that turn on its most vulnerable citizens?

Instead of looking at the Christian right as a group of power-hungry zealots who believe that they know the right way to live, it makes more sense to see them as a group of anxious people, terrified that death may be simply ‘the end,’ and not the beginning of a heavenly afterlife. It is not to excuse their behavior—which is reprehensible—but it is to suggest that their behavior is driven by a primal fear. Namely, that no one escapes death. As long as they continue to believe that by controlling others’ behavior, they can guarantee that they themselves are going to live forever, we will continue to see their impact on the laws that govern all of us.