One of the biggest stories out of Washington lately is the tension between the Christian right and congressional Republicans. Social conservatives are understandably upset that the GOP has consciously downplayed social issues. But by giving a low priority to cutting federal spending, social conservatives themselves define too narrowly what constitutes a pro-family policy agenda.
To understand why, read one of the best political books of the 1990s, Dead Right, by the thoroughly secular conservative David Frum. Christians should resist being turned off by the book's ancillary potshots at the Christian right, because Mr. Frum's central argument is persuasive. For conservatives in the political arena, he writes, "the only plausible hope of reforming the culture is by eliminating state-created and state-funded incentives to misconduct." Most people need reasons to maintain families and act civilly toward others, according to Mr. Frum. Federal social programs take away those reasons.
Mr. Frum probably doesn't realize it, but he's saying that big government undermines common grace. The doctrine of common grace teaches that God has arranged the fallen world so that it's often in the self-interest of the wicked to do what is right. In this way, God sustains a world that would otherwise fall into chaos. So, for instance, a non-Christian woman who wants a child but not a husband might postpone pregnancy until marriage anyway because of financial pressures. By doing the right thing, even if only out of regard for herself, she helps preserve one of society's most vital institutions.
Civil government is an essential part of God's provision of common grace. Why do so many unregenerate people refrain from stealing and physically harming others, both of which the Bible tells us they're perfectly capable of doing? In part because at some level they know they'll likely be thrown into jail if they commit such crimes. If government didn't exist, the sinful impulses of the mass of men would go unchecked.
But when government gets too large, it can actually work against common grace. Instead of holding sin in check, government becomes sin's enabler. The non-Christian woman described above may very well forgo marriage if federal spending programs make such a decision financially feasible. In the long run, all of society is the loser. Though he doesn't phrase it in terms of common grace, this is the heart of Mr. Frum's argument.
He charges that some of the most popular federal programs make the family pointless for many people by making it unnecessary. "The family used to be connected by its members' mutual responsibility for child-rearing, unemployment, sickness, old age, disability, and burial," he writes. "A woman who gave birth outside of marriage was burdening her mother and father. A man who abandoned his children was abandoning his pension." But government social programs changed all that. By providing for so many of people's needs, the government left many people with no reason to stay in, or even form, families. As Mr. Frum puts it, "Social Security, student loans, and other government programs make it far less catastrophic than it used to be for middle-class people to dissolve their families."
For the Christian, who knows he is called by God to be a good spouse and parent, government's taking over the family's functions shouldn't make his family less important to him. From the unbeliever's point of view, though, it's a big reason not to bother becoming or remaining a family man.
If Mr. Frum is right, then the implications are enormous for social conservatives who want to use politics to strengthen families. "However they describe their decision," he concludes, "conservatives who throw in the towel on issues like Social Security and Medicare and welfare in order to direct their full attention to 'the culture' are attempting to preserve bourgeois values in a world arranged in such a way as to render those virtues at best unnecessary and at worst active nuisances. The project is not one that is very likely to succeed."
And why not? We know it's because the unregenerate majority is prone to sin and selfishness. (And the old, dying sinful nature remains even in believers until it's finally, fully put to death in heaven.) By shielding people from the immediate consequences of sinful behavior and family breakup, most government social programs contribute to cultural decline.
Social conservatives are correct to be outraged at Republicans for ignoring family issues. But they should include the GOP's active participation in the growth of government (at least in the last two years) as a large part of the problem.