RELIGION ONCE SEEMED TO HAVE little to do with the national political debate, but no longer. George W. Bush is the most overtly observant Christian to hold the presidency in a quarter century. The Democratic primaries drew as candidates an Orthodox Jew and an ordained (Pentecostal) minister. Wesley Clark and Howard Dean publicly (but not convincingly) proclaimed their deep Christian faith. John Kerry is a Roman Catholic.
Many conservative evangelicals look at U.S. policy toward Israel, Iraq, Palestinians, and Muslims in general through the prism of their faith. Liberal denominations and groups use religious images and rhetoric to oppose the war in Iraq and tax cuts. In November 2003 left-wing Christians announced the formation of the Clergy Leadership Network to counter such conservative organizations as the Christian Coalition and Family Research Council. So much for the naked public square, at least when it comes to political advocacy.
Which raises questions about the relationship of religion to politics. Should religious people-and particularly Christians, who profess to make up the vast majority of the American population-think, act, and vote differently because of their faith?
It is perhaps easiest to start with what believers should not do-treat the state as either a redemptive or an eternal institution. Even ancient Israel centered around Mosaic law could not bring salvation.
The Bible is helpful but not determinative in assessing the role of the state. The dominant message of the gospel, as well as of the Hebrew Scriptures, is man's relationship to God and his neighbors. Although many of these principles have some application to political relationships, the Bible provides no detailed blueprint for the state: Scripture gives much more guidance on how we should treat people than when we should coerce them, which is the defining characteristic of government.
What the Bible does is set boundaries for political debate. The state's most fundamental role is to protect citizens from the sinful conduct of their neighbors. The Bible indicates that government is to act to preserve order-people's ability to live "peaceful and quiet lives," in Paul's words-in a sinful world. "The one in authority," wrote Paul, "is God's servant, an agent of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer" (Romans 13:3-4).
One goal of the state is just retribution. Another objective is deterrence, encouraging even evil men to respect others' rights. A third concern is nonviolent deprivation through theft and fraud of the resources over which God has made individuals stewards -a that matter was covered with great specificity in Mosaic law.
Another scriptural theme suggests a duty for believers to promote justice and righteousness. Civil rulers are to be just and righteous. However, corporate duty differs from personal responsibility. Individuals must respond virtuously to the needs and rights of their neighbors; government must regulate, coercively yet fairly, relations between both righteous and unrighteous men. In short, the contrast is personal virtue versus public impartiality. (An attempt by the state to practice the former rather than the latter is typified by the past century's great totalitarian levelers, the communist revolutionaries.)
The theme of the state as neutral arbiter and protector occurs throughout Scripture. Government is not to become a tool to rob and oppress. Said Solomon of the godly ruler: "He will defend the afflicted among the people and save the children of the needy; he will crush the oppressor" (Psalm 72:4).
Protection of the needy is of special concern to God: They are, after all, the least able to vindicate their own interests, especially in the face of a government that is easily suborned to favor the powerful. However, extra sensitivity to abuse of the poor does not warrant prejudice in their favor. God commanded: "Do not pervert justice; do not show partiality to the poor or favoritism to the great, but judge your neighbor fairly" (Leviticus 19:15).
Biblical justice, then, protects all men in their enjoyment of God's blessings. In this way godly justice and righteousness focus on process. That differs from the modern notion of "social justice," which demands equality of economic and cultural outcomes. However appealing may be some proposals advanced under the rubric of "social justice," they are not matters of biblical justice.
Some argue that biblical strictures against "oppression" apply to seemingly neutral processes, such as the free marketplace, that allegedly lead to unfair results, such as wealth imbalances. Yet the apparent unfairness of market transactions -in contrast to the harmful consequences of individual cases of fraud and theft-usually results from coercion, almost always through state intervention.
Indeed, the Bible routinely links oppression to the use of force and perversion of the system of justice. The prophet Micah complained of evil men who "covet fields and seize them, and houses, and take them. They defraud a man of his home." Israel's "rich men are violent," he added (Micah 2:2, 6:12). James pointed to the exploitative rich who had "failed to pay the workmen" and "condemned and murdered innocent men" (James 5:4, 6). None of these passages involves voluntary exchange, however "unequal" the parties' bargaining power.
This is not to say that such inequality is unimportant: It brings out personal responsibility to be just and generous and the Body of Christ's corporate responsibility to "do good to all people" (Galatians 6:10). It challenges otherwise comfortable believers to sacrifice to help their neighbors.
The form of economic oppression that would appear to come closest to the biblical meaning would be the use of government by influential interest groups to restrict competition, enhance their own market position, and extort subsidies. It is such lobbies, among many others, that the prophet Isaiah addressed when he proclaimed: "Woe to those who make unjust laws, to those who issue oppressive decrees, to deprive the poor of their rights and rob My oppressed people of justice, making widows their prey and robbing the fatherless" (Isaiah 10:1-2).
Less relevant today are God's rules governing virtually every aspect of the Israelites' lives. The moral purity of the collective body appears to have been God's primary concern. For instance, the death penalty was prescribed for those who sacrificed to other gods, violated the ceremonial law, engaged in forbidden sexual practices, and cursed their parents. Other rules governed everything from appropriate clothing to economic practices.
Enforcement of essentially "religious" laws would not seem to be the proper province of civil government today. Most obviously, the traditional Old Testament strictures were tied to the Israelites' status as the chosen people. That is, God established the law to mold the nation of Israel as part of His overall plan of salvation.
It should not be surprising, then, that the Mosaic Scriptures devote more attention to the Israelites' worship practices than to their civic responsibilities. Similarly, rules established to govern an individual's dedication of property to God were more complex than those governing his commercial transactions with his neighbors (Leviticus 27). Many rules, such as the cancellation of debts and restrictions on interest, applied only to Hebrews, members of the faith community (Deuteronomy 15:3, 23:20). In the same way the communal economics of the early Christian church appear to have involved only believers (Acts 2:44-45, 4:32-35). Christians did not impose their practices on others.
Significantly, enforcement of many Old Testament norms required the active intervention of God, something no state today is likely to rely upon. By the time Jesus began His ministry, public enforcement of the old Hebraic rules appear to have been largely abandoned, and the Jewish world at that time-under a secular Roman leadership-looks much more like today's America than ancient Israel.
Another reason to doubt that today's state is mandated to enforce moral/religious rules is that most ultimately deal with matters of the heart as much as conduct. Paul wrote: "A man is a Jew if he is one inwardly; and circumcision is circumcision of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the written code" (Romans 2:29). Meaningful enforcement of the moral law, then, requires God's direct involvement in the affairs of civil government, intervention that was possible only in a covenant nation like Israel. Government today fails to perform adequately even basic tasks, such as preventing crime; how can the state reasonably attempt to make men moral and sinless by cleaning up their hearts, consciences, and minds?
Godly people still have an interest in promoting corporate compliance with God's standards. But today God seems to have vested primary responsibility for society's moral health with the religious, rather than civil, authorities. Thus, while the Bible does not prevent the state from taking on a moral role, it also does not mandate it.
If Scripture requires the state to act in some circumstances (for instance, to punish the wrongdoer and promote justice), it also restricts how the state can act. The most important limitation flows from the first commandment given to Moses: "You shall have no other gods before me" (Exodus 20:3). Although the "other gods" were usually such supposed deities as Baal, some secular rulers, notably the later Roman emperors, also claimed to be divine. God punished kings (such as Tyre's ruler and Israel's Herod) for making or tolerating such preposterous claims.
Today's secular rulers are more discreet in their formal pretensions, but many nevertheless act as quasi-gods. From the Pharaoh who held the Jews in captivity and ordered the murder of their newborn sons to the 20th-century totalitarians with their personality cults, civil authorities have often usurped God's role. What author Herb Schlossberg calls "the idol state" purports to give life meaning, set moral standards, meet personal needs, and otherwise direct human activity. The Bible suggests that an expansive government is bad not only because it might demand to be treated like God, but also because it will reflect the sinfulness of its participants and mistreat its citizens. The inescapable problem is that man is a fallen creature, all too willing to do wrong. For instance, God declared that His people "are skilled in doing evil."
This sinful tendency is exacerbated by the accumulation of power. God instructed the Israelites that their king was neither to acquire too many horses and wives, and too much gold and silver, nor to "consider himself to be better than his brothers" (Deuteronomy 17:16-17, 20). Similarly, when the Israelites requested that God give them a king, He cautioned -through the prophet Samuel-that the king would abuse his authority and that their calls for relief would go unheeded.
And while Scripture is ultimately more concerned about spiritual freedom-particularly liberation from sin-than political freedom, the latter remains an important theme for at least three reasons. First, the lives and dignity of human beings created in the image of God require respect by other people, including governors. In the end, the least important person for whom Christ died is of greater value than the grandest empire.
Second, people must be free to worship God and integrate obedience to Him into their daily lives. This concern obviously animated Peter and John when they rejected the demand of the Sanhedrin, an ecclesiastical body with considerable civil power, that they cease teaching in Jesus' name: "We must obey God rather than man" (Acts 5:29). Paul, too, never hesitated to disobey civil authorities that denied him permission to preach.
Finally, Christ's injunction that believers be salt and light requires that they have at least some autonomy from the state. In the Soviet Union, for instance, the government outlawed private charity, probably the most important practical outworking of a person's Christian faith. The imperialistic tendencies of Western welfare states to take over communal life can ultimately have much the same effect as the USSR's formal ban.
To know what government must and must not do is critical, but only a start, since most issues fall somewhere in between. Moreover, most have been with us since biblical times. Poverty, for instance, as well as debasement of the currency and high tax levels, are hardy perennials. Although the specific manifestations of these problems are different today, broader biblical principles apply.
Consider poverty. God's concern for the poor, the vulnerable, and the weak is persistent, pervasive, and powerful. Notably, however, the Bible does not vest this responsibility in the state. While Scripture does not bar a public role, the alleviation of poverty is consistently presented as an obligation of individuals, families, and congregations, not government, and a duty to God, not a right of the recipient.
Moreover, the biblical model of limited assistance to those unable to work imposed responsibilities upon the recipients, and avoided the social destructiveness of the modern welfare state. Although Scripture does not formally proscribe a public role or broader approach, it implies that believers should fulfill their individual and corporate responsibilities before turning to government, and that any state programs should not violate other biblical norms, such as family formation.
Many other current public controversies, like corporate fraud, insider trading, the minimum wage, and the Export-Import Bank, are more esoteric. About them the Bible offers little specific guidance. Straining to find specific guidance leads to embarrassing proof-texting, such as that of columnist Brian S. Chilton, who cited Joseph's "successful administration of Egypt's food supply" in concluding of attempted nation-building in Iraq today: "If this president, as with Joseph, wants to spend money on a project while acknowledging God's direction and role, then he has my support."
But Joseph's program tells us nothing about George W. Bush's efforts. It certainly doesn't tell us that President Bush has correctly divined God's purpose. Godly citizens, no less than a godly president, have a responsibility simultaneously to seek God's will and apply wisdom. For most matters are more issues of prudence than principle and fall within the permissive area of government activity.
That is, there is neither a mandate for nor a prohibition against the government occupying Iraq, or regulating who may trade which securities based on what knowledge. The link between, say, concern for the poor and a particular federal job-training program is prudential, not spiritual. Churchmen who speak on such issues often look more like common lobbyists than godly prophets.
Although there is no formal Christian political philosophy, believers have good reason to be skeptical about using government to solve economic and social problems. The temptation to seize power in an attempt to do good is strong; the prospect of making people moral and righteous is alluring. But can there be greater hubris than the belief that one should forcibly remake individuals and transform entire societies? Literally thousands of years of history suggest that such a project is fraught with peril and doomed to fail.
One concern is the primacy of God. In a broad sense, political and economic freedom, particularly independence from the paternal welfare state, have a spiritual dimension, since liberty forces people to rely on God. The wider the latitude of decisions left to individuals, the greater the variety of situations in which they must exercise moral judgment and seek to implement biblical principles.
Moreover, believers must never forget that the basis of the state is coercion, backed by prison and, should a citizen resist, death. In general, throwing someone in jail cannot be viewed as an act of love. Thus, Christians should exhibit humility before resorting to coercion, and should do so only reluctantly. In some cases the only way to demonstrate love for one's neighbors is to punish miscreants, but we should be careful before turning disagreements, however serious, into crimes.
America's Founders, irrespective of their individual faith commitments, established a limited national government of enumerated powers because their shared biblical worldview warned against the danger of mixing sinful human nature and concentrated political authority. They saw a Constitution that restricted and decentralized state power as the only way to protect people from the actions of rulers who would most decidedly not be angels.
-Doug Bandow is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute