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A servant, not a god

National | RELIGION: Millions over the past century put their faith in civil governments to solve problems and close inequalities, but a look at the scriptural basis of the state should temper Christian expectations

Issue: "Ugly truth of partial-birth," April 17, 2004

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?

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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 &quotpeaceful and quiet lives," in Paul's words-in a sinful world. &quotThe one in authority," wrote Paul, &quotis 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: &quotHe 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: &quotDo 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 &quotsocial justice," which demands equality of economic and cultural outcomes. However appealing may be some proposals advanced under the rubric of &quotsocial justice," they are not matters of biblical justice.

Some argue that biblical strictures against &quotoppression" 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 &quotcovet fields and seize them, and houses, and take them. They defraud a man of his home." Israel's &quotrich men are violent," he added (Micah 2:2, 6:12). James pointed to the exploitative rich who had &quotfailed to pay the workmen" and &quotcondemned and murdered innocent men" (James 5:4, 6). None of these passages involves voluntary exchange, however &quotunequal" the parties' bargaining power.

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