At the 2011 National Prayer Breakfast, President Obama reminded Christians across the political spectrum that what they have in common in Christ is more fundamental and more precious than what divides them politically (see video below).
But in the course of his address he also reminded us of what divides us, and what serious matters they are. The president had his opponents in the Tea Party movement in mind when he said:
"Over the past two years . . . the proper role of government has obviously been the subject of enormous controversy. And the debates have been fierce as one side's version of compassion and community may be interpreted by the other side as an oppressive and irresponsible expansion of the state or an unacceptable restriction on individual freedom."
Christians can differ in good faith over the role of government. But because God institutes government for our good and for specific purposes, and even judges governments for what they do and fail to do, there are biblically right and wrong answers to the question. As the president put it, there are competing "versions of compassion and community" between left and right evangelicals.
In 2000, the evangelical political right thought they had their man in the White House. In some ways they did. But in other ways they came to be disappointed. George W. Bush came to office committed to "compassionate conservatism," greater co-operation between government and private, faith-based organizations for delivering social services more efficiently and with genuine charity. The emphasis was to be on private initiative, private delivery, but with public financial assistance from a long arm's length. Things didn't work out as planned, partly because of internal political obstacles and partly because of the administration's shift of focus after 9/11.
With Barack Obama succeeding Bush in office, the evangelical political left is now enjoying their messianic moment. At the prayer breakfast, Obama gave voice to their moral vision for righteous government.
His thesis is that while "faith groups" can do a lot of charitable work on their own, "sometimes they need a partner, whether it's in business or government." Whether the church should "partner" with government, especially the federal government, in doing its work of love is a contested issue, both biblically and constitutionally. But in stating the matter in this way, he is not in disagreement with his predecessor.
But Obama has cast the government in a much more active role. Human needs, he argues, outstrip the capacities of individuals, families, faith groups, and businesses. Government (which of course gets all its money from individuals, families, and businesses, as well as from heavy borrowing) must step in and make up the difference, according to Obama:
"Of course there are some needs that require more resources than faith groups have at their disposal. There's only so much a church can do to help all the families in need-all those who need help making a mortgage payment, or avoiding foreclosure, or making sure their child can go to college. There's only so much that a nonprofit can do to help a community rebuild in the wake of disaster. There's only so much the private sector will do to help folks who are desperately sick get the care that they need."
(Notice the slap at business here. There is only so much a church or nonprofit "can" do, but that the private sector "will" do. Someone has a bad attitude.)
For this reason, Obama said, "In a caring and in a just society, government must have a role to play." Consider how Bush's Office of Faith-based and Community Initiatives became Obama's Office of Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships. Private initiatives turned into government partnerships.
Of course, the president is looking at the capacities and willingness of non-governmental givers and providers in the context of a large-and-getting-larger government welfare system. We now have had generations of government that has been progressively crowding out private action by taxing away capacity to give and weakening people's sense of their moral responsibility to care. It's impressive that we give and care as much as we do! But any deficiency that we have privately in these is not an argument for more government action, but less.
The second problem I see in the president's thesis is the equivalency with which he speaks of private and government caring activity, whether together or separately. When the American people's charity is expressed through government, it is not received as charity but as entitlement. It follows from the nature of the relationship. As such, the effect is different. Charity ennobles and enables. Entitlements enslave and incapacitate. Charity tries to get you back on your own feet, functioning as an equal. Entitlements maintain you as a permanent client, dependent and politically supportive.
The president means well, but it is for good reason that most evangelicals disagree with his "version of compassion and community."