Ten Thoughts on Politics and the Bible

1. It’s a mistake to see detailed political guidance in the Bible.  It seems to give a broad range — allowing us, for example, even to choose a king or not (Deuteronomy 17:14-20), and recognizing that political authority is distinct from religious authority (“Render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s and unto God what is God’s”).  Our pastor recently noted the lack of biblical guidance on church structure; should we be surprised that there is (even) less commanded with regard to political structure?

2. But it is hard to imagine that we are to cede so much power to the state that it impedes our ability to follow God, or that we cannot insist that the state protect us from those who would create an environment hostile to our faith and deny us by law the freedom to lead the kind of lives God wants us to.  Presumably that is part of what God calls us to render unto Him, and so passages like Romans 13:1-7 must not be read too broadly.  And, in a democracy and as discussed below, surely our votes are not to be divorced from our personal morality.

3.  On that last point, does it follow that, since Christians are to be generous (even giving away our tunics, Luke 6:29), therefore we should vote for aggressively redistributionist policies?  Not necessarily, for at least a couple of reasons.  First, there is a big moral difference between voluntarily giving away our own tunic, and ganging up with a bunch of other people to force some third party (unpopular with you and your friends) at gunpoint to give away his tunic (to some other person deemed, by you and your friends, to be more deserving of it).  Cf. Exodus 23:3 (“‘nor shall you be partial to a poor man in his dispute'”).  Second, in the long run you may not be doing even the tunic recipient any favors if you teach him lessons against self-reliance (spare the rod and spoil the child and all that).   What’s more, a system where extra tunics can be taken away is a system that in the long run will produce fewer tunics for everyone. None of that is to say that we should let people starve to death in the streets if the only entity that can feed them is, as a practical matter, the state.

4.  A sometimes overlapping but distinct point is that we should be wary of too broadly anthropomorphizing the state into a Christian individual.  For example, as Christians we are called upon to forgive those who sin against against us — say, a burglar who breaks into our house — but that does not mean that the government is wrong to punish thieves or that Christians should object when it does.  When someone claims that, as Christians, we should not favor this or that stiff sentence because Christians believe in forgiving sinners, the response has to be that this proves too much, for this would mean that Christians should favor no secular punishment, no matter how light, for any crime, no matter how brutal.  It’s moving when a Christian parent forgives the cold-blooded murderer of his or her son, but there’s nothing wrong with an unforgiving state here; indeed, for that matter, I see no inconsistency between the parents forgiving the killer but believing that he should be put to death.

5. Bible rules are remarkably nondiscriminatory and egalitarian.  Don’t kill anyone.  See also Galatians 3:28:  “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female: for ye are all one in Christ Jesus.”  In his book The Happy Christian, pastor and seminary professor David Murray urges us (200-01)  to soak in the “Bible’s equality themes”: all peoples were created equally in the image of God (James 3:9), all peoples have the same human father (Acts 17:26), all peoples will be judged on the same level by God (Romans 2:11), all believers are saved equally by the grace of God (Gal. 3:28), all believers have equal standing before God and all believers have equal place in the church of God (Ephesians 2:11-18), and all believers will live forever with God (Rev. 5:9).  See also Leviticus 19:15 (“‘”You shall do no injustice in judgment; you shall not be partial to the poor nor defer to the great, but you are to judge your neighbor fairly”‘”).

But the Bible also is clear that some behaviors are better than others, and that people should expect different consequences and different treatment on the basis of their behavior.  As a famous Christian cleric once put it, we should be judged by the content of our character, but not the color of our skin.  Again, just because the Bible says something doesn’t mean that our government should enact it; I’m just pointing this out because, as also noted above and below, our personal morality can sometimes inform how we vote.

6. If we believe that faith (and the works that follow) must be chosen and not coerced, isn’t the prudent course for a believer to structure a government so that even wrong choices are allowed, both because he accepts that as a matter of his own belief, and because he doesn’t not want a government with the power to coerce his belief (and concomitant works)?  Whatever the government can do for you, it can do to you.

While I’m at it, I’ll add this:  Whether you come at the question as a Christian who wants to serve God, or as someone (Christian or not) who has only secular aims, I think you conclude that the best government is one that has the provision and protection of freedom as its principal aim.  But, again from either perspective, freedom (at least short-term freedom) ought not be the only aim of government, if for no other reason than because there can sometimes be circumstances where providing (again, at least short-term) freedom can be undesirable, even fatal — fatal even for (long-term) freedom.

7. Let’s stipulate that it wrong to urge people to believe in God, when you yourself do not so believe, simply because it would have desirable secular effects.   Cf. Dostoyevsky’s Grand Inquisitor.   On the other hand, it would seem odd, especially for believers, to ignore those desirable secular effects in deciding what role government should play with respect to faith — whether it should be hostile or indifferent or supportive.  Likewise, it would seem odd for believers to ignore the desirable secular consequences in their evangelism — whether having faith might be a good thing for the individual not only in the hereafter but also in the here and now.  Much of the Old Testament, in particular, is pitched with the latter in the forefront.  And there is this point from Charles Murray’s book Coming Apart:  Upper-class believers are reluctant to evangelize even though they themselves believe — perhaps from fear of being un-PC — but this serves neither truth nor those less well-off.

8.  We frequently divide political issues into three categories:  foreign policy, domestic economic and regulatory policy, and social issues.  So let’s consider broadly these issues and what the Bible says about them.  On foreign policy, there’s no suggestion that Israel was wrong to act in its national interests.  As discussed above, with respect to domestic economic and regulatory policy, there is also no reason to think that the Bible requires a Left-leaning (or Right-leaning) approach, although I’ll just note in passing that I think that various passages do suggest that too-high taxes can become oppressive and unfair.

It’s the social issues, of course, that the Bible has the most to say about.  But I’ll note here again that there is a big difference between what we should choose to do voluntarily as individuals and what the government should force us to do, and that this sword cuts both ways.  As noted above:  Perhaps we should give generously to the poor, but that doesn’t mean that government should force us to; perhaps we should be Christians, but that doesn’t mean the government should force us to.  Or consider gay sex:  There are distinctions to be drawn between individuals choosing to have it, the government forbidding it, and the government punishing those who would condemn it in one way or another.  There is, relatedly, the principle of subsidiarity to consider, so that a federal law is used as a matter of last resort, a state law as next-to-last resort, and so forth.  (And as a lawyer I must add here that the question of what the federal Constitution has to say about all this is also distinct:  Just because a result is right doesn’t mean that the Constitution compels it, and just because a result is wrong doesn’t mean the Constitution forbids it.)

9.  And when is it permissible, or even morally required, to enact Biblical rules?  As already discussed, Christianity does not require a theocracy or Christian sharia.  But it also won’t do to say, “You can’t legislate morality,” since we do so all the time, and it’s a good thing, too:  laws against murder and robbery and rape, for example.  You might be able to use some other belief system than Christianity to conclude that it is wrong to kill people (but some would deny that you can have morality apart from God), and some other reason to ban this than the fact that it is immoral (but such a reason might not be strong enough to ban killing unpopular or inconvenient persons); still,  it doesn’t strike me as impermissible if people want to ban murder for moral reasons that come directly or indirectly from the Bible.   Libertarians sometimes say that there should be no laws except to keep one person from harming another, but what about laws against animal cruelty or public billboards that graphically advertise, say, child pornography?   On the other hand, no one is pushing for a city ordinance requiring people to honor their father and mother, even though this is one of the Ten Commandments and even though its violation has human victims.

In deciding whether to make something illegal (or, mutatis mutandis, require an action by law), in addition to asking whether it is immoral/contrary to the Bible and whether it hurts other people, we can ask whether it could be addressed as well, or nearly as well, in some manner that did not involve passing a law; another way to ask that question is to compare the benefits of banning an action minus the costs of banning it, on the one hand, to the benefits of not banning it minus the costs of not banning it, on the other.  Consider, too, whether sometimes it may make more sense to allow civil lawsuits against some actions rather than to prosecute them criminally.

Does all this sound complicated?  It does to me, and so I’d conclude that the question of when something should be made illegal is not really susceptible to a simple formula, and neither is the question when a Christian is morally bound to try to illegalize something.

10.  Finally, one may ask what kind of government do believers require, but one may also ask what kind of believers does government require.  The former is what this post has mostly discussed, but the latter is what prompted George Washington (and others) to note that a republic works only for a religious people.  (See especially the penultimate paragraph of this Wall Street Journal column.)

P.S.  I have a much shorter post along some of these lines here.