Friday, October 10, 2008

Translating Christian Ethics Into Public Policy

In our recent discussion on the effect of attacks on corporations on the poor, we talked about how we live out our Christian values as citizens, advocating for particular policy changes on the basis of those values. Rich wrote a very thoughtful comment in which he disagreed with my view that Christian ethics and public policy are largely separate spheres -- or should be. Read the entire comment, for it is quite challenging. At the conclusion, Rich asked me:

My question is, on what basis can any Christian fail to advocate for laws and policies that express this core Christian value?

Again, I question how Rich proposes that we differentiate between Christian values that we advocate as public policy changes and those which we leave in the private (i.e. non-coercive) sphere. Rich uses the term "core" as a distinction, but I do not see how this different from selecting from the buffet of Christian values those items which reflect one's own political philosophy.

For example, Rich proposes a progressive tax policy explicitly on the basis of Christian values:

It's a given that the costs of necessities (food, energy, housing, etc.) require a larger percentage of the resources of the poor than of the wealthy.

This is a great argument in favor of a progressive tax policy (by "progressive" I mean taxing progressively higher income at progressively higher rates).

The fact that taking appropriate steps to care for God's creation might have greater impact on those with less money is not an excuse to not care for God's creation--it means we must define policies that also care for all of God's children as well.

But he also tries to distinguish this "core" value from mandatory prayer, as forced prayer would not be sincere, and thereby spiritually effective:

By "relevance to governance", I exclude such things as the Christian value that frequent prayer is important. I certainly urge people to have a flourishing prayer life, but this is not a item for governance--even if a law were passed that "all people must pray daily", that would not actually help people have true prayer lives, and would probably have the opposite effect.

I agree that coerced virtue is no virtue at all, which is why prayer before the one true God should not be forced. But taxation for the benefit of the poor is likewise a coercive act. It isn't charitable giving; it's stealing from the rich and giving to the poor. To give freely is live out a Christian value, but there is no virtue in being robbed.

But regardless, what is this "core" of Christian teaching? Rich argues:

Again, care for the needy is a *core* teaching of Christ and of the Hebrew prophets.

True. But as I've argued in the past, worshipping false gods is a sin that the Bible rejects even more vigorously than the neglect of the poor. Surely monotheism is a core Christian value and therefore, by Rich's argument, should be criminalized by Christian voters.

Any takers?

But I am still left with Rich's very challenging question at the end of his last comment:

My question is, on what basis can any Christian fail to advocate for laws and policies that express this core Christian value?

I've been mulling this over for several hours and reached this tentative conclusion: Christian values are to be lived out by Christians individually and communally. And the Christian community isn't the state, but the Church. If the Church fails to lift up the poor and downtrodden, then it has fundamentally failed as the Church. But the state -- or the American state, at least -- is a secular institution, and is not bound by Christian values.

How can I fail to advocate Christian values into law? By recognizing that the state is coercion, and the Gospel is free will. People cannot be saved without their own consent, nor act virtuously with a gun to their heads.

How would you answer Rich's question?

7 comments:

Dan Trabue said...

Well, as you might suspect, I'm closer to Rich's position than yours perhaps (it would depend on the specific laws we're talking about), but I don't know that your statement "the state is coercion," is a valid premise.

The state in a democratic republic such as ours is participatory. We have a free republic. We can advocate for the programs we favor and against the ones we oppose. If we don't like the will of the people enough, we are free to leave.

The state is not coercion. It is free will, too. Now, having said that, it is entirely possible that our fellow citizens may come up with laws we don't like and, being a minority, can take it or leave. But that is true in a free community, as well.

In the Amish community, you are free to live how you wish. BUT, if you wish to live in a manner sufficiently removed from their norms, you will be removed from community. Coercion, of a sort.

In the free-est of communities, there are rules you will be expected to abide by or you will be coerced to either leave or stop. In the strictest of free republics, you are free to leave if you wish.

Right?

Dan Trabue said...

I've been mulling this over for several hours and reached this tentative conclusion: Christian values are to be lived out by Christians individually and communally. And the Christian community isn't the state

This is certainly true that the Christian community is not The State. But Christians living in a state can voice their opinions about public policy. In a state where 99% of the people believe that Action A is wrong, then Action A will likely be outlawed.

In a state where 51% of the people believe Action A is wrong, well, it is less likely that Action A will be outlawed or regulated. But both the majority and minority can voice their opinions.

There certainly isn't anything unbiblical about willingly accepting a tax to pay for, for instance, a welfare program to assist those with no other means of support and so, if a majority of the folk in a state deem it wise or prudent to assist those with no other means, that's okay.

And I could certainly see in a predominantly Christian state that people may say, "you know, I'm fine with a tax for that purpose," and there's nothing inherently wrong with that, at least on the face of it.

johnmeunier said...

It is interesting to watch you think your way through this problem.

It seems to me that talking about "Christian values" is a bit of a problem. Christianity is a way of life more than it is a buffet - to use your words - of values.

The fact is this was all easier in the monarchy and empire. The people had no say or sovereignty, so the question of expressing their values was pretty irrelevent.

When Paul and Peter tell us not to resist authority, they are assuming the authorities are someone else. Of course, all our democratic rhetoric aside, "we" are not really in charge here either. We give our consent to a bunch of folks who run the government, but we do not make the decisions.

This is all very "first draft" of me, so I apologize for the rambling.

The other observation that I had was that your argument would seem to preclude Christians using government to do things like end slavery. This is not something I would endorse. But - as you can tell - I do not have a consistent set of thoughts on the topic.

Jeff Lutz said...

I agree with you John. I have come to a point where I try to live in the world, but not of the world. I need to show people how this works in my life so that they will see that it can work in their life. If the state does it, it ends up being a coercive force that alienates the down trodden and poor, because some is going to use the Law against them.

With that being said, I leave room for where to draw the line for laws that brings about social order. Using "Do not murder," as an example, most people would agree that you should kill someone, but then do we use that with the unborn, or with the death penalty?

Personally, I think that abortion and the death penalty are wrong. However, the state has drawn a line at those points. I have heard some say that we should show a woman why shouldn't abort a baby, and give her support when she does give birth, rather than legislate. With the society as politically charged as it is, maybe living a Christian life would be a better than trying to legislate it.

If we live the difference, maybe we won't have to legislate anything. (Ok that's utopian, but is that what they were trying to do in Acts?)

Just some thoughts.

John said...

In the free-est of communities, there are rules you will be expected to abide by or you will be coerced to either leave or stop. In the strictest of free republics, you are free to leave if you wish.

Right?


The answer of the federal government in 1861 was a firm 'no'.

John said...

John Meunier wrote:

When Paul and Peter tell us not to resist authority, they are assuming the authorities are someone else. Of course, all our democratic rhetoric aside, "we" are not really in charge here either. We give our consent to a bunch of folks who run the government, but we do not make the decisions.

I've long thought that those passages in Peter and Paul were propagandistic in purpose; that is, they were written to that Roman readers would disassociate Christians from Jewish rebels.

John said...

Jeff wrote:

With that being said, I leave room for where to draw the line for laws that brings about social order. Using "Do not murder," as an example, most people would agree that you should kill someone, but then do we use that with the unborn, or with the death penalty?

Yeah, we do have to have limits on permissible behaviors, such as those that violate the life, liberty, or property of other people. But I think that these can be predicated not upon Christian teaching, but on the notion of personal sovereignty. This would be especially important if we wish for Christians and non-Christians to find some agreement on public policy.