Responsibility of Christian Officials and Activists: Benefit of the Law
I wrote two articles on this subject quite a while ago detailing my thoughts on the role of government and how Christians should aim to influence it (Part I and Part II). The recent discussions of Kim Davis’ refusal to allow issuance of wedding licenses in Kentucky reminded me that there are some other aspects of our faith and politics that are worthy of discussion. Namely:
- The responsibility of Christian government officials in executing their office consistent with both their faith AND their job description and;
- The responsibility of those Christians who choose to lobby, blog and express their opinions for freedom, logic and Natural Law to stand up (charitably) against illogical, uncharitable or inappropriate points of view claiming Christian or Biblical legitimacy.
Let me explain further:
My previous posts talked about the role of government and what I think Christian citizens should advocate for in that government. There are, however, some additional caveats for those who chose to take a position of public trust and are employees of the State (especially those who are officials of some sort). In America, government employees do have a right to express their opinions and actively seek changes to the law of the land- as private citizens. They do not, however, have the right to ignore their government appointed duties because they disagree with them. This is a responsibility that we, as Christians, should cherish and regard highly. We should love the fact that police officers are required to protect us, regardless of their personal beliefs, when we legally march for the dignity of the unborn. That the prison guard can’t just let a woman go because he feels that she is innocent, or doesn’t like the crime she was convicted of. We had the right to be outraged when President Obama decided that he didn’t like the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), so he just wasn’t going to enforce it (before the Supreme Court ruled on it). Deciding not to do your job is not a constitutional right.
If rules, laws or orders change such that a person finds it unethical to perform their duties, they have a responsibility to voice their concern through the proper channels and, if necessary, step down. If the situation is so egregious that they feel allowing anyone to perform said duty would be gravely dangerous to innocent lives and/or an actual violation of laws and rules (Hitler’s Final Solution and the My Lai Massacre come to mind), then they should take a stand in whatever manner they think best, but know that they are breaking the law and subject to its punishments or relief from assignment at the very least. Generally speaking though, our default should be to obey and enforce the law, even if we don’t agree with it. That’s why Paul instructs us in the letter to the Romans (who were not exactly the most Christian friendly regime in history) “Everyone must submit to governing authorities. For all authority comes from God, and those in positions of authority have been placed there by God. So anyone who rebels against authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and they will be punished. For the authorities do not strike fear in people who are doing right, but in those who are doing wrong. Would you like to live without fear of the authorities? Do what is right, and they will honor you. The authorities are God’s servants, sent for your good. But if you are doing wrong, of course you should be afraid, for they have the power to punish you. They are God’s servants, sent for the very purpose of punishing those who do what is wrong. So you must submit to them, not only to avoid punishment, but also to keep a clear conscience. Pay your taxes, too, for these same reasons. For government workers need to be paid. They are serving God in what they do.” (Romans 13:1-6
Sir Thomas More is one of my favorite Saints. He was a dedicated family man, intelligent statesman (Lord High Chancellor of England) who kept his honor when all those around him were crooked even though it ultimately cost him is life. A great movie about him was filmed in the 1960s called “A Man for All Seasons”. It’s a bit long, but I found it fascinating. There was one scene though that stuck with me and seems particularly applicable to this case at hand. In this clip, More discusses the idea of the benefit of the Law, and who should receive such benefit. I don’t know if More actually said anything in this movie clip, but I think it’s a valid point either way.
Benefit of the Law
No system of government on this side of eternity will ever have perfect laws. There are some that we are going to disagree with and others that we will be grateful for. We might not like that the Supreme Court determined that same sex marriages must be recognized in all 50 states (I certainly didn’t and expressed my views on the topic here well before that ruling), but that is now the law of the land and officials of the States subject to the constitution have a requirement to uphold it. If a clerk doesn’t feel comfortable with issuing licenses to same sex couples, it should be the prerogative of that office/ governor as to whether to make accommodation for that request and always have another clerk on staff who can issue the license, or to make it a requirement of the job and wish that clerk well on his or her way out the door (or into another position). Either way, if a same sex couple that meets the legal requirements for marriage walks in to the office, they are entitled to walk out with a marriage certificate. They aren’t entitled to any particular signature or any particular person issuing the license, but they are entitled to the piece of paper and associated benefits.
I do understand that Kim Davis was in a bit of a pickle since her name was on the marriage licenses regardless of who issued them in her office. Prison did seem a bit harsh from what I could tell compared to simply removing her from office, and I’m glad that (at least as far as I can tell at the time of writing this) her name was removed from the marriage licenses and all sides seem to be at peace, but the amount of outcry that came up touting her as some kind of hero for religious rights was extremely disturbing to me. We as Christians, and really as Americans in general, must be very careful in glorifying certain acts of civil disobedience. It will likely not be long before the tides are turned and Christians are the ones just asking to be given their legal right with an atheist or Muslim official who chooses his or her own personal beliefs over the law of the land. On that day, people will look back on the way this Kim Davis case was handled/ portrayed and (rightfully) call us hypocrites if we handle it any different. Which brings me to my second point…
For those who take the time make political comments on Facebook, blog about Christian and political topics or take an active role in your political system (all of which I generally encourage), we have a responsibility to speak up when representation of our faith is being hijacked by viewpoints that fail tests of logic or universal application.
It’s tempting to take the approach of letting things go when people take extreme or illogical arguments that still end up with the same opinion you have. After all, at least they are arguing on the good side, right? The problem with this mentality is that people who are opposed or independent on the issue hear that extreme or illogical argument, and they consider it the best that our side has to offer. So they consider our whole argument BS. The best chance we have is to do what we can to ensure those people hear other Christians willing to speak up and say, “I also disagree with this law, but you’re going overboard in this situation.” Or “I recognize the divine inspiration of the Bible too, but US Constitution doesn’t and we owe a different approach to the legal debates, especially in public forums.” Or “We may consider this or that to be a sin, but that doesn’t mean that we should treat ANYONE with less dignity than they deserve as creatures made in the image and likeness of God.” We will probably not drown out or overpower the voices that we feel are misrepresenting us – Liberal media is way too eager to jump on opportunities to publicize Christian arguments and actions that they know won’t stand up to logical scrutiny. We shouldn’t set our hopes there though. Our goal should be to remain faithful and consistent (and open to correction ourselves). When we do this, we have the opportunity to convince friends that they are taking the wrong approach in defending the faith that way and will foster an environment that invites rational people with other opinions to see that it is possible for a conservative Christian/ Catholic to be both faithful and rational (and conservative) and maybe even start a conversation with us(usually a REALLY good conversation).
I should take a moment to point out directly, that the Bible is a fantastic resource for us as Christians to shape our moral compass and determine what we think should be a rule for our society. It is not, however a very good tool for convincing anyone with even the faintest idea of our Constitution, how to proceed in determining the law of the land. When we are talking about civil laws and government responsibilities, we should be arguing from universally acceptable (or nearly universal) precepts of natural law, ethics, and reason. We must acknowledge that the United States of America is not a Christian nation. Officially speaking, it never was.
The Bible and teachings of the Church may have had enough clout to pass a bill 50 or 100 years ago, but those days are long gone and that’s not entirely a bad thing. God gave us minds that can reason and dissect situations and he wants us to use them. The aspects of morality and society that have a place in civil law can and should be deduced from reason. The Bible is meant to be a light guiding us, not a crutch supporting us.
P.S. If the clip piqued your interest, you can watch the full movie here……“A Man for All Seasons”
P.P.S. I probably should take a moment to be clear that I hold no particular educational qualifications for submitting my thoughts above and much more accomplished, learned, and dedicated theologians hold a different opinion. Here is one of the more logical and at least dogmatically justified opinions on why Kim Davis should be regarded as a hero. I agree with most of his foundational logic, just not the application as it applies to a government official conferring a civil right. Tim Staples: Kim Davis is a Hero If you read this far and also think I’m wrong, please leave a comment and convince me!
“For this very reason, make every effort to supplement your faith with virtue, virtue with knowledge, knowledge with self-control, self-control with endurance, endurance with devotion, devotion with mutual affection, mutual affection with love. If these are yours and increase in abundance, they will keep you from being idle or unfruitful in the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ.” ~ 2 Peter 1:5-9
There are a few verses like this in the New Testament (and the Old Testament) that are just packed with meaning. More often than not, when I read them or hear them at church, I loose most of it because I don’t really dissect what God is trying to tell me. Despite my best effort (or maybe because I’m not really giving my best effort), I usually process these verses like the Charlie Brown teacher when all you hear/ read is generic vowels and consonants (and maybe cue a church bell or some other holy gesture in this case). I think I let myself down rather often in this regard as it pertains to my life of faith and I doubt I’m the only one. So in this blog, I thought I would take the time to look at what I think Peter is trying to tell me in these two sentences.
One advantage that I have when I read this and study it, is that I don’t need to look at it in order. In this case, I think the second sentence helps me frame the first. Peter is telling me that following the prescription in the first sentence, and increasing frequency and magnitude, will protect me from being stagnant [idle] or ineffective [unfruitful] in my relationship with God [knowledge of the Lord Jesus Christ]. This relationship with God or knowledge of Christ is what many would consider to be the foundation of faith. Interestingly enough, that’s the first word in the chain that Peter discusses in the quote. Coincidence? I think not…
Before I get into the 8 specific characteristics that Peter emphasizes to Christians, I need to understand the relationship between each of them. Each of these words has a “supplement”al role to the others.
sup·ple·ment noun \ˈsə-plə-mənt\ : something that is added to something else in order to make it complete. [Merriam-Webster online]
Other bible translations say “add to” (add later word to previous word) or “support” (support earlier word with later word). I need to think of each word that follows as something that strengthens, empowers and completes the previous word in my life.
So if I were to paraphrase: if you want stronger faith, be more virtuous. If you want to be more virtuous, be more knowledgeable. If you want to be more knowledgeable, have more self-control. If you want more self-control, have more endurance. If you want more endurance, have more devotion. Strengthen your devotion through mutual affection. And strengthen your mutual affection though love.
How does virtue strengthen our faith? The way I see it, living virtuously causes us to actually take ownership of our faith instead of allowing it to just be something in our head. Many people claim to have faith in God, but until we LIVE that faith, it doesn’t mean much. This is what the book of James refers to in Chapter 2 when it says, “faith without works is dead.” James isn’t talking about works of the law, he’s talking about virtuous living.
How does knowledge strengthen our virtue? Much like faith can be misguided into a mere belief and therefore grows stronger or more complete through virtue, virtue can be mistaken as mere volunteerism and easily veer off track if it is not fortified with understanding of what motivates the virtuous life and what does or does not actually constitute virtuous living. Oh yeah, and it doesn’t just strengthen virtue, it will also strengthen our faith to know more about who Jesus was, what the bible and the church teaches and WHY I believe what I believe.…
How does self-control strengthen knowledge? We don’t gain knowledge overnight, and studying virtue and the faith is rarely fun. It takes discipline to develop that stronger knowledge. Come to think of it, self-control helps us develop knowledge, but is also directly beneficial to virtue and faith as well. Funny…
And how does endurance supplement self-control? That discipline and self-control doesn’t come any easier than the knowledge does, and it will take endurance to keep trying and develop the habits of self-control so that they become a part of our character. And you know what, endurance in my faith, virtue and knowledge is actually a really good thing too. I think I’m noticing a pattern…
What good is devotion to endurance? Devotion gives passion and perspective to our efforts. It’s that fuel that we need sometimes when we just don’t WANT to. All that endurance, self-control, virtue, knowledge and faith seems REALLY BORING or inconvenient sometimes. If I don’t have a sense of devotion, none of it will last long…
How does mutual affection fit in? It’s that emotional factor and interpersonal relationship with other Christians and the world at large that keeps us from becoming a selfish, greedy jerk who thinks that all of the above is “all about me”.
And “What’s love got to do with it?” It’s not an emotion (second-hand or otherwise). It’s a selfless allegiance of the heart, formed and solidified by the will. It’s a decision for the good of the other and it’s the fuel that makes the world go round. It’s the relationship that God IS. It’s how we were made, why we were made and what we were made for. If I don’t have love, I’m nothing (see 1Cor13).
When all is said and done, Peter is inviting us solidify our faith by making it a habitual pursuit of both mind and body, will and emotion. It has to be an integral part to everything that we do. It won’t be easy, but it’s the only formula that can make our whole life worthwhile.
“There are not over a hundred people in the United States who hate the Catholic Church. There are millions, however, who hate what they wrongly believe to be the Catholic Church, which is, of course, quite a different thing.”- Bishop Fulton Sheen
There are all kinds of ways to go about discussing Catholicism and what it is. Sometimes it’s easier to go by questions that a person has, but it can also be beneficial to lay some groundwork.
Here are some of the basic tenants…
One of the topics which I have always found provocative in conversations with fellow Christians (and non-Christians) has been the discussion of the history of our bible, how it got from the lips of God to the leather bound books we carry today. A few years back, I did a bit of reading and came up with this brief summary of what I found. Feel free to keep it for your reference or comment if you think I’m way off on something.
We are very fortunate in our day to be blessed with one compact volume that contains all the divinely inspired word of God throughout salvation history. This compilation however is relatively recent in the grand scheme of things. Let’s take a look at it from the beginning…
The Law (Pentateuch):
-Referred to as the Torah
-Comprise the first five books of the bible (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy)
-Traditionally believed to have been written by Moses (around 1200 B.C.)
-The Jewish people generally consider these the most important books
The Prophets (Nebiim):
-Former Prophets (Joshua, Judges, 1 and 2 Samuel, and 1 and 2 Kings)
-Latter Prophets (Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and the twelve Minor Prophets, counted by the Hebrews as one book)
The Writings (wa-Kethubin):
-Called Hagiographa by Greek (holy writings)
-(Psalms, Proverbs, Job, Song of Songs, Ruth, Lamentations, Ecclesiastes, Esther, Daniel, Ezra, Nehemiah, Wisdom, Sirach/ Ecclesiasticus)
Most of the Prophets and the Writings are believed to have been compiled by Ezra in the early fifth century B.C. during the reconstruction of the Temple. These books comprise what is now known as the Protocanonical Books. Seven books (specifically Tobit, Baruch, Judith, Wisdom, Sirach, and 1and 2 Maccabees), and certain additions to others were not associated with Ezra and are known as Deuterocanonical (Second cannon). This term is used to denote books whose canonicity has been questioned. The terms were only introduced in the 16th century however, and are neither chronological nor indicate a lesser importance.
As the Jewish people became more and more engulfed by the surrounding culture, they began speaking in the language of those around them. Specifically, many Jews in the fourth century spoke Greek (since Alexander had conquered the majority of the area) and found it appropriate to transcribe the Hebrew texts into that language. In order to do this a council was called in the 3rd century B.C. in which a group of Jewish elders came together to translate the documents in Alexandria. The most ancient accounts describe a slightly fantastic meeting called by Ptolemy II Philadelphus, King of Egypt (287-47 BC) to have the Hebrew books translated for the Library in Alexandria. According to that tradition there were seventy two translators (six from each tribe), thus the name Septuagint for the translation. Whether or not the translation was made for this purpose or by said number of translators, the text does reliably date back to that time frame and was used and accepted widely, even in Palestine, during the centuries leading up to the birth of our Lord. Meanwhile, the Palestinian Jews maintained their Documents in the Hebrew language.
The books which compose the Protocannonical books were present in both the Palestinian and Septuagint transcripts. The Deuterocanonical books (Deutero), however, were only present in the Septuagint. One hypothesis holds that all the books were present in both scriptures originally but were removed from the Palestinian literature some time after the 2nd century B.C. Another theory holds that the Palestinian Jews only passed down that which was translated by Ezra, while the Greek Jews continued to compile scriptures as they were revealed. It should be noted that there was never an actual defined cannon of scriptures before the Christian era and the sacredness of some of the Protocannonical books was even debated into the 2nd century AD by some Rabbis. The first time we see the Jewish people actually define their cannon (as only the Protocannonical books), is in 90 A.D. Early church fathers such as Justin Martyr (C165) however, made it clear that the Christian church was not dependant on the Jewish hierarchy to determine its cannon and that theirs differed from the Jews.
By the time Jesus walked the earth, the Septuagint translation had been widely used and accepted even in Jerusalem. Later, as his accounts were being recorded by his apostles and their followers in the New Testament, it should be noted that in the 350 references to the Old Testament, 300 favor the Septuagint to the Palestinian translations. One should however temper this statement with the fact that neither the Septuagint nor Palistinian versions were kept as single volumes. More regularly there was only a few scrolls here and a few there. Further, it is true that none of the Deutero books were quoted in the New Testament, but neither were Esther, Ecclesiastes, Song of Songs, Ezra, or Nehemiah. In addition, there are many verses in the epistles which do allude to the Dueteros (even if not directly quoting them). Furthermore, the book of Jude actually quotes apocryphal books (Henoch and the Assumption of Moses) thereby diminishing the value of New Testament citations in the cannon of the Old. Also, even though Jesus never directly quoted the Dueteros, check this out….
(In case you were curious, even some Protestant concordances see the link…)
The New Testament Cannon also provided a great challenge to the early church. There were a considerable amount of documents floating around claiming to be of apostolic origin which needed to be evaluated for divine inspiration. Some were more widely accepted while others where held in question. The gospels which we hold today, along with most of Paul’s epistles to specific communities were well accepted, and noted by Polycarp and Ignatius of Antioch in the early second century, but his letter to the Hebrews along with many of the “Catholic books” (James, 2-3 John, Peter, Jude and revelation etc) were questioned along with some which are not part of our cannon including the Epistle of Barnabas, Shepard of Hermas and the Didache. In addition, certain passages in the gospels (ie woman caught in adultery, close of st Mark’s Gospel, and apparitions of Jesus after the resurrection) were held in question.
These problems only grew more difficult as the church began to spread and more documents began popping up. The first place we see an official church gathering which defined canonical books was a Synod in Africa (Hypo) in  which was later ratified by Rome. We also see a Synod called by Pope Damasus in 382 in which the complete Canon was defined with the help of St. Jerome among others (even though he didn’t actually believe the Old Testament Deutero books to be valid). The actual document promulgated from this Synod was “Decretum Gelasii de recipiendis et non recipiendis libris”. In 397, the council of Carthage also defined the cannon (same as the other 2) and this was also ratified by Rome. So by the end of the 4th century A.D. the cannon of the bible was defined by the Church. There was little debate about the New Testament from this point until the Protestant Reformation, but the Old Testament actually was still under debate.
Even though Jerome was instrumental in the Synod which defined all the inspired books of both the Old and New Testament, he disagreed on the validity of the OT Dueteros. This was especially problematic since he was the one who translated them into the Latin Vulgate (which is still the baseline for most of today’s translations). When he did, he wrote a prologue to the Deutero books which pretty much stated them to be non-canonical (even though the Synod had determined them to be otherwise). Since this was the official translation for the Church. That prologue followed the Bible everywhere it went leading to a great deal of confusion throughout the centuries even affecting Thomas Aquinas. Remember, they did not have the internet, or even the printing press, in the early church. Knowledge of church teaching was mainly passed down by word of mouth and what documents were available. The bible was understandably the most available document, thereby making Jerome’s prologue more accessible than the 4th century councils.
During the Protestant Reformation, this debate was very convenient for Luther’s theology. Since the books contradicted his beliefs (i.e. purgatory in 2 Mac 12:46) he removed them from his cannon. He also removed many of the contested New Testament epistles, mentioned earlier (Hebrews, James, Jude, and Revelation), considering for example the epistle of James to be “an epistle of straw” (fitting since James 2:24 directly contradicts the concept of salvation by faith alone). It should also be noted that Luther actually added the word “alone” to Romans 3:28 so that it read “we are justified by faith alone, without the works of the law.” By the 18th century however, the Catholic and Protestant churches were at least back on the same pages in the New Testament.
“ Its sole absolute criterion, therefore, is the Holy inspiring Spirit, witnessing decisively to Itself, not in the subjective experience of individual souls, as Calvin maintained, neither in the doctrinal and spiritual tenor of Holy Writ itself, according to Luther, but through the constituted organ and custodian of Its revelations, the Church. All other evidences fall short of the certainty and finality necessary to compel the absolute assent of faith. (See Franzelin, “De Divinâ Traditione et Scripturâ”; Wiseman, “Lectures on Christian Doctrine”, Lecture ii; also INSPIRATION.)”
-(www.Newadvent.org> (search for “old testament Cannon”, “new testament cannon”, and “Septuagint”)
– “Where We Got the Bible: Our Debt to the Catholic Church”, Henry G. Graham
I left off in the first part of this post with the statement that the primary role of government should be to protect its citizens. This is where a government MUST legislate morality. I often hear people say, “You cannot/ should not legislate morality…” and you may have gotten the impression from Part I of this blog that this was my view as well, but I actually disagree wholeheartedly with that mentality. Morality is the ONLY thing which a government should legislate. Morality is the only metric which can be consistently applied. I should be clear though, morality and religious faith are two different things. Morality refers to the actions which logic and natural law dictate are acceptable or unacceptable. Religious faith is that which we choose to believe because of revelation by God (or a prophet). A government cannot effectively legislate virtue or faith, but it can and MUST legislate to minimize vice. A law which requires all citizens to be kind and forgiving would be impossible to enforce, but a law which prevents citizens from murdering each other is about as basic and fundamental as we can get for legislation. Murder is illegal because it is morally wrong. Even those who don’t acknowledge or understand the bible will still generally agree with that statement. The society needs to determine a baseline of conduct which can be applied universally – a set of morals that all citizens can be held to. The purpose of this baseline is to offer citizens the freedom and safety to act virtuously according to their own beliefs and callings.
A secondary role of government is to empower its citizens in the direction of the morally good beyond that baseline and/or contribute further to the betterment of society as a whole. There is a big difference though, between empowering people and coercing people to do something. When the government wishes to promote a certain good, the most positive way to do that is to remove the road blocks which keep people from doing it to begin with and incentivize the action where possible. The US government already does this in some cases, for instance providing tax deductions for raising children or for making donations to charitable organizations or for buying energy saving home accessories. I think it can do more though and it would do well for our current politicians to make this the central focus of most legal policy.
Government has a constitutional right to levy taxes. I don’t always like it, but I get it. They need money in order to pay the bills that they incur to protect us and maintain order in our society. I think though, that the government would do well to use taxing power for positive reinforcement instead of punishment and coercion. For instance, instead of an individual mandate to get health insurance with increasing tax penalties, why not just offer tax incentives for signing up which decrease over time? The government has a vested interest in people getting health insurance, because uninsured citizens usually end up sending the bill to the government through ER visits, not to mention higher chance of spreading disease etc. If the government is going to save money by a person’s actions, it makes sense to incentivize that action. I think that statement could be applied to much of the tax structure. The government has certain fixed costs which can’t be reduced by individual actions (i.e. legislative overhead, military, emergency services, inspection and regulation etc) but much of the money that is spent by governments can be greatly offset by individual actions. Parents who school their own children are providing a service which relieves the government. They should get a tax credit. A millionaire who hires a full time staff to take care of his estate should not be getting taxed on the money that he uses to pay those employees. The government is already getting tax money from the staff, and the millionaire is fueling the economy and putting cash in more people’s pockets who might otherwise be collecting unemployment (instead of stashing it in his hedge fund).
NOTE: I am not a huge fan of straight tax cuts for the rich with the expectation that they will spend it on things which will boost the economy. That may happen, but I think it’s more likely if you tie the tax cut directly to purchases and hiring which definitively boost economy.
To this point I’ve focused mostly on the government side of things, but religious organizations have a lot to do on their side as well. I think much of the confusion which has come about in this arena is due to the fact that there has been little to no discussion in churches about the role of government and its limits. Groups are eager to promote possible laws that can support their religious agendas (virtuous or otherwise) and horrified when laws are proposed or passed which seem to advocate conflicting views. In many cases, these reactions are well-founded, but I don’t hear too much conversation about why it is the government who should be handling the issue instead of individuals.
I think the goal of Christians and the goal of government officials should be to work the government out of as much of its job as possible. The more that individuals contribute to the betterment of society, the less the government will need to do. The more that the government promotes and fosters those activities, the more prevalent they will become.
There has been a great deal of controversy and discussion over the years in circles at every level of society about the role of religion in politics and government. I think the central cause of this controversy is that we have forgotten the purpose of both institutions and ignored the potential and dangers (and historical faults) of each of them.
Government exists for the protection of its citizens and to ensure order in society. Today in America (and even more in Europe) government has become the catch-all institution for handling the needs and wants of its people. Some consider this transition to be major advance in society. The upgrade in a sense from your basic run-of-the-mill government. In many senses, it is easy for a Christian to appreciate this view since many of the services which the government ventures into are ones which the Church pioneered (i.e. public health care and education). Isn’t it wonderful that the central authority of the land is now providing such altruistic services which were previously only available in the isolated locations where religious orders were available and had capacity? Now it’s available to the masses! What could be more charitable than wanting that? What could be more heartless than wanting anything else if that was an option? But I think that perspective misses a central aspect about Christianity, and humanity at large.
A truly Christian nation, by its very essence, must offer freedom. Freedom of religion and freedom for virtue. A Jewish or a Muslim nation can look to their religious origins and see that the great leaders of their faith in their sacred writings placed their religion at the center of their civil law. Members of those faiths can understandably look to that as a model for their current times. As a Christian, however, I do not have that option. True, my sacred writings include the same ones that my Jewish brothers and sisters reference, but my faith teaches that those writings are fulfilled in the Gospels – in the life of God incarnate. The Old Testament demonstrated our fall from original grace and freedom, into slavery of sin and the laws designed to show our hearts when they were straying. The New Testament is an invitation to each individual to lead a life of freedom and virtue. Jesus made it very clear that he came to change our hearts. The law was a guide for our actions, but as long as we DESIRE to break it, our heart is where the problem lies. And Jesus came to heal our hearts. His contemporaries expected the standard of religious rule, but instead he came humbly and offered all people a choice.
I think some Christians (myself included) don’t think about this fact in the context of modern government. I can logically see that many Jews didn’t accept Jesus because he didn’t come as a military and government leader to reestablish the kingdom of Israel on earth, but then I catch myself rationalizing that the gospel could have spread so much faster if it was part of the government. Maybe that’s true, but if it is, God didn’t want it to spread faster. If Christ wanted his religion to be a civil law, he would have shown us that in his life and the lives of his apostles would have continued that legacy. Instead, we find that Jesus told his followers “give to Caesar what is Caesar’s and give to God what is God’s.” We find that early Christian communities who most fully understood the gospels, “kept everything in common… no one was rich and no one was poor” but they didn’t do it because they were forced to by the government, they did it because they were compelled by love. Christianity is a call to holiness – a call to be set apart – a call to virtue. And you cannot legislate virtue. It would be like taking a picture of a $100 bill. You can make it look the same, but it would lose the original value. The $100 bill has value because it’s backed by the U.S. treasury. The picture is not. Similarly, acts only have value as virtue when they are backed by the intent and desire of the actor. A man held at gunpoint and forced to give someone money is not being virtuous, he is being mugged.
Now, some would argue, “OK, maybe it’s not virtuous if you are being forced into actions which we would otherwise consider good, but at least we get the result. Forcing rich people to feed the poor still results in people getting fed. Isn’t that good enough? Aren’t we achieving the proper end-state?” to that, the only Christian answer is “No, we’re missing the point.” Sure, it’s good to see that poor people get food, but Christ did not instruct us to go forth and legislate feeding of the hungry, he told us to do it ourselves. Now, I’m not implying that the government has no responsibility here, I’m simply implying that it is not where Christians should be assigning the responsibility.
The part that really irritates me about many recent legislative attempts at solving social woes is that the generally favored solution is to pawn the sacrificial aspect off onto someone else. Imagine if a man were driving home from work one day and saw a kid on the street starving and homeless. In the kindness of his heart, he decides that no child should endure such suffering. So he gets out of his brand new Mercedes walks over to the little one and says, “Child, I don’t know what your past is or what your problems are, but you will never starve or sleep on the street again.” With that, he grabs the child by the hand and walks down the street into a small inn. He asks to speak to the owner and when he meets her, he tells her that this child was out on the street and he would like her to make sure that this child has food to eat and a bed to sleep in for as long as necessary. The owner is touched by the man’s generosity and, after discussing the details of expected care and supervision, asks how he would like to set up payment for this arrangement. With that, the man looks at her and says, “Oh, you seem to have misunderstood. I won’t be paying for this, you will. You see, I was generous enough to recognize the child’s need and the fact that you could provide a solution. You get to be generous enough to provide it J By the way, if you fail to provide the standard of care we discussed earlier, I will see to it that your business fails (and yes, I have those kinds of connections).” With that, he smiles, walks out the door struts down the street and hops back into his car and drives home to his 8 bedroom mansion where he tells his wife and three cats about how generous he was today.
Over and over, our legislature seems to pass laws which it is exempt from (take for instance the Affordable Care Act), and we as voters look to solve our nation’s problems by asking other people to shell out the money or provide the services (i.e. tax hikes only on the rich to pay for our national debt or special programs that effect everyone). It may seem to make sense from a utilitarian perspective, but it does not add up from an ethical or theological point of view. Sure, I may be voting for a solution to the problem, but as a guy who makes less than $250k per year, I’m really just voting for someone else to fix my problem.
I should be clear, I don’t have an issue with tax brackets which increase at certain income levels, but voting on a measure that benefits everyone at someone else’s expense just rubs me the wrong way.
This, I believe, is the great confusion of our political age. We seek to legislate virtue and in so doing only create a resentment for it. The surest way a government can help its society thrive is by protecting its citizens against foreign and domestic evils and empowering them to exercise virtue to address the problems of their age.
Next week, I’ll talk a bit more about what that looks like, but in the meantime let me know what you think…
A few years ago, I posted a blog on Faith and Science which elicited a very logical and detailed response from a reader of the opposite opinion. I appreciated his comments because he made them in a dignified and logical way and expressed what seem to be many people’s reservations about Christianity and religion in general these days.
The first thing that I noted though, was that he wasn’t really countering my discussion on faith and science. Instead, he was addressing a separate issue of faith and history. You see, science and religion are fields which seek truth about very different aspects of the same reality. Where science seeks to understand how the universe works and how to control it, religion seeks to explain the meaning of the universe and Who or What created and already controls it. Science deals more with concrete realities while religion handles the realities that we can’t put our hands on.
History is an interesting topic because it becomes something of a meeting point for the two fields. Science uses its concrete methodologies to determine realities of the past, and many religions claim a God who has actively participated in history. Christianity, more than any other religion (that I know of), lays itself on the line in the historical stage. As a Christian, I believe in a God who sent his son, Jesus of Nazareth, as human being to live, die, rise from the dead, and ascend into heaven. If those things did not historically happen, then my faith is false. What I have noticed though, is that the larger issue is that both faith and science have tended to overstep their bounds in trying to express their discoveries about reality. As I discussed in the original post, Christianity, and Catholicism in particular, has a rap for the insistence by church leaders in various centuries that certain physical realities were revealed by God in the bible and therefore irrefutable, when God was simply using the terms and culture of the current society to express the reality of his love and faithfulness. Conversely, scientists who make discoveries or develop theories about physical realities have on occasion claimed that their work points to a reality that either has no place or no need for God. However, the philosophical implications of those statements are well beyond the expertise and field of a scientist. When both of these flawed perspectives make their way into historical discussions, the process generally results in tainted religion, science, and history.
If you have some time, please read the blog response to my initial blog below as well as my follow-up and let me know what you think. I’m sure there is much more perspective to be added on both sides of the argument and I welcome the discussion…