When the soon-to-depart Bush administration decided to bail out the auto industry, perhaps it was the answer to prayer. At least that’s what the parishioners at Detroit’s Greater Grace Temple likely thought. In early December they had held a church service to pray for a federal bailout.
Today people think of evangelicals when God gets tossed around in politics. But America has a long history of politically active clerics: Anglican ministers preached obedience to the British crown during the Revolution while other pastors picked up weapons and joined the rebels. Many abolitionists, temperance activists, and advocates of the social Gospel acted out of religious conviction. So did participants in the Civil Rights movement and protests against the Vietnam War.
Now it is social issues, most notably abortion, which seem to most animate religious believers. But not only social issues.
In early December Catholic Cardinal Adam Maida gathered 11 congregations in Detroit — Jewish and Muslim as well as Christian — to promote the pending auto industry bailout bill in Congress. At Greater Grace Temple, Bishop Charles H. Ellis referred to the upcoming congressional vote: “We have never seen as midnight an hour as we face this coming week.” He added: “I don’t know what’s going to happen, but we need prayer.”
The church invited auto executives and union officials to speak. “We have done all that we can do in this union, so I turn it over to the Lord,” opined General Holiefield, a UAW official. Representing a parts supplier, James Settles asked congregants “to continue your prayers, so we can see a miracle next week.”
Then there is the People Improving Communities through Organizing (PICO). Made up of more than a thousand churches and faith-based groups, PICO recently staged a “prayer rally” outside the Treasury building. The crowd chanted “wake up, wake up” to encourage Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson to “wake up” to possessing the power to end foreclosures. Rev. Lucy Kolin, a Lutheran minister from Oakland, declared: “This building behind us has the power to prevent another two million foreclosures.”
Complained Gordon Whitman, PICO’s director of policy: “It became clear to us that voluntary, case-by-case [work-outs] wasn’t going to cut it.” Baptist pastor Marvin Webb of Richmond, California, complained that his $2,700 adjustable-rate mortgage takes more than half of his income: “We want to keep our homes. We want to help our communities.” PICO proposes using the $700 billion bail-out to require banks to cut loan principles and limit mortgage payments.
PICO also promotes expanded government health care, immigration reform, rural subsidies, new policing practices, and more. It sounds a bit like a Christian Coalition of the Left, finding God among Democrats rather than Republicans.
There’s nothing wrong in principle with any of these positions — or those espoused by the Religious Right, which have included supporting everything from a balanced budget to the Iraq war. But none of them reflects religious, or at least Christian, principles. Even the so-called moral issues, including abortion, gay rights, pornography, and the like, are not predetermined by Christian scripture and principle. The mere fact that something is a sin does not mean it should be a crime.
CHRISTIANS HAVE SPENT the better part of two millennia attempting to work out the proper relationship between religion and politics. For much of history that meant one institution attempting to control the other. The ugly result — abuse of government power, corruption of the church, and magnification of the impact of human sin — demonstrates the true genius of the First Amendment. The institutions of church and state must remain separate, but religious no less than secular principles play a legitimate role in the public square.
However, applying Christian principles requires more than a little humility. The Bible tells much about man’s relationship to God and man, but very little about the role of government. That is, Christian principles yield no specific legislative agenda.
One cannot read scripture without a profound appreciation of our duty to help our neighbors. But we are commanded to give, not to make others give. In speaking to the sheep and goats, Christ commended those who cared for the sick and fed the hungry, not those who voted to create a social welfare agency.
The welfare state is a matter of political prudence, not religious principle. That is one reason why the Apostle James encourages us to ask God for wisdom. Christians are expected to be compassionate, but God does not detail how we are to give compassion practical effect.
The point is, compassion is not enough. Consequences matter. Politicians have made a profession of riding their white horse into the public arena, passing legislation, and then riding off, leaving human wreckage strewn behind them. This is especially evident in welfare policies which have destroyed families and communities. Religious activists, many of whom know nothing of economics and how incentives and institutions shape human behavior, are particularly susceptible to the temptation to engage in catastrophically misguided social engineering.
SHOULD THE GOVERNMENT bail out the auto industry? The visible benefits are obvious: preserving jobs. But channeling scarce resources into failing industries would divert needed money from existing companies and potential new enterprises, destroying even more jobs.
Limiting foreclosures would aid some families, though in many cases such a policy would merely prolong the agony of people who borrowed more than they can afford to repay. Moreover, attempting to artificially prop up housing prices will slow the necessary adjustment process. And while existing homeowners like high prices, potential buyers — and especially low-income and new purchasers — will do better if the housing market returns to earth.
Health care in America is a mess, but the blame mostly lies with foolish government policies, especially badly designed public programs and tax preferences which result in an employer-based system of comprehensive health insurance. Reform is necessary, but turning the system over to government creates another set of problems.
The same prudential concerns affect issues like immigration, rural development, war, law enforcement, and more. Christianity affirms the value of human life and dignity. But it does not specify how to best protect them, let alone how to balance competing interests, such as life and liberty.
Should members of Greater Grace Temple pray for recovery of the auto industry? We really don’t know where the Big Three rank in God’s hierarchy. In contrast, God undoubtedly expects his church to aid those in distress, whether autoworkers or others.
A Christian’s walk in the political world will never be easy. Christians should be involved in politics as good citizens, acting as salt and light to the larger world. But Christians should never forget that their principal duties in this world have nothing to do with politics. There is no Christian politics per se, whether Left or Right.
Mr. Bandow is the author of Beyond Good Intentions: A Biblical View of Politics (Crossway).