The economic crisis is fueling a rapid expansion of government control over banks and industries—and soon, perhaps, over health care, which alone amounts to one-sixth of America's gnp. This transfer of responsibilities raises cautionary flags, especially for Christians.

The concept of the balance of powers comes directly from Christian doctrines. The Reformers introduced the idea of sphere sovereignty, which holds that government's role is limited so that other spheres—family, church, and voluntary associations—are free to exercise their authority. Similarly, Catholic social teaching embraced the principle of subsidiarity, arguing that services should be delivered by the agencies closest to recipients.

In both traditions, the state's power is limited by intermediate structures, which act as brakes on all-powerful government. But the expanding reach of government can threaten voluntary associations, what English philosopher Edmund Burke called "the little platoons."

For instance, in establishing the new White House Office of Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships, Obama did not include the Bush-era tacit exemption from federal non-discrimination in hiring requirements for faith-based ministries. Joshua DuBois, who heads the office, said they will handle this issue on a case-by-case basis while deciding whether to change federal rules. Sounds reasonable—but who would risk money and credibility on an outreach program that may later be deemed illegal?

Moreover, many aids shelters and homeless facilities are run by Catholic Charities and the Salvation Army, which depend partly on government funds. But if the Obama administration orders these groups to hire applicants who do not share their religious beliefs, ...

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Charles Colson
Charles Colson was the founder of Prison Fellowship Ministries, an outreach to convicts, victims of crime, and justice officers. Colson, who converted to Christianity before he was indicted on Watergate-related charges, became one of evangelicalism's most influential voices. His books included Born Again and How Now Shall We Live? A Christianity Today columnist since 1985, Colson died in 2012.
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June 2009

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