Like many Americans these days, John Stagliano loves his country but hates his government. The entrepreneur and self-made millionaire views government as a necessary evil at best and, at worst, a restrictive and regulatory nightmare intent on usurping his personal and economic liberties.
Stagliano's antipathy is directed not only at the current Congress or administration, but at government itself. He is a major, outspoken contributor to the Cato Institute, an influential libertarian think tank. Groups like Cato have moved political debate away from discussions of good government versus bad government. Their presumption is that government, by definition, is bad. So the debate becomes big government versus small government.
G. K. Chesterton said, "The poor object to being governed badly, while the rich object to being governed at all." This is especially true of rich people like Stagliano, who makes his fortune in an industry that is particularly prone to government "interference": pornography. Stagliano produces and directs hard-core sex videos. His company, Evil Angel Video, is one of the leading players in America's $8-billion-a-year trade in sexually explicit material.
Perhaps it is not surprising that libertarianism is an attractive philosophy for a millionaire pornographer. What is surprising is the extent to which libertarian ideas have begun to influence politically active Christians, especially evangelicals.
We evangelicals are experiencing an adolescent growth spurt in our political engagement and thinking. Still heady with the zeal of newfound political activism, we haven't yet demonstrated the patience or discipline for sustained political reflection, for engaging the centuries-long conversation on Christianity and politics, on statecraft, and on the proper role and responsibilities of the civil authorities instituted by God.
Nature abhors a vacuum. To the extent that we have failed to adopt a biblical, Christian understanding, we have instead adapted to the prevailing ideologies of our secular culture. This ideological vacuum has left evangelicals particularly susceptible to ideologies shaped by our individualist, modern culture and the logical conclusion of individualistic liberalism: libertarianism.
Libertarianism permits only an extremely limited role for government in maintaining civic order and providing national defense. It is attractive for its simplicity and its "one-size-fits-all" principle of individual liberty. This pro-choice-on-everything framework clashes with the Christian insistence that what one chooses also matters, and that some choices must be limited or prohibited for the common good. The trump card of unlimited individual liberty leads libertarians to many conclusions traditionally opposed by Christians and social conservatives, including support for abortion on demand, same-sex marriage, and unregulated markets in pornography and narcotics (hence its attraction for John Stagliano).
Can libertarianism be reconciled with the Christian understanding that government is "instituted by God" as "God's servant for your good" (Rom. 13:1, 4)? To their credit, some Christian libertarians take great pains to distinguish their views from those of secular libertarian thinkers. The problem, of course, is that it is difficult to do so. Evangelical Doug Bandow of the Cato Institute asserts, "Libertarianism is not synonymous with libertinism," but he has a hard time explaining why. His libertarian colleagues David Boaz and Charles Murray, or Massachusetts governor William Weld, still seem unconvinced. Michael Uhlmann, a Catholic fellow at the conservative Ethics and Public Policy Center, finds the very idea of Christian libertarianism puzzling, owing "more to John Stuart Mill than to anything distinctly Christian."
The influence of libertarianism has led many evangelicals to adopt a starkly antagonistic view of the responsibilities of government and the church, the public and the private sectors. Operating from this either/or perspective, some argue that since individual Christians are commanded to care for the poor, it must not be any of the government's business. But such a conclusion requires that we dismiss the large body of biblical teaching that says the government has a responsibility to care for the poor. It also ignores centuries of biblically based Christian thought and teaching on the distinct but complementary roles of state, family, and church (exemplified in the Catholic idea of "subsidiarity" and the Reformed concept of "sphere sovereignty").
Critics of government programs, such as Marvin Olasky, are right to point out the ways in which government has sometimes failed miserably to meet its responsibilities, but it does not follow that the state therefore does not have any such responsibilities. It is also true that some of the best work empowering the poor is being done by faith-based nonprofit agencies, but that does not absolve other actors—governments, neighbors, relatives—from fulfilling their respective, God-given responsibilities as well.
What's a king to do?
We should be extremely cautious in giving up on government. Before we do so we ought to examine the long history of Christian political thinking that we would be rejecting. It should give us pause that Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, Luther, Calvin, and Wesley all taught that the emperor, king, prince, civil magistrate, or elected officials were the servants of God, ordained for the common good.
The past century of Catholic social teaching and the Reformed tradition of Abraham Kuyper offer rich, instructive perspectives. These Christian movements were both unflinching in their opposition to state socialism and deeply suspicious of state intrusion into other areas of civil society. Yet they were equally adamant that government, under God, has a legitimate and necessary role to play, including doing justice for the poor and the disadvantaged. Kuyper, a theologian and a politician who was elected prime minister of the Netherlands, said in a speech, "God the Lord unmistakably instituted the basic rule for the duty of government. Government exists to administer his justice on earth, and to uphold that justice."
"The poor object to being governed badly,
while the rich object ot being governed at all.
Our task as evangelicals—because we are evangelicals—is to study this rich Christian tradition in the light of biblical revelation. Scripture is our bottom line, and our understandings of the role of state (as well as church, commerce, families, and individuals) must be shaped by biblical principles.
Throughout the Bible, God held leaders responsible to actively seek justice for the poor. Psalm 72 is a prayer for the king: "Give the king your justice, O God, and your righteousness to a king's son. May he judge your people with righteousness, and your poor with justice" (vv. 1-2, NRSV). The two key words here, justice and righteousness, pertain both to the legal system and to the economic order. The prophets condemn those who deprive people of the land that would enable them to earn their own way (see Isa. 5:8-9) and call on the king to correct such injustice. "May [the king] defend the cause of the poor of the people … and crush the oppressor" (Ps. 72:4).
Nehemiah 5 offers a fascinating example of using government power to correct economic injustice. The nobles were taking the lands of the poor and selling their children into slavery. Nehemiah, the top government official, denounces this abuse and compels the rich to return everything: "Restore them, this very day, their fields, their vineyards, their olive orchards, and their houses and the interest on money, grain, wine, and oil that you have been exacting from them" (v. 11).
The king's responsibility for justice means more than merely maintaining unbiased courts; the just king also strengthens the weak, heals the sick, and binds up the crippled (Ezek. 34:4, 16, 23). The king must seek justice as God does (Ps. 72:4)—and remember, it is the Lord "who executes justice for the orphan and the widow, and who loves the strangers, providing them food and clothing" (Deut. 10:18).
Interestingly, these norms apply not just to Israel's rulers, but to rulers everywhere. Daniel 4:27 calls Nebuchadnezzar to bring justice and mercy to the oppressed. Proverbs 31 directs King Lemuel (probably a northern Arabian monarch) to "defend the rights of the poor and needy."
None of this means that the government is the only institution or agency responsible to empower the poor. Individuals and congregations are commanded to share sacrificially with the poor. We also need a vast array of nongovernmental institutions in society that lift up the needy. Often, in fact, these intermediate institutions will do the job better than governmental agencies.
But it is simply unbiblical to claim that government has no responsibility to seek justice for the poor. Government is God's servant for good. Part of its God-given task is to make sure that the poorest have the resources to earn their own living.
Ronald J. Sider is president of Evangelicals for Social Action. Fred Clark is the managing editor of Prism magazine.
Copyright © 1998 Christianity Today. Click for reprint information.
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