Can Social Policy Foster Christian Morality?

A reciprocal relationship exists between the structure of a society and its people. The way one thinks and behaves is profoundly influenced by the policies of the place where one lives. At the same time, social and economic policies are shaped by the cultural environment in which they are enacted. They are often presumed to be the result of a consensus in the society that chooses them, and hence to best reflect the values and priorities of the majority.

Yet, a country’s policies, and their implications, may not always coincide with the professed beliefs of the majority. For example, the social and economic policies of the United States, the country most associated with Christianity in the developed world, may not nurture certain essential biblical precepts. Paradoxically, Christian principles, such as providing for the poor, treating all equally, living a modest life, and having inner peace, may be more easily achieved in some societies that are more secular.

I. Market Systems, Christianity, and Rhetoric

No one claimed that any of his possessions was his own, but they shared everything they had….There were no needy persons among them. Acts 4:32-34

On the continuum of economic systems between unbridled capitalism and pure socialism, all developed countries manifest some blend of free enterprise with government intervention. What differentiates countries on this continuum is the extent to which the state intervenes, redistributing wealth via welfare and social programs. On one side of the spectrum are the social democracies, such as the Scandinavian countries, which intervene the most with high taxes but provide a generous safety net. Interfering the least are the liberals (in the European sense of the word), predominantly English-speaking countries with lower taxes but fewer social programs. In the middle are the corporatists, which include most countries of continental Europe.

The United States, with minimal government intervention, social programs, and wealth redistribution, is very liberal in the European sense. Government regulation, taxation, and welfare programs are commonly viewed as stifling and inhibiting to business and the entrepreneurial spirit. The core of this belief is that when capitalism is allowed to function unencumbered, its rewards are great, not only for business but for society as a whole. Taken to the extreme, some imply a divine element to free enterprise, associating Adam Smith’s notion of an invisible hand of capitalism with an invisible hand of God.

The idea that capitalism is pure, just, and sacred is not held by all. To Joseph Stiglitz, former World Bank economist and the 2001 Nobel Prize recipient for economics, the hand of capitalism is not only invisible but nonexistent. Stiglitz contends that government regulation is critical, and that there must be a proper balance between the role of government and of markets. Currently, he argues that the United States has veered toward too little government (Stiglitz, The Roaring Nineties, W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2003).

Most developed countries outside the United States have incorporated, to varying degrees, an economic and social system that reflects skepticism about unfettered capitalism and its negative consequences. The underpinning thought for many first world policies is that the market economy, left to its own devices, disintegrates into a system of greed and corruption that benefits a few and has devastating effects on societal health and cohesion. Accordingly, to lessen the risk of harmful consequences from business sans limits, government intervention is viewed as necessary. Also, a tax system that funds social programs and redistributes wealth is perceived as a vital process that assures a decent standard of living for everyone, produces better social cohesion, and in the end benefits all, rich, poor, and middle class.

Relative to most developed countries, the United States is more laissez faire regarding government intervention, but is more intentional to correlate religion, most often Christianity, with its economic and social policies. While separation of Church and State exists, God is regularly invoked in political discourse on both sides of the political aisle, suggesting kinship between the United States and God. In a public speech made in the eighties, a former president linked the economy, human intervention, and material abundance all to the book of Genesis (http://www.presidentreagan. info/speeches/ moscow_state.cfm). This type of rhetoric is not atypical, as evidenced by the recent presidential campaign where both George W. Bush and John Kerry spoke of how their Christian faith influences their decisions regarding governmental policies. Most other developed countries, largely because of the unhealthy relationship between Church and State in the past centuries, are less inclined to invoke God (what God of which religion?) in discourse pertaining to economic and social policies.

Given the United States’ historical ties to Christianity and its prevalent Christian population (according to a 2003 Harris poll, 79 percent of Americans said they believe in God and over a third said they attended a religious service at least once a month), one might conjecture that the economic and social policies of the United States are inspired by the teaching of Christ and fashion a society where it is easier to develop Christian qualities.   There is little correlation between a country’s religious zeal and the ability of its policies to cultivate Christian tendencies.   Conversely, given the affirmed secularity of other developed countries, such as those of Western Europe, one could infer that the social and economic policies of these countries encourage lives that are contrary to biblical principles.

Naturally, reality is not so simple. All systems have positive and negative consequences, and there is little correlation between a country’s religious zeal and the ability for its policies to cultivate Christian tendencies. Phillip Yancey, in a recent interview, concurs with Jacques Ellul’s assertion that the Christian gospel produces societies, the values of which are the opposite of the Christian gospel. Further, Yancey observes that, “If you just ask somebody, around the world, ‘Tell me what stands out to you about the United States,’ they’ll say, ‘military power, unbelievable wealth by the world’s standards, and sexual license.’ All three of these are radically anti-Jesus. So how is it that we’re viewed as the most Christian country in the world and yet characterized by the least Christian characteristics?” (“Sex, Lies, and Life on the Evangelical Edge,” Sojourners Magazine, February 2004).

II. Wealth and Income Disparity

“I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me.” Matthew 25:40

Wealth disparity is endemic globally, both among and within countries. In the developed world, the situation is particularly acute within the United States where the top 1% of Americans control about 40% of all wealth, and the bottom two-thirds have virtually no savings. Of the developed countries included in the Luxembourg Income Study database, the United States has the smallest percentage of middle class, the largest percentage of poor, and the largest percentage of wealthy. It also possesses the largest percentage of low-wage workers. Among first world countries, the United Kingdom and Australia, also liberal countries, closely follow the United States, displaying a similar lopsidedness (Doug Henwood, After the New Economy, The New Press, 2003).

One might argue that income and wealth disparity are not troublesome. Martin Feldstein, Harvard economist and former chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers, believes that the increasingly unequal distribution of income is
not a problem in need of remedy. Flag Feldstein likens income inequality to the Pareto principle, in that material wellbeing of some individuals increases with no decrease in the material well-being of others (“Reducing Poverty, Not Inequality,” The Public Interest, Fall 1999). Another common idea is that redistributing income by raising taxes distorts incentives, giving both the rich and the poor less reason to earn higher incomes. Granted, a dilemma of social policies is to find ways of preventing the low-income earners from falling into poverty, or helping the poorest to leave poverty, while at the same time maintaining incentives to enter the workforce or better one’s life. Yet, a crucial measure of the success of a country’s social policies is whether they help the most vulnerable members of a society, both in the short and long run. There is strong evidence indicating that income inequality results in social problems that, in turn, impose large costs on society. For example, data indicate that countries intervening least with market incomes realize higher poverty rates, with child poverty being greatest in liberal countries (www.lisproject.org/keyfigures/).

For Christians, wealth and income disparity should be of concern. Apart from the kingdom of God, Jesus spoke more about money and wealth than any other topic. True, there are varying interpretations of the biblical message concerning material wealth and poverty. Many believe there is a godly way of living the life of material delight. Others, however, are uncomfortable with this interpretation of Scripture. Will Willimon, dean of the chapel and professor of Christian ministry at Duke University, argues that “affluence is a spiritually debilitating and morally dangerous condition” (“Jesus Visits the Hamptons,” Sojourners Magazine, March-April 2002). This position is based on Jesus’ repeated warnings about the difficulty of combining riches with adherence to Christian principles: “One cannot serve both God and Money” (Matt. 6:24); “I tell you the truth, it is hard for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matt. 19:23); “How hard it is for the rich to enter the kingdom of God!” (Mark 10:23); “Blessed are you who are poor for yours is the kingdom of God” (Luke 6:20); “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth” (Matt. 6:19). Other examples where Jesus cautions against wealth abound, but possibly the most unsettling is the story of the rich man and Lazarus (Luke 16:19-31). Interestingly, material possessions, not lack of faith, constitute the sole reason explaining why the rich man is sent to hell while Lazarus dwells with Abraham.

Other New Testament writers echo Jesus’ stern counsel and explicitly instruct that those with wealth should give to the poor: “For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil…But you, man of God, flee from all this, and pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, endurance and gentleness” (1 Tim. 6:10-11). “If anyone has material possessions and sees his brother in need but has not pity on him, how can the love of God be in him?” (1 John 3:17). James is particularly harsh in his reprimand: “Now listen you rich people, weep and wail because of the misery that is coming upon you….Your gold and silver are corroded. Their corrosion will testify against you and eat your flesh like fire. You have hoarded wealth in the last days . . . You have lived on earth in luxury and selfindulgence. You have fattened yourselves in the day of slaughter” (James 5:1-5).

Not only is wealth itself suspicious, but wealth disparity can erode Christlike qualities. It is known that happiness is influenced by one’s material position relative to others. When surrounded by those of greater economic means and possessions, there is a higher propensity for dissatisfaction and jealousy.   A crucial measure of the success of a country’s social policies is whether they help the most vulnerable members of society.   The Bible characterizes envy as a sinful state that is starkly in contrast with the fruits of the Spirit and the love of God. Coveting is of such concern to God that it is included among the forbidden acts of the Ten Commandments (Exod. 20:17 and Deut. 5:21). Paul, in his epistles to the Romans and the Galatians lists envy among such sins as murder, deceit, debauchery, idolatry, hatred, witchcraft, and orgies (Rom. 1:29 and Gal. 5:19-21). In this same passage from Galatians, Paul warns that those who are envious will not inherit the kingdom of God. James correlates envy with selfish ambition and deems the two as earthly, unspiritual, and demonic, adding that”…where you have envy and selfish ambition, there you find disorder and every evil practice” (James 3:14-16).

Instead, Christ instructs his followers to seek contentment and not be concerned about what they lack. In Mathew 6:31- 33, Jesus promises that the future will be provided for: “So do not worry, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For the pagans run after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them. But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.”

Paul, in both his letter to the Philippians and Timothy, also emphasizes peace as a Christian quality. Philippians 4:6-7 encourages Christians not to be”…anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving make your needs known to God…And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.” In his letter to Timothy, Paul writes “But godliness with contentment is great gain…if we have food and clothing, we will be content with that” (1 Tim. 6:6-8). This peace that Paul is referring to is an inner tranquility that transpires from having entered into a harmony with God.

Economic and social policies can help advance a society where tranquility, rather than envy and strife, is more likely. Such provisions are consistent with Christ’s mandate to provide for the poor. In communally oriented countries, there is less reason to worry, knowing that one’s basic needs will be met, whereas in countries that are less inclined to redistribute wealth, many want, while others have excess. A country’s economic and social policies have the potential to either reduce, or increase, one’s anxiety. When the State addresses and assures adequate family leave, child care, and vacation time, it assists individuals while benefiting society as a whole. Among social issues, however, affordable access to health care is one of the most manifest inequalities suffered by the vulnerable members of a society. Therefore, access to quality health care, given with dignity, is critical if one is to envision a society that fosters Christ-like qualities.

III. A Case in Point: Health Care

“Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself.” Matthew 6:34

Most countries in the developed world consider access to health care a basic right and have implemented some form of universal health care. In the United States, the only first world country without a universal health program, the quality and extent of the care received varies greatly. It is often tied to medical insurance, which in turn is linked to having gainful employment. Insurance and health care may differ significantly depending on one’s employment.   Economic and social policies can help advance a society where tranquility, rather than envy and strife, is more likely.   At one extreme, some individuals (through employer provided in
surance) receive extensive health care benefits covering medical, dental, vision, hearing, and prescription medication while at the other end, many (typically those at the low-end of the job market) receive no health care benefits. It is estimated that, at any one time, more than 43 million Americans under the age of 65 have no health insurance. Based on allocation of resources and overall coverage, the World Health Organization has ranked the United States 37th, down 22 points from its position in 1970 (“Headaches For All,” The Economist, October 9-15, 2004).

The ramifications can be significant for someone living in one society rather than the other. An accident or illness is difficult enough without the added anxiety of not having medical coverage. Even a routine situation may cause great concern and financial difficulties. According to a Kaiser Commission report, “nearly half of uninsured [American] adults postponed seeking medical care, and over a third say they needed but did not get care in the past year” (http://www. kff.org/uninsured/1420-06). For one in this situation, it is understandable that the biblical concepts of God’s peace and display of a carefree disposition may prove elusive. In contrast, knowing that medical treatment is available at no or little cost can significantly alleviate fears. It is equally important for all members of a society to know that, regardless of one’s income or wealth, all will receive equal treatment. Health care that excessively favors those with insurance or the means to pay is clearly preferential treatment that discriminates against society’s most vulnerable.

As Christians, we should be deeply disturbed by the fact that a basic need, such as health care, is not as affordable to those of lesser resources as it is to those of greater means. The book of James sternly reproves discrimination of this sort: “My brothers, as believers in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ, don’t show favoritism. Suppose a man comes into your meeting wearing a gold ring and fine clothes, and a poor man in shabby clothes also comes in. If you show special attention to the man wearing fine clothes and say, ‘Here’s a good seat for you,’ but say to the poor man, ‘You stand there’ or ‘Sit on the floor by my feet,’ have you not discriminated among yourselves and become judges with evil thoughts?” (James 2:1-4).

Universal health care is often criticized as unwieldy, costly, inefficient, and in conflict with the principles of the market system. These criticisms are not completely unfounded. However, health care systems that are not universal also suffer from many of the same negative consequences. In addition, a society that is capable of providing health care to all, but does not, suffers a great cost, both humanly and monetarily. It is true that, among the various universal health care systems in existence, some are better than others. Yet, when considering cost and quality, it is difficult to criticize a system such as the one France has created. Compared with France, ranked first by the World Health Organization, the United States spends a greater proportion of its gross domestic product on health care (respectively 9.6 % and 15.3% for 2001), yet it does not cover all of its citizens (www3. who.int/whosis/country/indicators.cfm).

Stephen Bezruchka, M.D, who teaches at the University of Washington’s School of Public Health, raises concern over the low health ranking of the United States compared with other countries, and links poor health results with wealth disparity.   For someone facing an accident or illness without medical coverage, the concept of God’s peace may prove elusive.   Data indicate that overall health is impacted by the hierarchical structure of a society; the wider the gap between rich and poor, the lower the average life expectancy. When ranking countries by life expectancy or infant mortality, the United States is around 25th, behind most rich, and a few poor, countries (“Is Our Society Making You Sick,” Newsweek, February 26, 2001). Further, wealth disparity, coupled with unequal access to quality health care, brings about other inequalities, such as lower birth weights, increased hypertension, and higher frequency of psychiatric disorders (Lynch et al., “Cumulative Impact of Sustained Economic Hardship on Physical, Cognitive, Psychological, and Social Functioning,” New England Journal of Medicine, December 25, 1997). It is estimated that “at least 18,000 Americans die prematurely each year solely because they lack health coverage” (www.kff.org/uninsured). Such disparity is also correlated with lower political participation for low-income people, translating into less influence on the policies chosen by the country. Thus, as Doug Henwood notes in After the New Economy, social and economic policies that favor the affluent can self-perpetuate.

Social systems and economies of the world are creations of man, not God, and no system should be categorized as Christian. However, certain Christian attributes may be better fostered in one country rather than another. Ironically, the United States, the first world country most associated with Christianity, may not always be the best society for cultivating the fundamentals of Christianity. Providing for the poor, sharing one’s possessions, treating all equally, and having inner peace, are better nurtured, not through religious rhetoric but economic and social policies that reduce wealth and income inequalities and assure an adequate standard of living, such as offering quality health care to all.

Brigitte Hamon-Porter teaches in the Department of Modern and Classical Languages at Hope College in Holland, Michigan.

 

Brian Porter teaches in the Department of Economics, Management, and Accounting at Hope College in Holland, Michigan.