Can Politics Make America More Christian?

It’s astonishing to me that such a wide range of products can be obtained with money. I don’t enjoy paying bills any more than anyone else does, but I find that I enjoy peace of mind every time I make out a check for an insurance premium. Having mailed off a premium, I find that in some measure I am free to “give no thought for the morrow.” My anxieties–some of them, at least–fade away as I provide for the future. This peace that I enjoy, however, comes from considering neither the lilies of the field, nor my heavenly Father’s goodness, but the ruin that my insurance company would face if it failed to meet its commitments. Cunning though this sounds, sensible planning enables me to be not so anxious about tomorrow, and for that I’m grateful. In fact, Christianity never seemed so easy. Have I appropriated Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount? By paying my premiums am I cultivating Christian morality?

Brigitte Hamon-Porter and Brian Porter have written an essay urging that the United States government could do more to conform our society to the standards of the gospel if it maintained more generous welfare programs, universal health and child care, and in general a more secure safety net. In such a society it would be “easier to develop Christian qualities.” Compared to many governments in the developed world, ours is relatively non-interventionist; our economy is highly market oriented, rather lightly regulated, and geared to allow the wealth generated by free enterprise to “trickle down” to those at the bottom. The Porters point out that compared to other advanced economies, ours has dramatic and (I would point out) growing disparities in wealth and income between the top and bottom tiers. Now the fruits of the spirit of free enterprise are envy, anxiety, strife, and selfish ambition. More communally oriented societies, they note, provide more security with respect to health care, child care, unemployment, retirement, and so on. By such measures, these communities foster “God’s peace” and a “carefree disposition.” The Porters note that we Americans proclaim our Christian values as much as anybody. Presumably, then, if we are serious about providing for the poor, treating all with equal respect, and so on, we should pursue the social and economic policies that would express and promote those values.

It is difficult to question the Porters’ argument without being taken to reject the policies they recommend. That is why I began with the comfort I purchase through my insurance premiums. I believe in prudent provision for the future, in taking some responsibility for my commitments. I like the little bit of security insurance can provide. It even affords me a degree of serenity. But I do not equate that serenity with any Christian virtue. “Do not even the Gentiles do the same?”

Similarly, I too am dismayed at the growing economic disparities we find in the U.S.A. They remind me of the prophetic warnings about oppressing the poor. But I note that for the most part such warnings are not explained as measures to relieve the anxiety or resentment of the poor. Instead, they are presented as the demands of justice, or righteousness.

  If we consider “Christian qualities” in terms of where these stereotypical families are likely to find their “only comfort,” I do not think all advantage lies with the Europeans.  
The most striking promises that accompany commands to share with the poor are perhaps found in Deuteronomy: “that the Lord your God may bless you in all the work of your hands” (24:19; cf. 15:10). Economists may explain how a system that makes careful provision for the least advantaged may at least hope for social harmony and a healthy labor pool; but although the needs of the disadvantaged are obviously at issue, those needs are not conceived of as exactly spiritual. And the promise in its most obvious sense is to those already able to treat the disadvantaged well, people who are already relatively secure financially.

The Porters, then, are promoting two values to shape American policy: most obviously, a tranquility rooted in financial security for all; and, mostly by implication, a love toward God and compassion for His image-bearers that will repudiate individualism and materialism. The means to fulfilling these values is identified in the conclusion as “social policies that reduce wealth and income inequalities and assure an adequate standard of living….”

Nonetheless, arguing for the righteous spiritual consequences of communally oriented government seems risky. Perhaps that is why the goals that are said in the conclusion to be promoted by their egalitarian social policy are entirely secular: “[p]roviding for the poor, sharing one’s possessions, treating all equally, and having inner peace.” If Europe’s post-war experience is indicative, the Porters are probably right in their prescription; it does seem to promote those outcomes.

But their comparisons of American to European socioeconomic policies invite comparison of the societies’ spiritual lives. Nurturing Christian qualities was after all the original point of the inquiry. To abuse paradigms (“stereotypes,” if you prefer), compare the proverbial American family that is one illness away from homelessness, to a lower income European family confident of the support of the government in case of dire need. If we consider “Christian qualities” in terms of where these stereotypical families are likely to find their “only comfort,” I do not think all advantage lies with the Europeans. In fact, in the interest of Christian virtues one might be tempted to prescribe economic austerity and hardship, knowing with Paul that “suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character. ” I do not think Paul means to recommend suffering, and neither do I, but if by Christian qualities one means true piety, that seems to be indifferent to economic circumstances.

On the other hand, if “Christian qualities” is taken more outwardly, as C. S. Lewis used the term “nice people” in Mere Christianity, then there is a prudential argument to be made for gentler, more egalitarian policies than we have. If the hard edges of our competitiveness were somewhat smoothed and the government undertook a more communitarian policy, we Americans might be more mellow, even perhaps nicer. We might enjoy better mental health. There might be fewer Christians out of the pages of Flannery O’Connor.

Conservatives may concede that a mellower America may be possible, but they will surely cite the likely costs. In pointing out the social advantages that accrue when “the State addresses and assures adequate family leave, childcare, and vacation time,” the Porters seem to hope for a free lunch. But what is “assured” is effectively mandated. In the long run, developed societies that offer more such security for individuals tend to enjoy less dynamism and suffer from greater economic stagnation than societies that tolerate greater income disparities. Comparing the economies of Western Europe and the U.S.A. since World War II seems to bear out this generalization, and Europeans have reason to wonder how sustainable their welfare states are.

More broadly, we may ask how we should think of the state. The Porters’ references to communitarianism and corporatism suggest a governmental ideal approaching that of the family. But many will consider the family to have essentially different powers and functions from either industry or “sovereign” governments. Crudely put, governments seem to be in the business of securing justice between rival parties. Among business entities there will be highstakes competition of a sort likely to be more bruising than family life could stomach. Families in turn seem fittingly to be in the business of nurture, especially spiritual nurture, which few Christians want to assign primarily to industry or government. Many Reformed Christians are tempted to essentialize these distinctions, as reflecting God’s wisdom in creation; but even if we do not, the cooperation of various spheres of human endeavor seems to underwrite a rich, multi-ring circus for varieties of achievement. Economic markets, on this view, can be cruel masters, even idols, but they can also be good servants.

Most theologically, terms like “Christian qualities” and “attributes” invite questions about the relationship between niceness and true piety, even between nature and grace. The Christian morality that the Porters hope for apparently does not require Christian faith; but might it in any case constitute a pinnacle of worldly well-being? Might natural wholesomeness perhaps be a preparedness to be “perfected” by grace? Are the socially secure closer to the Kingdom of God? I have doubts about this.

 But if the world is entrusted to humankind, and arrangements are subject to consent, then the claims of any particular system will remain conditional on the system’s good service. Property rights are not absolute, but subject to review.  I suspect that well-adjusted worldlings like my paradigmatic mellowed-out European statists are no different than their anxious American counterparts: all need to have their natural hopes and comforts reconstituted, re-oriented, and transformed if they are to become integrated Christians.

An alternative argument for a more progressive economic policy might urge, not that it promotes godly tranquility among beneficiaries, but that it is simply just. A Christian case for the justice of government regulation or oversight of the economy might be two-pronged, based on who owns the world and how it is to be used. I conclude with a stab at such a case.

First and most fundamentally, “the earth is the Lord’s” (Psalm 24). It has been given “to men in common,” as even John Locke admits. That apologist for the emerging capitalist economic order hastens to clarify, however, that “[h]e gave it to the use of the industrious and rational” (Second Treatise of Government, #34), by whom he means essentially the rising entrepreneurial class. But even if Locke were right about this, these recipients would still be God’s stewards, and any right they acquired presumably would be qualified by their responsibility to the rest of us. Political and economic stewardship, on this view, is ultimately the responsibility of all humanity, even if we work through agents, somewhat as many environmentalists see humanity’s responsibility for the earth.

Now from his contractarian position Locke supposes that “by a tacit and voluntary consent,” “men have agreed to a disproportionate and unequal possession of the earth” (#50), including apparently whatever outcomes emerge from global capitalism. This may suggest that the system’s losers have sold their birthright for the increasing prosperity that Locke imagines to flow from that system. But if the world is entrusted to humankind, and arrangements are subject to consent, then the claims of any particular system will remain conditional on the system’s good service. Property rights are not absolute, but subject to review. Supposing it to be workable, people could even insist that economic policy be tailored to assure some decent minimal standard of living for all classes.

“Assuring decent outcomes” sounds like redistribution, which sounds to many like the dole. But champions of equality like John Rawls point out that governments make myriad decisions regarding the common good that affect classes differentially, without producing the effect of monthly welfare checks. Think of how we tax ourselves and corporations; how we finance schools, public health, pharmaceuticals and safety; how we fine-tune labor law, anti-trust law, social security and immigration policy; how we lease public lands and mineral rights. On these difficult questions we inevitably make political choices that affect our vulnerable classes in ways that are not inevitable.

The second prong of the argument might urge as a matter of justice that the rule of law must cover business as well as violent crime. For all its virtues, capitalism as we know it invites predatory practices. The sequence of deregulation followed by corporate scandals is by now an old story. Profiting by polluting or using facilities and assets at the expense of others–foisting “externalities” onto taxpayers and others– victimizes innocent, often vulnerable parties. Misrepresentation of products, misreporting of corporate assets, misuse of expense accounts–all of these abuses warrant regulation (sometimes) as matters of plain theft and fraud. It is hard to tell how much egregious inequality might be overcome by a U.S.A. that simply dared to root out such injustices by more aggressive regulation than we currently accept.

Chad Ray is associate professor of philosophy at Central College in Pella, Iowa.