Christianity and Social Policies: A Response to Chad Ray

Chadwick Ray acknowledges the growing income disparity in the United States but wonders, citing Paul, if the Christian qualities of piety are not “indifferent to economic circumstances.” We would follow Reinhold Niebuhr here who, in The Interpretation of Christian Ethics, distinguishes between the force of piety (gratitude for the goodness of life) and the force of spirituality (contrition for its evil), and warns about using one at the expense of the other. He writes: “Whenever the prophetic faith that all things have their source in God is not balanced by the other article of prophetic faith, that all things have their fulfillment in God, ethical tension is destroyed and the result is similar to a pantheistic religious acceptance of life as it is.” Policies thus become for Niebuhr the “walls” with which to build Christianity. They are fashioned, he adds, “by the application of religion’s ultimate insights to all specific situations.” In the end, we will be judged by the expression of our piety, that is, by how we interact with God’s creation in all its forms and dimensions.

Ray has misunderstood the intention of our original article as claiming that “we Americans proclaim our Christian values as much as anybody.” The point we made is not that Americans are similar to people of other developed countries, but that Americans are unequaled in their profession of Christian principles and nationalistic fervor. Sixty percent of Americans say that their religious faith is involved in every aspect of their lives. Fifty-eight percent of Americans say the strength of American society is “predicated on the religious faith of its people.” Forty-eight percent of Americans believe the United States has special protection from God. Sixty percent of Americans believe that their culture is superior to others, in contrast with forty percent of Germans, thirty-seven percent of British, and thirty-three percent of French who think that their culture is superior. This finding raises the question: what, then, should be the organization of a society so infused with Christian principles? Our original paper provided a response to this question.

Ray implies that the social policies we propose cause economic stagnation and are unrealistic: “Europeans have reason to wonder how sustainable their welfare states are.” Yet those who make this common rebuke should also question the long-term sustainability of the policies of the United States with a national debt of 7.8 trillion dollars and the consequences it poses for future generations.

The same objection applies to disparaging rhetoric that Ray invokes, such as “the dole” and “free lunch.” If what Ray means by the dole is “getting something without working for it,” then this is already prevalent among the privileged in the United States. For example, wealth and all the advantages associated with it is largely a birthright. Flag As much as sixty percent of parents’ advantage in income is passed along to their children. The Wall Street Journal recently proclaimed: “It’s not only how much money your parents have that matters–even your great-great grandfather’s wealth might give you a noticeable edge today” (May 13, 2005, p. A1). The reality is that the United States (along with Britain) offers the least social mobility among rich countries. A child born into poverty has a better chance at prosperity if born in continental Europe or Canada than in the United States.

Nor should the term free lunch be associated only with the impoverished. Segments of the business world enjoy plenty of corporate welfare. This type of entitlement is costly, favors the powerful, and is economically questionable. One example is the aptly-named “tax holiday” granted to American multinationals that agree to repatriate foreign profits back to the United States at a rate of 5.25 instead of the normal corporate rate of thirty-five percent. Johnson & Johnson is one corporation taking advantage of this free lunch to the amount of $11 billion.

Although there are many issues we could have examined in our original article, we focused on health care. We are often told that the health care system in the United States is the “envy of the world,” but the data are less conclusive. The United States has the most privatized health care system among other economically advanced countries, yet it is inferior and inefficient on many measures. The United States spends more per person on health care than any other country, yet over fourteen percent of its population is uninsured. Fifteen percent of the United States’ health care cost is devoted to administrative expenses compared with only four percent, on average, in countries with universal health care coverage. As the debate on health care comes to the forefront, both the public and private sector are becoming aware of the deficien- cies in the American system. Sixty-five percent of chief financial officers at major corporations regard immediate action on health care costs as “very important.”

For Ray, and many others, it seems that the choice is between humane social and economic policies and a growing economy. Even though our primary premise is biblical, not economic, one could argue that, in the long run, social programs improve an economy. A national health care system that provides preventive care to everyone reduces the need for more expensive emergency treatment. Mandated vacation time (the minimum in Europe is four weeks) creates jobs (e.g., hotels, restaurants, recreation, and travel) and results in a rested and more productive workforce. Funded quality child-care and preschool programs, such as Head Start, are directly linked to higher rates of professional success and lower rates of incarceration among low socioeconomic classes. These programs increase the likelihood of more educated and productive (i.e., taxpaying) workers that are not on the dole or incarcerated. Personally, we prefer that our taxes subsidize child care rather than the building of yet another prison facility in a country that features the highest incarceration rate in the world.

We concede, however, that it is also possible that the social and economic policies we espouse may negatively impact certain economic measures. For three reasons, we believe the economic argument is dubious. First, not all economic activity is beneficial to society; for example, the production of missiles, bombs, and tanks all increase Gross Domestic Product (GDP). Second, economic measures provide an inconclusive sense of both a country’s economic condition and its overall well-being. Even Simon Kuznets, who invented the Gross National Product (GNP) measure, warned in 1934 that the welfare of a nation can “scarcely be inferred from a measure of national income” (The Atlantic, October 1995). There are many measures, such as the rates of divorce, infant mortality, life expectancy, incarceration, and teenage pregnancy, which are critical indications of a country’s wellbeing, yet are not necessarily measurable economically. Third, regardless of the economic consequences, providing for those of lesser means is proper, just, and biblical. Here we are glad to agree with Ray’s own formulation. Life is interrelated and we are all God’s creation. Dr. Martin Luther King forcefully declared, “As long as there is poverty in the world, I can never be rich …As long as diseases are rampant, I can never be healthy…. I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be.”

For many, economic growth is a logical litmus test for God’s will. However, by conventional measures biblical principles do not always make sense economically: “Give to everyone who asks you, and if anyone takes what belongs to you, do not demand it back” (Luke 6:30). “Love your enemies …and lend to them without expecting to get anything back” (Luke 6:35). “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on ea
rth …but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven” (Matthew 6:19- 20). Christians in particular should understand that God’s ways are above our understanding and that we see unclearly (Isaiah 29:16, Isaiah 55:8-9, 1 Corinthians 13:12). It is wise to remember that, when Peter found Jesus to be illogical, Jesus responded, “You are a dangerous trap to me. You are seeing things merely from a human point of view, and not from God’s” (Matthew 6:23).

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