Christians Debate: Was Jesus For Small Government?
What would Jesus do with the U.S. economy?
That’s a matter of fierce debate among Christians — with conservatives promoting a small-government Jesus and liberals seeing Jesus as an advocate for the poor.
After the House passed its budget last month, liberal religious leaders said the Republican plan, which lowered taxes and cut services to the poor, was an affront to the Gospel — and particularly Jesus’ command to care for the poor.
Not so, says Wisconsin Republican Rep. Paul Ryan, who chairs the House Budget Committee. He told Christian Broadcasting Network last week that it was his Catholic faith that helped shape the budget plan. In his view, the Catholic principle of subsidiarity suggests the government should have little role in helping the poor.
“Through our civic organizations, through our churches, through our charities — through all of our different groups where we interact with people as a community — that’s how we advance the common good,” Ryan said.
The best thing that government can do, he said, is get out of the way.
But Stephen Schneck, a political scientist at Catholic University, says he thinks Ryan is “completely missing the boat and not understanding the real heart, the real core, of Catholic social teaching.”…
At the time, I zeroed in on Ryan’s (rather restrictive and misleading) use of “subsidiarity.” What I didn’t get into was the bigger subject: What would Jesus do politically? What sort of government would he advocate?
In a sense, it’s a stupid question, in that it really can’t be answered authoritatively.
We are hobbled by the fact that Jesus wasn’t into politics. In his day, that simply wasn’t in the hands of the people, and therefore there could be no moral imperative to shape one’s society. He taught people how they should live their lives in the world as they found it.
Such issues as “the size of government” (which has always seemed like a ridiculous thing to talk about, as though there could be an objectively ideal “size” — of course, that’s me talking, not Jesus) simply were not anything an average person had any control over. That was up to Caesar. Or the Senate. Or on the more local level, the Tetrarch or Pilate. Or the Sanhedrin. In His day, government actually was what libertarians imagine it to be today. It was “they,” something outside of and apart from the individual.
One of the tough things about applying moral teachings from the Bible to our own time and place is that our relationship to government today is so radically different. For the first time in human history most people (in Western countries, at least) now have a moral responsibility for the world around them, because they have a say in it. They elect the leaders who make the laws. That was unthinkable in Jesus’ day.
Jesus had a live-and-let-live attitude toward government. Unlike his apostle the Zealot, he wasn’t interested in revolution. And if you tried to engage him discussing the morality of taxation, he said render unto Caesar — that was Caesar’s business, not his.
The challenge that Christians have today is what to in in a world in which they have a say in the government. But they don’t get all that much guidance from the Bible, which is why Christians run the gamut from left to right on the political spectrum.
There’s no question, for instance, that we are called upon to care for the poor. But both left and right can make cases for their positions. The left will insist that government must do that job; the right will insist that it must be done by private entities.
The weakness in the left’s argument is that, in this country at least, what the government does is by definition done outside the Christian framework. Government can’t say, “What would Jesus do?” and act accordingly, on account of the way we currently interpret the First Amendment.
The weakness in the right’s argument is that since a Christian today does have responsibility for his government, he should advocate that his government act in accord with his beliefs. If we are enjoined to minister to the poor, than we should vote accordingly. Our vote should be an instrument of Christian charity just as our tithe at Church is.
Ironically, it is so often people on the left who object to anyone trying to make the government an agent of any sort of religious agenda. (I point you to liberals’ horror at what they perceived Rick Santorum as being about.)
In the end, Christians on the left and on the right will tend to imagine what a “Citizen Jesus” would do if he lived in a modern liberal democracy in terms of what they themselves believe politically.
When, of course, we know he would have voted UnParty…