With some frequency, some of my Bible-believing friends who tend toward the conservative end of American politics ask me how I can justify my more left-leaning political views. More than a few have expressed genuine consternation that anyone who believes in Jesus could possibly vote Democratic (as I often have), or could oppose certain Republican priorities (as I usually do even when I’m not happy with Democratic alternatives). While I usually try to keep this blog away from American partisanship, I think those questions deserve a straight answer.
As a Christian, I believe that the scriptures are pretty clear that God favors the poor and weak over the wealthy and powerful. This will come as no surprise to longtime readers; if you want a refresher take a look at my Advent Jubilee meditation or this post on Jesus’ comment that we’ll always have the poor. While it is also clear that God disapproves of just plain laziness and failure to take responsibility (2 Thess. 3:10 for example), it is my opinion reinforced by years of meeting people, that poverty in this country as well as around the world has far more to do with structural barriers, discrimination, bad luck, and abuse by the powerful, than it does with individuals failing to do what they should for themselves.
So my “liberalism” comes from the notion that BEFORE we blast people for failing to take responsibility, we need to look at the ways in which the deck has been stacked against them. It also comes from the observation that despite the smug certainty most wealthy and even moderately successful Americans display, those of us who are not poor owe that fact AT LEAST as much to accidents of birth, good fortune in friends/contacts, and the hard work of other people, as we do to any skill or hard work on our own. Therefore, no one deserves to say that his wealth is his own, and the product primarily of his own hard work. This is only more true for Jews and Christians, who should take the eighth chapter of Deuteronomy (particularly Deut. 8:17) into account.
Next, my perspective comes from a belief that outcomes matter more than theories. So when people want to cut government programs for the poor (all the while increasing subsidies to big businesses who take their production overseas), I don’t frankly give a crap whether their theory of government is correct or not. I care that the NET EFFECT is increased suffering for the weak. The only legitimate time to cut such programs is when they are no longer needed (because the beneficiaries have other REAL alternatives … a combination of voluntary giving and genuine opportunity, neither of which the Republicans and Tea-partiers have created, at least not in sufficient quantity to make a difference). If Christians continue to insist that voluntary giving should replace government assistance, they should follow the old law of supply and demand. When (if) Christians give enough that government assistance is no longer needed, then and only then dare they suggest it’s time to cut public programs…NOT before.
Finally, I believe there are things that only government can do well. My work in public health is one example. Society benefits from having contagious disease controlled, but the market benefit is never obvious to the payers. It only works as something funded by all of society (i.e. through taxes) because there’s no way to tie disease prevention to a specific market segment. Same way with roads. It’s wrong, I believe, to fund our roads through tolls because the need for those roads in society (and the need for individuals to move on them) is not linkable to specific market forces, such that any just charge scheme for road use could be created. Everybody benefits from good roads, and from a society where movement is free. The benefit any individual derives from roads is rarely proportional to the miles s/he drives on them (which is why gas taxes for roads are also inequitable). In fact, those who benefit most from the roads (through movement of goods they make or sell, or through bringing customers to their doors) may drive very little in proportion to those who, for example, have to drive from where low-income housing is, to where their low-paying job is located.
So in sum, it’s not about “government sticking its nose wherever it can” (a problem, I might add, that “conservatives” have at least as much as liberals whenever they try to legislate conservative morality). It’s about some necessary things only working when the costs are spread across society, and when the control is linked to society (i.e. voters/taxpayers) rather than to those with the most resources.
Of course there are other reasons. Regulation, the giant bogeyman of the right, can certainly be bureaucratic and overbearing. But if there is one lesson that economic and social history ought to have taught us by now, it is that where their pocketbook is concerned, people tend to be amoral or immoral. Libertarianism presumes that left to themselves, most humans will do the right thing. Open eyes, I think, suggest otherwise. So do the doctrines of original sin and total depravity, which last I checked are given more lipservice among conservatives than liberals (this reality, by the way, is also why the Communist ideal of the “withering away of the state” is untenable). Of course sin and depravity affect the humans in government too … but that’s why we have a government of laws, checks, and balances. And anyone who thinks the Bible teaches libertarianism in economics hasn’t read much of it (see the Jubilee post linked above).
Certainly there are deep flaws in American political liberalism too, not least the desire among far too many to just dispense with ideas like God and morality altogether. While I’ve got major issues with the right-wing attempt to legislate around sexuality, the left-wing attempt to remove all hint of sexual restraint is definitely not progress. However, when I compare the frequency with which the Bible speaks to the twin topics of economic justice and sexuality, I conclude that God is more angry, more frequently, over who’s screwing whom in an economic sense, than in an anatomic one.
Ultimately, I have no illusion that either Democrats or Republicans offer any hope of morally governing this country. I disavow any notion that one’s faith, or lack thereof, can be conclusively tied to party affiliation. Nevertheless, when my political views lean further to the left than many of my fellow churchmen prefer, it’s precisely because of my faith, not in spite of it.