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Christians face many temptations. Sensual pleasure and wealth pose obvious dangers. So does power. The latter is particularly insidious because so many people, including Christians, claim to desire it for selfless reasons.

The proper role of government, the central concern of political theory, has long been a controversial issue within Christendom. For two millennia, Christian political activities have varied from tyrannical to anarchical. Today some activists publish official scorecards (“Biblical” and “Just Life” on the right and left, respectively), turning issues like a space-based missile defense into theological litmus tests. Others simply declare opposition to their preferred policies, like government welfare, to be un-Christian.

But holy Scripture and church tradition give us only general principles, not a detailed blueprint, for godly government. We are left with the Apostle James’ unsatisfying injunction to ask for wisdom, which God “gives generously to all.” (James 1:5) In making the prudential judgments necessary in contemporary political life, however, Christians can learn much from secular philosophies. None are Christian per se. Nevertheless, believers should search for a political framework that is consistent with Christian doctrine and accurately describes the way the world works.

Libertarianism–which some who should know better seem to confuse with libertinism–is such a philosophy. It makes an eminently practical claim: The business of government is not to supplant God in attempting to eradicate sin but to respect God in attempting to protect individuals from the sinful depredations of others.

Neutral Arbiter and Protector

The dominant message of Scripture is man’s relationship to God and his neighbors. The Bible gives much more guidance on how we should treat people than when we should coerce them, which is the defining characteristic of government. Scripture does set boundaries for the proper political debate. The state’s most fundamental role is to protect citizens from the sinful conduct of their neighbors. Government is “to bring punishment on the wrongdoer,” wrote Paul (Rom. 13:4).

Justice and righteousness are also recurring biblical themes. Believers and civil rulers alike must exercise justice and righteousness as individuals. However, personal responsibility differs from corporate duty. Individuals must respond virtuously to the needs of their neighbors; government must regulate, coercively yet fairly, relations between both righteous and unrighteous men. The contrast is personal virtue versus public impartiality, concern over results versus over processes. The state is to be neutral arbiter and protector, not social engineer. Biblical justice protects all men, irrespective of their identity, in their enjoyment of God’s blessings.

Protection of the needy is of special concern to God: They are, after all, the least able to vindicate their own interests. However, extra sensitivity to their rights, especially in the face of governments that are easily suborned by the powerful, does not warrant prejudice in their favor. God commanded: “Do not pervert justice; do not show partiality to the poor or favoritism to the great.” (Lev. 19:15) In this way, godly justice and righteousness are very different from the modern notion of “social justice,” which demands equality of economic and cultural outcomes.

It is, of course, often argued that biblical strictures against “oppression” apply to seemingly neutral processes, such as the free marketplace, that lead to allegedly “unfair” results, such as wealth imbalances, yet the Bible routinely links oppression to perversion of the system of justice. For instance, the prophet Micah complained of evil men who “covet fields and seize them, and houses, and take them” (Mic. 2:2). James pointed to the exploitative rich who had “failed to pay the workmen” and “murdered innocent men” (James 5:4,6).

This is not to say that results are unimportant. To the contrary, Christians are to be generous and “do good to all people” (Gal. 6:10), but one should not conflate society and state. It has, for instance, been suggested that the scriptural call upon the “shepherds of Israel” to strengthen the weak, heal the sick, and bind up the injured (Ezek. 34:4) is a mandate for government welfare. Biblical kingship, however, means something different from today’s secular government. Moreover, such a broad injunction tells us nothing about public policy. Should the president and congressmen be doctors so that they can directly heal the sick? Should the state provide doctors for everyone? Should government fund health insurance for the poor? Or should people, through their families, churches, and other community institutions, create a private safety net for the needy? A good society cares for the disadvantaged, but nothing in Scripture requires one or another public program.

Scripture also restricts how the state can act. The most important limitation flows from the First Commandment. This century has been marked by secular rulers and systems making pretentious claims of near-divinity. Even the modern welfare state increasingly has transformed into what author Herbert Schlossberg calls “the idol state.” Today, the government purports to set moral standards, meet personal needs, and even give life meaning.

The Bible suggests that an expansive state is also bad because it will reflect the sinfulness of its participants and therefore routinely mistreat its citizens. Consider God’s dire warning to the Israelites when they requested a king (1 Sam. 8:11—17). Man is a fallen creature all too willing to do wrong. This sinful tendency is exacerbated by the accumulation of power that, warned Lord Acton, “tends to corrupt.”

In fact, the pandemic use of government by influential interest groups to enrich themselves by restricting competition and extorting subsidies would appear to fall within the biblical meaning of oppression. In such cases, some involving the best-intended initiatives, such as the minimum wage and trade restrictions, powerful interests use government to unjustly enrich themselves. The prophet Isaiah was addressing such lobbies when he proclaimed: “Woe to those who make unjust laws, to those who issue oppressive decrees, to deprive the poor of their rights and rob my oppressed people of justice” (Isa. 10:1-2).

While Scripture is ultimately more concerned about spiritual freedom–particularly liberation from sin–than political and economic freedom, the lives and dignity of human beings created in the image of God require respect by other people, including governors. The least important person for whom Christ died is of greater value than the grandest empire.

Moreover, people must be free to respond to God’s grace, worship him, and integrate obedience to him into their daily lives, liberties that inevitably suffer as the state expands. Finally, Christ’s injunction that believers be salt and light requires an abundant communal life free from political control.

Of course, most issues fall between the extremes. About controversies like comparable worth, insider trading, and the Export-Import Bank the Bible offers little specific guidance. Rather, these are issues more of prudence than principle. God has chosen to leave them up to us rather than to state his own preference.

Where God is silent, what role should we assign to the state? Many religious activists lobby for social causes as if the outcomes were natural outgrowths of Christian theology. Yet there is no automatic link between, say, concern for the poor and a particular federal job training program.

Government Not A Particularly Good Teacher of Virtue

Although there is no formal Christian political philosophy, believers have good reason to be skeptical about the use of government to solve economic and social problems. The temptation to seize power in an attempt to do good is strong; the prospect of making people moral and righteous is alluring. But can there be greater hubris than the belief that one should forcibly remake individuals and transform entire societies? Thousands of years of human history suggest that such a project is fraught with peril.

One concern is simply the primacy of God. Political and economic freedom, particularly independence from the paternal welfare state, have a spiritual dimension, since liberty forces people to rely on God. The more decisions left to individuals, the more often they must exercise moral judgment and act on biblical principles.

Nor should believers forget that the basis of the state is coercion. In general, seizing someone’s wealth and throwing them in jail is not an act of love. Thus, Christians should resort to coercion only reluctantly and for the most serious purpose, not as a matter of personal preference.

Moreover, placing untrammeled power in the hands of coercive institutions controlled by sinful men has proved to be disastrous throughout the ages, and especially this century. As historian Paul Johnson observed, “The state had proved itself an insatiable spender, an unrivaled waster. Indeed, in the twentieth century it had also proved itself the great killer of all time.” Even those who would like to play social engineer need to realize that mixing sinful human nature and concentrated political authority often yields destructive results.

What of narrowly defined attempts to use government for good ends–to, say, promote biblical morality? Obviously, Christians should care about not only the opportunity to make choices but what choices are made. However, who should make such decisions? Scripture places responsibility on individuals who are responsible to God for their actions, not on the state.

Understandably so. Churches and governments alike have unsuccessfully tried to eliminate sin for centuries. While America’s moral standards certainly appear to be on the decline, blaming this phenomenon on legal freedom mistakes correlation for causation. In fact, the nation’s onetime cultural consensus on moral issues eroded even during an era of strict laws against homosexuality, pornography, and fornication. Only cracks in this consensus led to changes in the law. In short, the moral underpinnings of the laws collapsed, followed by the laws.

Moreover, government is not a particularly good teacher of virtue. The state tends to be effective at simple, blunt tasks, like killing and jailing people. It has been far less successful at shaping individual consciences. New laws would not make America a more virtuous nation. True, there might be fewer overt acts of immorality, but there would be no change in people’s hearts.

Indeed, attempting to force people to be virtuous tends to make society itself less virtuous in three important ways. First, individuals lose opportunities to exercise virtue, which cannot exist without freedom and the right to make moral choices. In this we see the paradox of Christianity: A God of love creates man and provides a means for his redemption but allows him to choose to do evil.

There are times, of course, when coercion is absolutely necessary–most important, to protect people by enforcing an inter-personal moral code governing the relations of one to another, including cases like murder, theft, and abortion. Very different is the use of coercion to promote virtue; that is, to impose a standard of intra-personal morality, in essence to mold souls. If this were not the case, government should enforce the two greatest commandments: loving God and loving one’s neighbors.

Moral-based issues like drug use, pornography, and homosexuality all have important social impacts that, one can argue, justify some state intervention. However, there is abundant evidence that government action often exacerbates the underlying problems and creates new ones. As such, these matters are fundamentally prudential, not moral, issues in the political realm.

Second, to vest government with primary responsibility for promoting virtue shortchanges other institutions, like the family and church. Private social organizations find it easier to lean on the power of coercion than to lead by example, persuade, and solve problems. Moral problems, driven underground by the law, seem less acute, causing people to work less vigorously to promote godly values.

Third, making government a moral enforcer encourages abuse by whoever gains power. The effect of sin is magnified by the exercise of coercive power. Its possessors can, of course, do good, but history suggests that they are far more likely to do harm. Even in our democratic system, rulers are as ready to enact their personal predilections–teaching children “Heather Has Two Mommies,” for instance–as to uphold biblical morality.

Politics Primarily Prudential

Although “moral” issues dominate Christian political activism, most political controversies are primarily prudential–can state intervention improve the operation of the labor market, for example? In such cases, the lessons of practical experience are particularly powerful. Private market outcomes are often imperfect, but the results of political intervention are almost always worse. Given the problems inherent to the political process, such as imperfect knowledge, interest group pressure, perverse bureaucratic incentives, and lack of effective accountability, state action should be viewed as a last resort.

For this reason, prudence suggests due humility by would-be social engineers. In general, government should provide the legal scaffolding that allows people to try to collectively but voluntarily solve their problems. Only in extraordinary circumstances, where there is no other choice, should the state supplant private decision-making. Ultimately, a political system based on liberty will enhance man’s ability to provide for his family, work with others to improve his community, exercise dominion in transforming God’s creation, and enjoy the many gifts of God. Private cooperation, rather than public coercion, is by far the best method of governance in our complex and diverse society.

In the end, politics is not our most important Christian obligation. It remains significant, however, and requires us to use the wisdom with which God has so graciously offered to endow us. And wisdom, especially derived from the ghastly experience of this century, would suggest that we constrain politics to the smallest role possible. In the end, our society will be a better place if we choose to live with occasional human imperfection, rather than to attempt to suppress it through government.

Doug Bandow is a Senior Fellow at the Cato Institute and a former Special Assistant to President Ronald Reagan. He is a frequent lecturer at Acton Institute events.