2007-12-07

Small government and Modern evangelical syncretism

Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God. 2Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment. 3For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Would you have no fear of the one who is in authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive his approval, 4for he is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain. For he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer. 5Therefore one must be in subjection, not only to avoid God’s wrath but also for the sake of conscience. 6For because of this you also pay taxes, for the authorities are ministers of God, attending to this very thing. 7 Pay to all what is owed to them: taxes to whom taxes are owed, revenue to whom revenue is owed, respect to whom respect is owed, honor to whom honor is owed.

Romans 13.1-7 (ESV)
Ah yes, the classic Romans 13, a piece of scripture that has been mauled and reinterpreted by American Evangelicals to the point where it becomes classic eisegesis.

What is this syncretic belief? The belief that the Bible contains instructions on how much power civil government may have. Why is it syncretic? Because limited governmental theory is a modern political and philosophical concept, which means that it is sourced from outside the bible, yet it has become so important to American evangelicals that they see it as having a divine origin. In response to this, passages of scripture - most notably Romans 13 - have been fitted around this belief without taking into account either the concept's basis in modern philosophy, nor the clear meaning of scripture.

Disclosure: Politically, I would describe myself as an independent leftist, yet some of my economic beliefs are quite market-based, which means that I would fit closer to the centre of the political spectrum that to the left-hand margin. The political theories of Social Democracy, Social Liberalism and Ordoliberalism contain much of what I think would help our world, both socially and economically (There are limits, though. I would never be a Democratic Socialist. That's too far to the left for me). Despite this I know that the only real answer to sin is through Jesus Christ. Political theories of the sort that I adhere to may make material life in this world better, but they do not replace the gospel or the need for spiritual regeneration. They do not get people to heaven. Yet the reason why I adhere to them is because I honestly believe they will help our physical world to get better. What I won't do is somehow link these political beliefs back into the bible and argue that that the only Christian response is to hold to such beliefs.

And it is at this point that I am quite different to those who preach small-government as being biblical. I'm not going to preach that Social Democracy, Social Liberalism or Ordoliberalism is the only way for Christians to go. Instead, it is my argument that the Christian can follow whichever political movement he or she thinks will bring about the best outcome.

Let me put even more simply. If you are a Christian who does believe in small government theory, that's fine. It's not wrong to believe that. What is wrong to believe is that the small government position is biblically mandated, while alternatives like big-government socialism are sinful. Christians should be allowed to hold to various political positions, so long as they do not completely contradict scripture. I could not, for example, support Christians who think that a fundamentalist Zoroastrian theocracy is okay.

The thing is that small government theory and big government socialism is neither supported nor rejected in scripture. The problem is that modern American evangelicals do think it. These evangelicals argue fiercely to defend their particular ideology in much the same way as Liberation theologians argued back in the 1960s and 1970s that Marxism is the only political ideology Christians can support. Of course, the Liberation theologians were simply reading Marxism into the biblical text - much the same way as free market small government theory is being read into the Bible by modern Christians.

But, of course, all of this goes back to the passage quoted - Romans 13.1-7. The argument by small government Christians is that this passage gives clear limits to government power. Greg A. Dixon, an American Baptist pastor, wrote this list to describe what the passage taught:

  1. Good government is ordained by God.
  2. Government officials are to be good ministers who represent God.
  3. We the people must obey good and godly laws.
  4. As we relate Romans 13 to America, our Constitution is the higher power -- not the IRS tax code.
  5. Good government is not to be feared.
  6. In America, we are to pay honor and custom and constitutional taxes to whom it is due.
  7. Government is to protect the righteous and punish the wicked.
Of course, there is nothing wrong with Dixon's list. The problem occurs when such a list is then reduced to being the limits of the government's power. There is nothing in this list, for example, that talks about using tax revenue to pay for public education or public health. Many American evangelicals would then argue that doing such a thing - raising taxes and using that money for the public good - goes beyond this divinely inspired limit to civil government. Of course the government should be able to raise taxes and use that money on, say, law enforcement and the military and the judicial and legislative system. But using it for welfare purposes? That's not on!

The problem is that, in this passage, Paul's intention is NOT to present the limits of civil government. Grammatically, there is no way the passage does that. If you read the passage again, you'll realise that what Paul is talking about is the Christian's relationship with government. Just because Paul describes a few things that governments do doesn't mean that he has prescribed what governments do. This confusion - between working out what the Bible describes and what it prescribes - seems to affect lots of people, especially the Biblically illiterate. Some have used the fact that the Bible describes polygamy as being something the bible prescribes. Others have used the fact that the book of Acts describes new converts speaking in tongues as a prescription that those who don't speak in tongues are not saved.

Another misinterpretation is that God's way of looking after poor people is only through charitable giving. Of course the bible speaks volumes about the importance of charity, but the bible nowhere states that it is the only solution. The invocation of 1 Timothy 5 doesn't really work when you realise that the commands Paul was giving applied only to church members who needed charity to survive. Of course government welfare payments were not even considered back then, but this passage is not evidence that the Bible has prescribed "charity only".

Actually, one of the best passages to shoot down this "charity only" belief can be found in Deuteronomy 24.18-22:
When you are harvesting in your field and you overlook a sheaf, do not go back to get it. Leave it for the alien, the fatherless and the widow, so that the LORD your God may bless you in all the work of your hands. 20 When you beat the olives from your trees, do not go over the branches a second time. Leave what remains for the alien, the fatherless and the widow. 21 When you harvest the grapes in your vineyard, do not go over the vines again. Leave what remains for the alien, the fatherless and the widow. 22 Remember that you were slaves in Egypt. That is why I command you to do this.

What is important about these couple of verses is that this is not charity. It is a command (verse 22) from God to Israel's farmers. This was not about willingly giving money or goods over to those who need it, it was an ancient form of taxation in order to help those who could not help themselves. Put it another way, if a farmer did NOT choose to do this to his field, then he was breaking the law and sinning. Of course this action was a form of generosity that should be undertaken with a glad heart - but it doesn't negate the fact that this command was a form of legislation and taxation, not a form of charity.

Of course if I was a Liberation Theologian I would use these verses to back up the claim that Marxism is the only true form of Christian politics. I won't because these verses were aimed at the people of Israel, God's covenant people before Christ. Since Christ's resurrection and ascension, the laws pertaining to Israel remain in their intention, but not in the specifics. The legal punishment for adultery in the OT was death, but Jesus over-rode this punishment in John 8.1-11 yet did not hesitate to tell the adulterous woman to "sin no more".

What this passage in Deuteronomy tells us, however, is that government actions like taxing people in order to redistribute funds towards public health and education (and other things), while not prescribed, is not proscribed.

But what is the best way? Is it big government socialism, handing out welfare checks to any lazy person who feels entitled to one? Or is it free-market small government theory, which puts the onus on personal responsibility to the point where needy people are to blame for their own poverty?

This is where wisdom comes in. Christians like myself who are on the left hand side of politics argue that some level of government redistribution of funds is essential to help people help themselves. On the other hand, there are Christians out there who argue that better laws and less government spending is necessary to help people help themselves. I don't claim that my position is the most biblical, and neither should the small-government Christian. Arguments and disagreements should naturally arise between Christians who adhere to these different political positions, but so long as the arguments focus upon what works and what doesn't then fellowship should be maintained.

Craig Schwarze is a blogger I respect. He is a political conservative and he and I disagree on many things. Nevertheless he doesn't argue that his position is the only one Christians should hold to.

What I don't like are Christians who somehow continue to think that small-government is the only godly way. They're the sort of people who would say "Picking my pocket at gunpoint to satisfy your charitable notions is not a Biblical procedure". These sorts of people see my political views as being sinful, rather than being a political alternative that they don't agree with. Personally I blame the whole "reds under the bed" phase of American history in which Communism was depicted as anti-Christian while free-market capitalism was promoted as being godly. Moreover, it is also one of the main reasons why so many Christians in America have been reduced to being the "true believers" in the Republican Party. Voting for the Republicans is not just a matter of personal conviction for these people, it is the only biblical thing to do. It's because of this that theocratic loudmouths like James Dobson spends all his time with politicians in the Republican Party and all but ordering his listeners to vote for them.

We're at an age now where Christians in politics - especially in America - have done enormous harm, mainly to themselves. By adhering to a particular brand of politics as though it was handed down on high means that Christians have become easily led, unthinking, biblically illiterate and susceptible to the most base rumours. From the angel in the back seat of the car who said that Jesus is returning soon to Satanism being promoted by Harry Potter, Christians are gullible, credulous and undiscerning. And it is this credulousness, so easily cultivated by outside groups interested in manipulating them for their own needs, which has given rise to modern evangelical syncretism. The presentation of a political belief as being moral and biblical, and then the dissemination of this belief, allows the creation of fanatical followers who sees differences of political opinion as being matters of life and death, of following Satan or following God, all based upon reading Von Hayek (an unbeliever) rather than the Scriptures.


© 2007 Neil McKenzie Cameron, http://one-salient-oversight.blogspot.com/

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10 comments:

BLBeamer said...

Neil, I agree with you. In fact, I agree with you almost completely. But something is nagging at me and I wish I was articulate enough or insightful enough to put my thoughts into words. Here goes:

Have you met people who read Hayek for spiritual guidance? I never have. Yet I find he has valuable insights on economics.

I've also read Marx, and while he loses the argument on its merits when it comes to economics, he had interesting things to say.

Milton Friedman was no friend of religious belief of any kind, but he still had worthwhile views to share, particularly the role of money in an economy and other topics.

I have been in conversations with Christians who agree with you politically, and who insist that giving Friedman his due as an economist was tantamount to being "pro-rich", "anti-poor", "pro-Bush", "elitist", ad nauseum.

I guess maybe what I'm trying to get at is that while what you're saying is true, I wish those on the left were as quick to condemn their erring fellow travelers as they are their opponents on the right.

The cartoon you show below this post is typical leftist self-righteousness. I am also certain I saw the exact same cartoon in a conservative magazine with the expected word substitutions. Personally, I am convinced the right does not have a monopoly on hateful, bile spewing attacks. It would be tedious to relate some of the episodes I have witnessed on both the right and the left of such attacks.

Can you agree with me that this is true?

Why is that? Perhaps you've thought about this question. I have and admit I have no completely satisfying answer other than: the sin of pride.

My personal political views are not popular: I'm close to a Gladstone liberal. There are probably three more like me in the whole US. But I have to say that while I have no brief for the so-called conservatives in the US, there is no way I would want to be identified with the leftists in this country, either, particularly those who claim to be Christian.

I have non-Christian friends and colleagues who are left-leaning, and we get along famously.

I have never been treated with such contempt as I have among liberal, leftist Christians. Conservatives think I'm naive politically, and laugh at me, but they don't mind having me around. The leftists think I'm evil and won't even extend the right hand of fellowship to me. In fact, I was asked to stop visiting the liberal Christian web site I've mentioned before.

You write a lot about the US, and I think you are somewhat blinkered in your criticisms of evangelical conservatives. Have you found the situation Australia to be anything like what I've described?

One Salient Oversight said...

Have you met people who read Hayek for spiritual guidance? I never have. Yet I find he has valuable insights on economics.

No one I know reads Hayek for spiritual guidance. Nevertheless I would argue that much of his thinking has been disseminated throughout society, including Christian society.

And, of course, it's not as though he was completely wrong. Hayek has a lot of very good things to say.

But at least I can differentiate between what is Christian and what is modern philosophy. That's why I'm lefty who doesn't preach that Christianity = left wing politics.

The Cartoon - I will point out that for many years the conservatives had America's ear. Look at right wing media people like O'Reilly or Hannity or Limbaugh. There's no popular lefty that comes close to their level of popularity. I would argue that it was the conservatives in the US, not the Liberals, who started accusing the other side in such base terms. They're happy to impeach Clinton but would reject any proposal to impeach Bush.

You write a lot about the US, and I think you are somewhat blinkered in your criticisms of evangelical conservatives.

I only react to what I read - specifically the Christian guy who told me in his comments section that "Picking my pocket at gunpoint to satisfy your charitable notions is not a Biblical procedure". I react to the person on the Christian message board who told me that I had "lost the truth" because I do not support American gun laws. I react to official papers released by some Christian organisation arguing that small government is biblical and that those who oppose it are not obeying God.

Have you found the situation Australia to be anything like what I've described?

I think you may be asking about Australian evangelicalism. No doubt we Aussie Christians take the lead from our American brethren, and there are quite a few evangelicals in Australia who fit into the "Conservative politics" box and who argue that Christians must vote accordingly.

However there are many Christians who are not at all affected by this form of political discourse. I spent over ten years - during my 20s - in a large Evangelical church in Sydney. At no point was politics talked about - not just in terms of partisanship, but also in terms of ideology. There was no explicit teaching, or implicit assumption, that permeated Christian discourse towards conservative politics or conservative political ideology.

Evangelicalism in America is made up of three (basic) strands: Fundamentalism, Revivalism and Calvinism. As you are no doubt aware, the Calvinists are probably the weakest while the Fundies (a broad term I use to describe those in the SBC and more conservative Baptist circles) are the strongest.

Here in Australia the Fundies are probably the smallest evangelical group. Dispensationalism, Premillennialism and Arminianism are around but not altogether in a church body (like the SBC). Consequently, the most influential evangelicals are the revivalists - the Penetcostals and the Charismatics - while the Calvinists (in the form of Sydney Anglicans) are quite big and influential as well.

But while Australia's Christians may number no more than 5% of our population, the other 95% are hardly what you'd call church goers. Conservative politics in Australia does have its religious influences, but nowhere near as powerful or as widespread as you guys have in the US. Australia's church going died in the 1960s, so our society today - including conservatives - are not explicitly Christian.

Take Pauline Hanson. Hanson was a populist ultra-conservative who shook Australian politics from about 1996-2000. She was about as conservative as you could be in Australia without being a Nazi. Despite her popularity, Hanson never used or embraced anything resembling Christianity. Even Conservative Australians aren't too happy with people who talk about God all the time.

One Salient Oversight said...

Have you found the situation Australia to be anything like what I've described?

I re-read it. No. You're talking about right vs left in Australia.

There is always a negativity on both sides of politics towards the other side. I would say, though, that what occurs in the US is quite a few magnitudes beyond what we have here in Australia.

For starters, the two major parties - the Liberal/National Coalition (Right wing, Republican like) and the Australian Labor Party (left wing, Democrat like) have a lot in common and share many common policies.

There are many conservatives in Australia would would like us to reduce government spending in areas like public health and public education. However, despite 11 years of Conservative rule, public spending, while it has decreased in proportion to the economy, has not resulted in a great deal of harm to public health and education. In other words, the conservatives did enough to win the middle of politics. They were fiscally responsible too, which is interesting.

The ALP, despite being the leftist party, is the one who started Australia's economic transformation between 1983 and 1996 towards a more market-friendly environment.

So while in public the two sides will spar and attack each other, it does not seem to be at the same level of vehemence that goes on in the US, mainly because the two parties are closer than many people realise.

There may be many reasons for this. One of which is probably the preferential voting system that rewards political parties who take the centre, rather than having "first past the post" which can result in quite polarised politics.

Of course, Australia has its own conservative "shock jocks" and conservative and liberal newspaper columnists, and liberals prefer Fairfax while conservatives prefer News Limited (Murdoch).

So yes there are similarities in the way our politics run.

But, to be honest with you, I find Australian politics boring. American politics is far more interesting - not to mention more influential in how Australians live.

One Salient Oversight said...

One more thing. I think "pork" here in Australia doesn't go as far, and is not as pervasive. We have no "bridge to nowhere" but politicians do tend to get donations from local businesspeople to relax laws on them.

It happens - but not to the same extent.

BLBeamer said...

Nevertheless I would argue that much of his thinking has been disseminated throughout society, including Christian society.

Have you seen anyone who actually endorses Hayek's views because they are Biblical? I never have.

The US is largely a capitalist and entrepreneurial society, so it makes sense that Hayek's views would be widely disseminated, among Christians or otherwise. I don't believe Hayek's views are anti-Biblical, do you?

I will point out that for many years the conservatives had America's ear. Look at right wing media people like O'Reilly or Hannity or Limbaugh. There's no popular lefty that comes close to their level of popularity.

There's no accounting for taste. I can't stand O'Reilly. Hannity drives me crazy. I don't listen to Limbaugh. But Limbaugh in particular only took advantage of a niche that was underserved - I don't think they can be credited with inventing their audience ex nihilo. I don't know why right wingers seem to do better on talk radio than left wingers do, but if you think there are no left wing or even leftish media voices in the US, then you are fooling yourself, Neil.

I only react to what I read

Yep, there are idiots everywhere. I can't believe you have never run across any on the left, though.

I would argue that it was the conservatives in the US, not the Liberals, who started accusing the other side in such base terms.

As someone who is just old enough to remember the nasty things LBJ supporters said about Barry Goldwater and vividly remembers the slurs repeated about Ronald Reagan, I must respectfully disagree.

But scurrilous charges against political opponents in the US go back to at least the election of 1800 between Adams and Jefferson.

BLBeamer said...

As you are no doubt aware, the Calvinists are probably the weakest while the Fundies (a broad term I use to describe those in the SBC and more conservative Baptist circles) are the strongest.

I maintain that Arminians are the strongest and the fundies second. The fundies are second only because many of them are Arminians.

I agree that Calvinists are weakest here.

At no point was politics talked about - not just in terms of partisanship, but also in terms of ideology.

I can honestly say that with the exception of an issue like abortion, for obvious reasons, the same goes for me. And I attended a conservative Baptist church for almost ten of those years. (I told you our choices were limited when we moved here).

BLBeamer said...

American politics is far more interesting

And nothing is more infuriating. I'm glad you find our politics interesting. I find them embarrassing, insulting, humiliating and almost irrelevant.

Michael said...

--Of course, Australia has its own conservative "shock jocks" and conservative and liberal newspaper columnists, and liberals prefer Fairfax while conservatives prefer News Limited (Murdoch).--
Not necessarily (I'm a Conservative who prefers Fairfax; Murdoch strikes me as too Bonapartist.)

Regards,
Michael Canaris
http://canaris1.wordpress.com

One Salient Oversight said...

And nothing is more infuriating. I'm glad you find our politics interesting. I find them embarrassing, insulting, humiliating and almost irrelevant.

As I said, the reason why I am interested so much in US politics is because America influences much of the world through its actions and its policies. Even though we in the international community have no vote, we are all stakeholders in the US.

Moreover, I also see the potential for good that exists within your system of government. It's not all bad - but all forms of politics have a level of embarrassment to it that is unique to the culture that it grows from.

Which is why I like to see structural changes of constitutions taking place - including America's. The framework that surrounds the US political system has essentially produced the sort of politics you see today. I am absolutely certain that, come 2008 when Democrats control the White House and Congress, that deals will be made and money exchanged that will corrupt individuals and afflict decision making. Same problems, different party.

Wishing for constitutional change may not necessarily be the realm of progressives - it may also be the desire of conservatives as well. I mentioned a few months back about the electoral college and how it has surpassed its usefulness in US elections. Removing the electoral college and replacing it with either a first-past-the-post or preferential voting system is not something that has to be opposed by conservatives, since the intention of the voting system still fits in with basic democratic functions.

But, then again, the only thing I can do is keep pushing Demarchy as a more efficient and less political form of government.

dac said...

great post