March 24, 2005

Bush and the Biblical Role of Government

Filed under: Random Stuff — Bob Gifford @ 10:40 pm

So why is it that President Bush, Republicans in Congress, and so many conservative Christians are advocating for governmental intervention in the Schiavo case, while reducing government funding to relieve poverty and provide health care to the least of these in the US? Isn’t this a wildly inconsistent view of government? It has always seemed so to me, but the more I ponder it, the more that Bush’s policies and actions seem entirely consistent with the “biblical” role of government as interpreted by the Christian right.

What does the Christian right consider the proper bible-based role of government? From the Acton Institute for the Study of Religion and Liberty:

The state’s most fundamental role is to protect citizens from the sinful conduct of their neighbors. The Bible indicates that government is to help preserve order–people’s ability to live “peaceful and quiet lives,” in Paul’s words–in a sinful world. The state is to be a godly agent that not only allows men to follow God but also contains the harm that would occur in the absence of any public constraints on evil behavior.

So government has a biblical responsibility to protect its citizens from the criminal actions of others. Your right to swing your arm ends at my nose. This is something that both conservatives and progressives can agree upon, since it is the minimum we expect from government. Continuing on with this quote:

“The one in authority,” wrote Paul, “is God’s servant, an agent of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer” (Rom. 13:3, 4).

The interpretaton of this verse is where progressive Christians part ways from Bush and conservative Christians. If a government is inflicting cruel and immoral punishment on “wrongdoers”, whether domestic criminals or foreign state sponsors of terrorism, is it still acting as God’s servant and deserving of our loyalty and support? I think not.

What else does the bible suggest government should do? From Ellen Craswell, a one-time Washington state senator and candidate for governor:

A civil leader must decide that he will take a Scriptural view of the limited role of government in society! For example, God’s plan for welfare does not involve civil government. People who are in need of temporary help are directed to look primarily to the family (see 1 Timothy 5:3-8), secondarily to the church (see 1 Timothy 5:9-16 and Acts 6:1-2), or finally to neighbors in the community (see Leviticus 19:9-10, 23:22).

Here is the biblical justification for cutting medicare and food stamps. These needs are to be met, according to this biblical interpretation, through charity, and not by government.

These quotes, and many more like them, describe Bush’s theology regarding the role of government. Government must step in to protect Terry Schiavo from “evil behavior” of the wrongdoers that want to do her harm. The Iraq War, the Patriot Act, and Bush’s enthusiasm for the death penalty all are motivated by his desire to protect the godly from evil and punish the wrongdoers as God’s agent.

On the other hand, church, and not government, are to care for the needy and poor. Bush’s faith-based initiative, tax cuts and budget proposals are all efforts to get government out of the business of caring for the poor and the infirm, and to push this responsibility to churches and communities.

I have to admit that this view of the role of government is consistent, and it does have some scriptural basis. But of course, I disagree with this theology. I believe instead in the view expressed by the Statement on the President’s FY’06 Budget issued jointly earlier this month by the ELCA (Lutherans), the ECUSA (Episcopalians), the PCUSA (Presbyterians), the UMC (Methodists), and the UCC (the, um, Uhkers. Or is it Uhkists? 🙂 the United Church of Christ):

Some contend that works of mercy are not the business of the government but of private citizens. But in what other area of our national life do we formulate policies uninformed by our deepest values?

Some contend that with the proper support faith-based charities will step forward to fill the gap created by the government’s retreat. But this flies in the face of the lessons that we, as religious leaders, have learned first hand. Our churches operate thousands of charities from the parochial to the international. Believe us when we tell you that neither we, nor our Evangelical brothers and sisters, nor our friends of other faiths have anywhere near the resources to turn back the rising tide of poverty in this country. We know that programs, whether governmental or non-profit, can change people’s lives for the better. New situations challenge us to respond to new conditions and to support those who are in transition out of poverty. Sadly, the 2006 budget will send more people searching for food in cupboards that, quite frequently, are bare.

Our churches will continue their ameliorative ministries. But it is not enough for us as a Church or a society to be merciful. We must remember the admonition of the prophet Micah. “And what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God?” Micah’s choice of verbs is instructive. We are not to love justice or preach justice, we are to do justice—to act, and, when necessary, to struggle.

As Jim Wallis often says, the solution to bad theology is better theology, not a retreat from theology. Instead of the Bush theology, we need a theology of the prophets and of the cross that cares for the “least of these.”


  1. Thanks for the research and the insight. Very Nice!

    Comment by Greg — March 25, 2005 @ 1:40 pm

  2. Thanks, Bob. More like this!

    Comment by JasonB — March 29, 2005 @ 12:35 am

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