The Common Good

The Bible is Neither Conservative or Liberal

Beliefnet invited Jim Wallis for a "blogalogue" with David Klinghoffer, author of How Would God Vote? Why the Bible Commands You to Be a Conservative. Here's Jim's response to David's first post, "Let's Clarify the Politics of the Bible."

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Thanks for your post, David. I'm looking forward to this discussion with you.

You claim that the Bible has a conservative rather than liberal worldview. I would suggest that the Bible is neither "conservative" nor "liberal" as we understand those terms in a political context today. I have written about what I call "prophetic" politics that leads to a fourth option -- neither liberal, conservative, or libertarian. It is traditional or conservative on issues of family values, sexual integrity, and personal responsibility, while being progressive, populist, or even radical on issues like poverty and racial justice. It affirms good stewardship of the earth and its resources, supports gender equality, and is more internationally minded than nationalist -- looking first to peacemaking and conflict resolution when it comes to foreign policy questions, instead of bowing to the habit of war.

Yet in all those areas, the Bible does not prescribe specific policies on the issues facing us today. While we can use scripture as a normative vision, we must, as the National Association of Evangelicals puts it, "do detailed social, economic, historical, jurisprudential, and political analysis. Only if we deepen our Christian vision and also study our contemporary world can we engage in politics faithfully and wisely."

Let's take the issue of taxes that you raise. We cannot simply use historical texts from the Egyptian or Hebrew monarchies of 3,000 years ago as a policy prescription for the 21st-century United States. But, as a preacher, I couldn't resist looking at the texts. Genesis 47 is after a famine, when the people had lost all their land. Joseph proposes that they return to farming the land and give one-fifth to Pharaoh. Their response was "You have saved our lives! We are grateful to my lord and we shall be serfs to Pharaoh." The condition of serfdom was certainly better than starvation. In 1 Samuel 8, the point of the story is not the 10 percent rate that the king will take, but that the king will give it to his "eunuchs and courtiers" rather than benefiting the society. And in 1 Kings 12, the complaint of the Israelites is about forced labor, not taxation. In the dialogue, they ask Rehoboam to "lighten the harsh labor," to which he replied, "My father made your yoke heavy, but I will add to your yoke." It wasn't taxes at issue.

But deeper than that, you say that people should be responsible for how they spend their money. The ideal of democracy is the collective will of the people speaking through their elected representatives. Our polity is certainly flawed. But I'd be willing to do a test. Let's ask the people if they'd rather have spent more than $500 billion over the last five years on jobs, education, health care, and housing, or on the war in Iraq. I'd be willing to accept the result, would you?

The problem is that our taxes are dreadfully misused, not that they exist. In the 2008 discretionary budget (excluding Social Security and Medicare), the Defense Department plus the additional spending specifically for the Iraq war is 60 percent of the budget. Every other function of the federal government receives 40 percent. The problem, David, is priorities, not taxes. In the 1 Samuel passage you cited, the first warning about a king is about his warmaking: "He will take your sons and appoint them as his charioteers and horsemen."

Let's move to a specific issue -- overcoming poverty. There are now 36.5 million people below the official poverty line ($20,614 for a family of four). In looking for the appropriate policies to deal with that problem, I apply two fundamental principles of Catholic social teaching. First, the common good -- what benefits the society as a whole, particularly the weakest and most vulnerable; and subsidiarity -- every problem should be dealt with at the lowest possible level.

There are three sectors of society that have a role in overcoming poverty to which we can apply the principle of subsidiarity. Faith-based and community organizations have a role -- local congregations and organizations, and national denominations and organizations. Government at all levels has a role -- local, state, and national. The private sector has a role -- small businesses and large national corporations, along with labor unions.

The challenge in overcoming poverty is to find the appropriate role for each level of each sector with a unified strategy. It is true that local congregations can provide mentoring and support networks for people in ways that government never could. But congregations cannot provide health insurance for 47 million people, jobs for the 8.5 million who are unemployed, and housing for the millions who have lost their homes through foreclosure. That requires efforts from government and the private sector.

Charity, as you propose in your book, is important, David. But good public policy for government and a committed private sector are also important. Wouldn't you agree?

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