The Common Good

The Family Research Council, Wolves, and Shepherds' Clothing

100316-frcIn a recent Family Research Council e-mail, in an article titled, "Rev. Wallis: Wolf in Shepard's [sic] Clothing?" Tony Perkins aligned himself with Fox News commentator Glenn Beck's recent attacks. Perkins said:

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the term "social justice" has become a code-term used by the Religious Left to mean everything from socialized medicine to redistribution of income. Their argument goes like this: Since God wants Christians to show compassion to the poor, government should work to meet the needs of everyone. ...

Last week, talk show host Glenn Beck said on his program, "I beg you, look for the words 'social justice' or 'economic justice' on your church website. If you find it, run as fast as you can." To which Jim Wallis, a leader of the Religious Left, responded that Beck "attacks the very heart of our Christian faith, and Christians should no longer watch his show." Wallis's comments indicate how deeply Beck's comments cut. He has been the Left's main proponent of merging the biblical idea of justice with the liberal agenda to transform America into a place where the government orchestrates all facets of the economy.

Now, let me see if I got this right. Within the broader Christian tradition, there are a range of reasonable positions that have been held on the relationship between private and public roles in caring for the least of these. As I have written about in detail before, there are plenty of biblical reasons to conclude that God intends governments to be involved in care for the least. That God ordains governmental institutions is crystal clear, that God's agenda elevates care for the least to one of the highest concerns is similarly clear. Seems odd to think, then, that God intends governments not be involved in care for the least.

Reasonable people have embraced this position, and reasonable people have held Tony's. Don't misunderstand me: at the end of the day, one of these positions is right and one is wrong, and I am confident that Tony's is wrong. However, does Tony really think that a disagreement on this point means that the other should be characterized as a "wolf in shepherd's clothing" -- complete with a cartoon of a drooling, fang-toothed caricature? Is that the best we can do? Has our culture-speak so deteriorated to the point that we must demonize those who disagree with us, rather than engaging their positions in some detail?

Now, having pushed back on the failure in civility, let me move more to the substance of the argument. First, Tony claims:

The Bible teaches that the state has a very limited role, a view reflected in the Constitution.

Sadly, Tony does not provide us with any "proof texts" here, and it does seem his position has become what Stan Hauerwas calls "American civil religion" -- a position that confuses being American with being Christian. I would rather hear Tony give me his theological argument. He goes on to observe:

the failed social programs of the past 40 years have shown, when Big Government usurps the role of churches, private charities, and voluntary associations, it creates dependence on programs that just don't work.

Interesting. Is Tony suggesting we do away with Social Security? Is that one of the "failed social programs" he has in mind? One only need look at poverty rates among the elderly before and after the inception of Social Security to draw a different conclusion. Medicare? Is that another failure he has in mind? Again, a simple look at access to health care for the elderly before and after its inception tells another story. And, of course, the idea that government "usurped the role of the churches" is historically absurd. Governments did not get involved because care for the least was going so well, but rather because it was not.

As I note, there are folks who read scripture as Tony does, and I'd love for him to tell us his theological arguments. But it really would be cool if we could have a debate about ideas that don't involve trying to score cheap rhetorical points by moving to name calling and personal attacks.

Chuck Gutenson is the chief operating officer for Sojourners.

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