All Hands on Deck

This month we look at case studies of four major issues: poverty, the environment, public health, and obstacles to disaster relief. In each of these, the role played by the government is in dispute because of differences in political philosophy and political theology in the churches. As E.J. Dionne Jr.'s article in this issue points out, the debate over the proper role of government has become one of the biggest schisms in the church today. But it doesn't need to be.

There is a biblical role for the state, just as there is for the church. And they are not the same. According to Romans 13, the state is supposed to uphold the rule of law by protecting the innocent and punishing the guilty. It suggests a clear role for the government in ensuring the common good. And when the state fulfills its role properly, it allows the church to do its work in the world. The church must become "bilingual" in speaking the evangelistic message of the kingdom of God to all that will hear and also speaking to the state about its role and responsibilities. Justice, equity, and fairness are biblical concerns for the Christian community and standards to which the government should be held to account.

One could say that people of faith should endorse a "limited" view of government. But this is not the same as the conservative argument for small government, which sometimes cynically translates as an attempt to reduce the ability of the public sector to counter the power of wealth in a society. But neither is it an argument for big government that usurps more and more control and puts in jeopardy both individual rights and countervailing powers to the state. The answer to the endless Left-Right debate is neither small nor big government, but rather effective, smart, and good government.

All three sectors of a society need to be functioning well for its health and well-being—the private (market) sector, the public sector, and the civil society (nongovernmental and nonprofit organizations, of which faith communities are a part). It is like a three-legged stool. When one leg is too long, the stool loses its balance. Each sector has crucial roles to play. Each should do what only it can do, and not replace what the others can do better. A society works when each sector does its share and does what it does best.

After Hurricane Katrina, religious communities were among the first to give practical assistance to the people of the Gulf Coast—and they did so far better and faster than every level of government. While many government agencies were exposed for their incompetence, religious communities showed both more compassion and better effectiveness. Many pointed out these facts to bolster their arguments against the role of government generally.

But while churches can bring relief, they can't rebuild levees. And if you applied the entire budgets of all our religious congregations to poverty relief, it would still fall far, far short of the need, at home and around the world. Churches can't provide health care for 46.6 million Americans who don't have it, ensure enough affordable housing for working families, provide Social Security for the elderly or a social safety net for children. Only governments, often working with the civil society, can do that. Nor can the churches provide jobs that provide a living family income for parents and their children. Only the private sector and the labor movement can assure adequate and fair employment.

Many conservative Christians have over-emphasized the role of the private sector (and perhaps have been overly suspicious of the role of government), an attitude that has flowed in part from a theology of personal piety. But, as Ron Sider explains in this issue, scripture recognizes the responsibilities of government for society, with governing authorities held accountable to biblical imperatives for "justice" and "righteousness."

I BELIEVE THE future will see a myriad of "new partnerships" formed to solve many of our social problems. That's because the problems are simply too large for one sector of society to solve. It will take all of us, finding new allies and common ground. But for those new partnerships, we will need some new thinking. Practically, this means we have to develop a strategy for the whole community, including mayors and city councils, judges and police, churches and schools, nonprofit organizations and foundations, business leaders and union officials, families and even the media.

As to who should do what, there is a principle of Catholic social teaching that can help us—it's called subsidiarity. "Subsidiarity" simply means that issues should be addressed first by the "competent authority" closest to the problem. But the same Catholic teaching says, "Larger government structures do have a role when greater social coordination and regulation are necessary for the common good."

The clear message is that overcoming poverty, for example, is not the job of only one sector; it is a shared responsibility. We have to work out a shared strategy together. In each of our local communities, and at the level of national politics, we must insist that there are public commitments, safeguards, standards, and allocations of resources that only government can accomplish or ensure. But at the same time, the vision and energy needed to overcome difficult social problems are frequently most available in what many have called the "mediating institutions" of the civil society. Why not use all our resources and institutions, and in the best possible combinations? That's the new partnership.

This "pluralist" approach to problem solving could attract great support from concerned people across the political spectrum. A new mobilization will be required on a level we haven't seen before, combining the energy of the churches and nonprofits with that of business and government. A new strategy will be required, based on empowering small-scale projects closest to the problems while tapping the moral strength of religious communities. A new collection of resources will be required, making a moral claim on public budgets but also on the profits of corporations and the purses of philanthropic institutions. Finally, a new accountability will be required, holding us all responsible for the health of our communities.

Jim Wallis is editor-in-chief of Sojourners.

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