Commentary

The Church of the Holy Primary

This article originally appeared in National Review Online on January 12, 2004.
Former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean says he’s going to talk about his religious faith. But what’s that got to do with what kind of president he’d be?

Granted, George W. Bush is the most overtly observant Christian to hold the presidency in at least a quarter century. Retired Gen. Wesley Clark says he plans on making faith central to his campaign. The Democratic primaries also have drawn as candidates an Orthodox Jew and an ordained (Pentecostal) minister.

There’s obvious benefit in having someone who’s serious about living a moral life as president. But a few throwaway lines during a campaign don’t mean anything. After all, Bill Clinton knew how to talk about God and ostentatiously carried a Bible to church. He just didn’t know how to live his purported faith.

Howard Dean’s proclaimed religious fidelity looks equally convenient. He left the Episcopal Church because of a dispute over construction of a local bike path a quarter century ago. Since then his Christian commitment has not been much in evidence.

Now he says that his faith led him to sign Vermont’s civil-unions law, suggesting an interesting interpretation of Scripture. But he criticizes President Bush for letting religious belief influence the latter’s decision limiting stem-cell research. Dean’s attempt to demonstrate the consistency of these opinions has not been entirely successful.

But who cares if candidates are genuine believers? In a world in which the U.S. is fighting a war on terror, dealing with exploding budget deficits, struggling with a broken health-care system, and worrying about failed public schools that can’t even keep kids safe, intelligence and common sense are more important than piety and sincerity.

Although four years ago candidate George W. Bush identified Jesus Christ as his favorite political philosopher, Christianity’s concern with politics is only indirect. Every year the transcendent claims of the Gospel suffer the indignity of being enlisted for ephemeral political causes by partisans of left and right.

However, voters should be skeptical of any politician who claims to be acting in the name of theology. The Bible sets only general boundaries for political debate. The dominant message of the Gospel, as well as of the Hebrew writings, is man’s relationship to God and one’s neighbors. The Bible gives much more guidance on how we should treat people in our everyday lives than when we should coerce them, especially through today’s secular political order.

The state’s most fundamental role is to protect citizens from the sinful conduct of their neighbors. For instance, government should help preserve order — people’s ability to live “peaceful and quiet lives,” in Paul’s words — in a sinful world (1 Timothy 2:2). But even here, the exact means of achieving Godly objectives is left to man’s discretion.

Another recurring theme is reflected in Kind David’s observation: “The Lord is righteous, he loves justice” (Psalm 11:11). Thus, government is to be a neutral arbiter that protects all men in their enjoyment of God’s blessings. It certainly is not to become a tool to rob and oppress, a constant risk in every political system, including American democracy.

In its focus on process, Godly justice and righteousness are very different from the modern notion of “social justice,” which demands equal economic and cultural outcomes. However appealing may be some proposals advanced under the rubric of “social justice,” they are not matters of Biblical justice, which guarantees a fair civil government nestled within a larger culture in which the wealthy and powerful recognize their obligation — to God — to help those in need.

In the Old Testament, the government enforced many essentially “religious” rules, and some believers want those same regulations to be enforced today since they are “God’s law.” In a different country, in a different time, it would be a mistake for Christians who live in a society dominated by nonreligious neighbors to advance civil enforcement of essentially religious strictures. In the United States today, in contrast to the ancient Israelite monarchy, our elected officials govern a disparate people of disparate beliefs. Today’s state is designed to promote civil order and public good, not religious faith and individual salvation.

It should come as no surprise, then, that on most political issues Scripture is silent. Consider poverty. God’s concern for the poor, the vulnerable, and the weak is persistent, pervasive, and powerful. Little is clearer in Scripture than the duty of believers to care for those in need.

Notably, however, the Bible does not vest this responsibility in the state. Neither does Scripture proscribe a public role, but it implies that believers should fulfill their individual and corporate responsibilities before turning to government, and any state programs should not violate other biblical norms, such as family formation.

About many other current public controversies, like war in Iraq, tax cuts, corporate accounting rules, the Export-Import Bank, and bike paths in Vermont, the Bible offers little specific guidance. Rather, these usually are more matters of prudence than principle and fall within the permissive area of government activity. God has chosen to leave the issue up to us rather than to express his own preference.

Is Howard Dean really a Christian? The answer doesn’t have much to do with his — or anyone else’s — qualifications to be president.

On most political issues, God provides us with principles to be applied with wisdom, rather than specific answers. Indeed, part of our Christian walk appears to be to work out our faith as we attempt to resolve problems in community with others.

In fact, believers’ most important duties lie beyond politics. Pope John II pointed to the importance of “a strong juridical framework which places [capitalism] at the service of human freedom in its totality and which sees it as a particular aspect of that freedom, the core of which is ethical and religious.” Government can provide the juridical framework, but the church — the world body of Christian believers — must help provide the ethical and religious core. For Christians politics is an important, but never the most important, calling.

Doug Bandow is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute and the author of several books, including Beyond Good Intentions: A Biblical View of Politics and The Politics of Envy: Statism as Theology.