This essay continues the Christian Theology and Public Policy Course by John Cobin, author of the books Bible and Government and Christian Theology of Public Policy. This column is the first segment of a two-part series dealing with Christian civic duty.
All Christians should be activists, although what each individual Christian decides to do politically should be left to the liberty of his conscience. Christians can make a difference through many means, such as petitioning the government for a redress of grievances, voting, participating in public meetings and informational lectures, writing to elected officials, and participating in jury duty. All of these activities are costly to Christians, not only in terms of incidental expenses incurred but also in terms of time. Accordingly, engaging in some political activities might seem to make no sense—at least theoretically—unless we begin to view them in a different light.
For example, voting is always futile in the sense that there is virtually no chance that any individual vote can change the outcome of a major election. The expected cost exceeds the expected benefit. Yet voting makes more sense for a Christian activist once other accrued benefits are considered. Economic efficiency is reached when the benefits of activism are elevated in our minds through exalting the importance of spreading the truth, standing up for principles, and transforming our society by heralding the fundamental rights that America’s Founders held dear. To the extent that voting can help accomplish these things or encourage virtue it becomes a net benefit to a Christian (i.e., the benefit exceeds the cost).
Of course some political action remains out-of-bounds. For instance, Christians should generally not be involved in working for immoral state bureaus including welfare distribution, public education, and agencies that defy fundamental rights. By and large, Christians should not back any proactive policy either by working for a bureau that implements such policies or by voting for their creation or extension. The same restriction applies to working for or patronizing most public enterprises and state-run industries.
Nevertheless, Christians have warrant to exercise political rights when it is expedient to do so. The Apostle Paul used his political clout as a Roman citizen both when he employed his rights and when he “appealed to Caesar” (Acts 16:37-38; 22:25-26; 25:11; 28:19). Christians may thus likewise make use of political means to declare and affirm that the inalienable rights of life, liberty, and property (or the pursuit of happiness) are fundamental rights,(1) derived antecedent to the existence of the state. They can advocate that the state does not grant such fundamental rights. On the contrary, the primary reason that government is formed is to protect these rights. The American Founders clearly understood that no man holds his fundamental rights at the pleasure of the state.
Christian activists should work to spell out these fundamental rights in particular. First, all human beings share equally in the right to life, and the state may not abridge the right to life of any particular human being (or class of human beings) “without due process of law” and subsequent conviction of a capital offense. Second, all human beings share equally in the right to liberty, and the state may not forcibly enslave, conscript, or incarcerate a human being “without due process of law” and subsequent conviction of a crime. Third, all human beings share equally in the right to hold and enjoy property, so long as their pursuit of happiness does not infringe upon the rights of others, and the Constitution prohibits government from taking private property “for public use, without just compensation”.(2)
Since Christians are required to “overcome evil with good” (Romans 12:21), they should be at the forefront of the battle to save their fundamental rights from being taken away by the wayward state and its evil policies. Accordingly, American Christians might choose to organize or participate in First Amendment protests to that end. They might also “break the law” in order to preserve life. (A strong case can be made from Proverbs 24:11-12 (3) that justifies abortion clinic protesting with groups like Operation Rescue.)
And here’s another biblically-based maxim apropos to Christian social conduct: The truth is never owed to a criminal. Accordingly, any statute requiring the disclosure of privileged information may be violated by Christians in order to prevent the state from committing crimes. If a robber enters your home and demands to know if you have any gold you do not have to tell him the truth. If Hitler’s men ask you if you have any Jews you do not have to tell them the truth. If an extortive taxing authority that accomplishes evil policies hopes for voluntary disclosure of your earnings (that you can avoid by some means), you do not have a duty to tell them the whole “truth” about your income.
The taxpaying requirement set forth in Romans 13:6-7 refers to circumstances in which paying a tax is demanded by the state on-the-spot, and where noncompliance would inevitably expose a Christian to facing the state’s “wrath” — not to mention cause him much anxiety. Note that Jesus Christ was not worried about His tax liability (Matthew 17:27), even though (being God) He knew it existed. He might even have opposed paying taxes (Luke 23:2). He certainly manifested no qualms over avoiding taxes.
Christians overcome evil with good by proclaiming the truth and living a life that glorifies the Lord. On occasion, being valiant-for-truth involves exercising political rights or even breaking the state’s rules. Yet God is honored as Christians spread goodness and expose or cast out evil state policies.
(1) These rights are set forth in the Declaration of Independence and the Fifth Amendment (Bill of Rights) to the Constitution.
(2) Such public uses include highways, dams, bridges, government office buildings, military installations, and similar public projects. Other uses such as increasing local tax revenues, clearing urban blight, removing church buildings, promoting urban development, and similar proactive “public interest” or “public welfare” schemes are not contemplated in the phrase “for public use”. The phrase “just compensation” refers to market value based on comparable properties, and would not preclude the government from paying relocation expenses. Of course, such loopholes are constitutional matters, but in terms of a Christian ideal there should be no eminent domain policy at all. If the government needs real property for some project then let its bureaucrats go to a realtor like other people do. Christian activists might shoot for the ideal of eliminating eminent domain. At the same time, they might fight to at least preserve the constitutional restrictions, in light of the dangerous popular “living interpretation” of modern courts.
(3) Proverbs 24:11-12: “Deliver those who are drawn toward death, and hold back those stumbling to the slaughter. If you say, ‘Surely we did not know this,’ Does not He who weighs the hearts consider it? He who keeps your soul, does He not know it? And will He not render to each man according to his deeds?”
Originally published in The Times Examiner on October 26, 2005.