Thursday, September 20, 2012

Is There a Christian Economic Policy?

One of the dramatic changes in America that has taken place in my lifetime is the shifting political  allegiance of evangelicals. Growing up in Kentucky, most people I had anything to do with were self-described evangelicals, and most were Democrats. They believed in traditional moral values, a strong national defense, and an economic policy that was fair to "the working man." They typically held Republicans in suspicion as servants of wealthy special interests like corporations, and believed that New Deal programs saved the county from the economic ruin of the Depression.

In the election of 1976, Jimmy Carter carried the majority of the evangelical vote. Who would have guessed then that he would be the last Democratic presidential candidate to do so? My interest in politics awakened just as Ronald Reagan put together coalition of pro-business Republicans and blue-collar Democrats to sweep Carter out of office in 1980. I have fond memories of representing him in my junior high school mock debate and election (which my friend representing Carter won, as Carter did my home county).

Since that time, the two major parties have moved poles apart on certain social issues like abortion and gay rights, solidifying the majority share of the evangelical vote captured by the GOP. I know many people who were raised Democrat, and may still be registered Democrat, but haven't voted for a Democrat in a federal election for a long time because of those issues.

However, many evangelicals (particularly in the South) have also adopted a view of economic policy much different than that of their grandparents, favoring lower taxes, less government spending on poverty programs, and fewer federal regulations on business. Perhaps this reflects the greater prosperity of my generation. After all, it is understandable why those who lived in the grinding poverty of the Depression favored federal assistance, and why those who now work very hard to enjoy the good life of middle class prosperity would be less inclined to support taxes and social programs.

BUT - and here is where I would love some friendly discussion -  is it possible that those who  have shifted to the GOP because of biblical concerns about social issues unwittingly assumed that the GOP's policies on economic matters must also be more biblical? Does a commitment to the authority of Scripture demand a commitment to conservative economic policy?

I don't think so.

Here is a quick summary of what I think the Bible says about economics:

  1. The Bible teaches that all of the created order is a gift of God to be enjoyed with thanksgiving (Gen. 1:31; 1 Tim. 4:4).
  2. Humanity has been given the task to be stewards of what God has created (Gen. 1:26). Work is a good and necessary responsibility as stewards (Gen. 2:15; Eccles. 2:24; 2 Thess. 3:10-11).
  3. Both Old and New Testaments prohibit stealing, implicitly teaching that God favors the right to personal property (Ex. 20:15; Rom. 13:9-10; Eph. 4:28). This right is not absolute in view of points 1 and 2.
  4. When God established Israel as a nation, He gave Israel's tribes a portion of land to live on as a gift and inheritance (Deut. 15:4). They were to share what they had with the poor and the sojourner, allowing gleaning of their land (Lev. 23:22), and collecting a tithe every three years to be distributed in towns and villages to the needy (Deut. 26:11-13). In cases of poverty which forced a family to sell property and/or go into indentured servitude, a family member who could do so was to redeem the person or property (Lev. 25:23-55). If there was no redeemer, every 50 years all debts were wiped clean, and property returned to the original family (Lev. 25:8-12). And if money was loaned, no interest was to be charged (Ex. 22:25).
  5. God emphatically ordered those who were in positions of authority (judges, kings) to do justice for the poor and powerless (Ex. 23:6; Deut. 24:14; Ps. 72:2-4) and a million other passages).
  6. In the NT, since Christianity is not a theocracy like ancient Israel, there is no explicit set of instructions given for what we call civil law.
  7. In addition to reiterating personal property rights and stewardship, the NT does teach that Christians should be hard workers, willing to share with fellow Christians and non-Christians (Eph. 4:28; Gal. 6:10; James 2:14-16; 1 John 3:16-17).
  • The one time in history God ordained government policies regarding economics (Israel under the Law of Moses), He took many steps to insure there was not going to be multi-generational poverty in the land (no interest on loans, tithes and gleaning for the poor; Jubilee debt forgiveness).
  • In the New Testament, assistance to the poor was common, though done within a context of grace rather than coercion (notice especially Acts 5:4).
  • Both testaments warn about the corrupting nature of wealth, and about the oppression and exploitation of the poor (James 5:1-6; 1 Tim. 6:10-17).
My conclusions
  1. Based on this analysis, it is hard for me to argue that the Bible demands a view of economic policy that is either liberal or conservative. 
  2. I do think that the Leviathan of government always poses a potential threat to Christianity, because worldly powers are always seeking to supplant God as the focus of love, loyalty, and obedience. Leviathan does this by creating and sustaining a dependency class. But Mammon is another power that challenges God for supremacy, so I don't think this point favors one side or the other of the political spectrum.
  3. I also think the admiration I have heard many Christians express for Ayn Rand is seriously misguided, considering she was a virulent opponent of Christianity because of its emphasis on mercy and altruism. 
  4. I think that that great danger of all ideology is that it substitutes good intentions for reality. 
Well, there you have my take on whether there is a Christian economic policy. What is your take? I'd love to have a great discussion!


  1. I agree with you 100%. The “safety net” provisions of the Law of Moses are very striking, and wouldn’t be popular among conservatives today. I’m afraid that many Christians also miss the boat on environmental and animal rights issues, not to mention believing that God desires all people to be part of a democratic republic.

    Back to economics, one of the problems with social programs is their abuse (the sad reality of the good intention.) I have wondered how the Jews dealt with abuse of the mandated provisions for the poor. What would keep a lazy person from getting up every day and finding food in their neighbor’s field? Sluggards were as common then as now as evidenced in the wisdom literature. Perhaps this kept the judges of their day busy.

    1. I don't agree that conservatives have a problem with the Mosaic ideas about safety nets. They have a problem with those safety net being the responsibility of government as opposed to an individual responsibility. Government creates a culture of ongoing dependency in exchange for political power instead of helping people as needed to get thru rough patches and back to self-sufficiency.

  2. Tommy here...

    Shane, my big take away from this is that I agree with you about Ayn Rand. The funny part is that (and you know this already) I am a non-believer, and know many non-believers. The vast majority of the non-believers that I know absolutely abhor her take on capitalism, and many ONLY agree with her with regard to her non-belief in a deity. Capitalism is not only not a Christian principle, it is also not an atheistic one. It's really "a-religious" instead of "unreligious."

  3. I, as a NT Christian, think that the spreading of wealth to the poor should be done on an individual basis, not forced by government. This is what Jesus taught. This is why Ayn Rand had a revolutionary viewpoint on government and their taking complete control of their citizens. If we allow government to force us into "sharing" our wealth, we allow them to move further left as to abolish our rights to come together on a Sunday to worship Christ. If you haven't seen this already happening, you are missing the point. I am for Ayn Rand's position, not based on whether she is a Christian or not, but because she delineates the role of government, which should have nothing to do with our lives as Christians. In all said, isn't that what the left would want anyway?

    1. Hi Chris
      Thanks for your comment. A couple of responses. First, would you agree that what God established for Israel was just? Even though the OT clearly endorsed personal property rights, they were not absolute. And every three years the Israelites gathered a tithe to share with the Levites (who did not own land), and the poor and sojourners. Income was taken from one group and redistributed to those who did not have any. So in principle, I cannot argue this is wrong, since God did it! :-) Further, in a democracy, if the will of the people is that we work toward the general welfare of our fellow countrymen by helping them out collectively, that is not "forced by the government." THat is democracy in action in a republic like ours. Finally, Ayn Rand's philosophy elevates the individual above all. There is of course danger to the other extreme (the collective above all), but would you not agree that her extreme view of individualism which makes altruism EVIL is wring as well?

    2. I don't normally comment -- and came over from Jesus Creed -- but I really do believe that many people who have not tried to really understand where Any Rand is coming from just do not understand how she has defined her terms ... and that makes all the difference.

      Don't have time to go further, but do check out what she means by altruism and individualism and selfishness -- you will find that are not the straw men commonly believed.

      One must be Bereran in all areas of searching for the truth -- and that requires effort toward understanding the position of the other before making a judgment. I don't buy all of Rand's ideas, but she has some powerful ones that resonate very strongly as almost prophetic in terms of the American experiment with our representative republic.

      Be blessed....

  4. Awesome Shane. Great thought and prayer went into this piece and it is great for a basis of discussion. As I look out on the landscape of both sides, taking into account actions versus words, it seems to me that neither side has it completely correct. Here are my thoughts, place them in whatever category you see fit.

    I believe that the bible teaches us to take care of each other. That means we as individuals can help each other by donating money and time to charitable organizations. This also includes our local churches who may have direct outreach programs. Or we can support our neighbor directly. I have read a few stories of some of the things that Mr Romeny has performed and it is very Christian and is an example how we can be of service to our neighbor.

    I think where conservatives are moving is to limit governments guidance in our lives and attempting to set it's moral design on us. That becomes a danger in my opinion...regardless of party in power.

    What we as a country need is to protect each of us' OPPORTUNITY to either succeed or fail. We cannot ensure results of course, but protect the OPPORTUNITY.

    If we follow the guides that we learned in grade school and/or Sunday school, we will be much better off. Share with your neighbor...Love each other...Respect each other...Do unto others...etc.

    1. Hi Chris-
      Thanks for your comment! One of the things that struck me about the tithe law in Deut is that (if I am reading it right), the aid for the poor was distributed locally, "in your cities." The way look at it is that extreme right people don't think anyone should be helped collectively, and extreme left people think they should - but through massive, centralized government. It seems to me that the Law struck the middle ground - aid for the poor, locally administered community by community.

  5. Hi Shane, a figure I learned from a reliable source a few years ago is that if you take all the tithing, sacrifices which were used to feed the Levites, etc, the average Israelite paid about 40% of his income in taxes. When I heard that I really had to stop and think about my view of taxation in the modern American culture. We have nothing to complain about frankly as citizens.

    Add to that the inherent problem of deficits and the wisdom found in the Psalms, Proverbs, and Ecclesiates about not owing aanother because in so doing you just mortgaged your very life to another and I'll admit I am no longer on the "reduce my taxes" train anymore.

    1. And to add to what you said, isn't leaving huge debts for future generations to pay a moral issue as well?

  6. Shane - well reasoned and cited discussion. My less-reasoned and cited view is that God commands Christians to personally be generous and charitable. I believe that the way the Bible instructs Jews and Christians to do this is anonymously lest charity become a means for self-aggrandization. Churches and Synogogues can help with that. The idea of charity is not to build oneself up, but to glorify God by following His commands to help the needy.

    Without citing sources, I have heard recent statistics that indicate that all those stingy conservatives give more both nomimal dollars and percentage of their earnings to charitable causes than do liberals. This may stem from the conservative belief in self-reliance and individual duty to society as opposed to a liberal statist belief system that requires that other people be taxed so that the government can care for the needy. The undesirable side effect of this is that the needy have a tendency to become dependents of the government instead of using the help they receive to get back on their own feet (exceptions abound).

    Conclusion - I believe that the conservative approach to caring for the needy represents the Biblical approach over the government-dependency approach.

    1. Tom it is definitely the case that more religious people are more giving - which makes sense in light of the ethic found in all three major faiths to love your neighbor. And it is also true that government can create dependency. But at the same time, there is a place for wise and prudent assistance for the poor by the government. Figuring out how best to adminster this is another matter.

  7. Excellent thoughts.

    People of all nations are to participate in the Kingdom of God (Galatians 3:28, Colossians 3:11); therefore, there will be people who live under different predominant political and economic philosophies who are yet called upon to serve the same God in Christ.

    Therefore, it should not be surprising when the Bible does not suggest one particular political or economic view as all-important. Politics and economics are all about philosophy; no earthly philosophy fully and accurately reflects the will of God in Christ because they all must operate within the realm of the real, and the real must address sin and the challenges that come because of it. Utopian ideals are impossible in a sinful world, and woe to that people upon whom some sort of utopian ideal is attempted to be imposed!

    Jesus is truth; we must be rooted in Christ in all things, including within political and economic opinions (Colossians 2:1-8).

  8. While I am not "churched," I am a believer. The last time I checked, Jesus was neither a liberal or a conservative. He is the Son of God, and it is up to all of us to live (or at least strive to live) as he did. I am ALL ABOUT charitable giving, helping the less fortunate get the proverbial leg up, etc. I am NOT for generational, government fed welfare. Nor do I think Jesus would have been. While some of us were blessed with better circumstances than others, I do not believe it is the government's job to allow people to live off of state/federal support for life. If we were (in my opinion) to be TRULY Christian in our economic policy, we would revert welfare to its original goal: helping people in times of uncertainty and strife. I also believe that if the government TRULY wanted to help people in their time of need, they would give them the monetary support needed in the short term while giving opportunities to better their situation (job training, etc.) in the long term, allowing the individual to prosper for themselves. That seems more Christian to me than keeping someone stuck in a cycle of dependency.

    1. Kerry I agree - the old cliche is "a hand up not a hand out."

  9. Separation of Church and State. Religion and politics have become completely intertwined and it is the reason there is so much vitriol and hate being spewed. Economic policy should not be built for ALL people based on a book that not all of the people believe in.

    1. Sheri, since you're rejecting "a book," presumably the Bible, as the standard, what do you purpose as the standard by which proposed economic policies are to be measured?

    2. Hi Sheri
      Your post is a little off-target since this is more of a discussion presuming that we should be interested in whether the Bible has an economic policy. However, a good future discussion would be whether the Bible should be taken into account for any public policy. And spoiler alert from my point of view: don't be so eager to separate religion from politics unless you are prepared to explain why human beings have rights and should be treated with respect without using any religious justification for this view.

  10. Hi Shane, I think that a lot of the opposition to liberal economics is due to the idea that they increase debt and conservatives are better stewards. As you said, the Bible is very clear that we are to be good stewards of our money, and there is a conception, that is true for democrats like FDR, Carter, Johnson, and even going back to Wilson that democrats are not particularly good stewards of money. The only one that didn't increase debt was Clinton, and it is debatable whether he or Newt Gingrich deserves credit for those reductions. Also, we have to look at who controls the purse in this country, it really isn't the President, it's the Congress. The democrats controlled the congress almost from FDR until Clinton I think. I know they did for most of the past half century. That only adds to the perception that I believe is largely correct that they are loose with money. I do think that the biggest reason for the shift is the change in social issues, but I hear a lot of Christians who say that they think it's immoral for our government to carry so much debt. I also think that a lot of Christians are now of the belief that based on Reagan's policies that lower taxes equal more revenue as was demonstrated not just by Reagan but by Calvin Coolidge in the 1920's. Coolidge lowered taxes by 50% on the highest earners and paid off most of the national debt in 6 years with increased revenue. We saw the same phenomenon with Reagan, but without the spending cuts of Coolidge. If one assumes as the Constitution says that Congress sets the budget, once again it is easily debated that Tip O'Neil and the democrats should shoulder the blame for increasing spending against the will of Reagan. While I don't the initial shift had really anything to do with economics but rather social issues, I do think that Christians latched on to the notion that lower taxes and more economic freedom gave them more choice in how they help the poor. Especially given that we are commanded to help the poor outside of tithing, the idea of lower taxes would appeal to Christians because they now have significantly more money to give to charities that they choose. You are right when you say that there is no implicit command as to which policies should be adhered to, but there are commands about the results of these policies. Due to this, I think it makes good sense logically that Christians associate liberal economics with debt, which is immoral according to both testaments.

    1. Great thoughts! Let's focus on the issue of debt. I have two basic comments to add. First, I don't think anyone could seriously argue that either party is interested in solving the debt crisis. George W Bush exploded the deficit problem, increasing non-military discretionary spending at record levels. And the GOP congress was absolutely complicit. Both parties have rejected the Simpson Bowles proposal, a serious and reasonable policy to reduce the debt.
      Second, we cannot assume that the tax cutting Reagan did is the right course today, because we cannot assume the situation is the same. In Reagan's day the top bracket was 70%, and inflation was 13%. This created "bracket creep" which caused people to be pushed into higher tax brackets even though they did not have real gains in spending power. But the situation is much different today. Even before the ill-advised W tax cuts, the top bracket was 39.6%, and lowered to 35%. And inflation is non-existent.
      We have created such a huge debt problem the only way out will be a combination of taxes and enormous spending cuts - and the extreme wings of both parties adamantly oppose these remedies.

  11. Amen Shane. I have thought for years that we ought to vote based upon moral issues. The economic debate will continue as long as this world does. There are principles one both sides that are good and evil (based upon Biblical values). Our problem as a society, is primarily our failure to respect accountability to God which for the wealthy often means greed and exploitation and for the poor it means envy, SOMETIMES laziness, and an entitlement attitude. IF we can get God back in the picture, I believe the economics will take care of themselves. Just my thoughts.

  12. Shane, in view of point 3 regarding stealing, it would be good to include Deut. 23:24-25. The law allowed for people to help themselves to their neighbor's crop within limits. Furthermore, one of the things Jesus emphasizes in the Sermon on the Mount is not to be so caught up in defending "my" property (Matt. 5:40).

  13. I completely see what you are saying, Shane.

    Another passage that has recently demonstrated this to me is Nehemiah 5 when the governor forced by law the Israelites to forgive debts and stop charging interest. As with other commenters above, I'm sure I wouldn't like being forced to do this by law, but perhaps that is what has to happen sometimes when people, especially Christians, won't behave properly on their own.

    Last election I was increasingly angered by Republican Christians telling me I had to vote for their candidate because of moral issues when McCain's prolife status was shaky at best and Palin made a pro-homosexuality statement in one of the debates. I pointed out there was another candidate who was clearly higher on the moral ground, but was told he couldn't possibly win because he was in the Constitution party. That made me really question whether these Christians really believed they were supposed to "take their Bibles into the voting booth" or if they believed they were supposed to try to vote for who would win. It also made me wonder if the prolife and anti-homosexuality candidate was the fiscally liberal Democrat, how would these Christians vote. To be honest, I think many are voting based on their pocketbooks and using the morals as the manipulative club to try to get everyone else to vote their way too.

    But more fundamentally, I wonder what would happen if we realized that the New Testament doesn't really tell us anything about civil policies and voting. Further, I wonder what would happen if we recognized that Satan is using politics to divide the spiritual nation of God's people today in America and so we decided to quit fighting about it and just preach the gospel. I also wonder what would happen if Christians spent as much time trying to convince their neighbor of the saving grace of Jesus Christ and His death as they do trying to convince them to vote for their favorite presidential candidate. Sadly, in election years I feel like too many Christians spend more time worried about getting to Washington than they do getting to heaven.

    1. We know how they voted. A man in Massachusetts won a Senate seat as a pro-choice, fiscally conservative Republican. Note: he was PRO-CHOICE. In the end, many are not voting based on conscience, but on their pocketbooks, as they have condemned the Democrats for doing for years.

  14. Great food for thought here, Shane. I noticed some good wisdom in some of the comments too! (I haven't read them all yet.)

    I didn't see if you included Mark 14:7
    7 For you always have the poor with you, and whenever you want, you can do good for them. But you will not always have me.

    This one comes to mind for me as a reason to know that those who claim that we can create a utopia are incorrect. There always seems to be more and more wisdom we can glean from the Bible to apply to every specific circumstance.

    I have never been under the impression that the Bible forces a specific form of government (democracy, monarchy, etc.) or a specific economic viewpoint for Americans... but I do find that the general wisdom it teaches can definitely be applied in honest discussion. So I do still look to it in my economic thinking and my political thinking in general.

    Perhaps it is also worthwhile to note that the Bible teaches us some about government responsibility vs. individual responsibility possibly even individual prohibitions vs government prohibitions. Or at least it appears to in my view.

  15. Hi FromScratchMom (love that name!)
    I didn't quote Mark 14:7 because I think it is a misused Scripture. I have often heard people use it (not you!) to basically justify indifference to poverty. The irony is that Jesus is quoting part of Deut. 15:11. Here is the full passage: "For there will never cease to be poor in the land. Therefore I command you, ‘You shall open wide your hand to your brother, to the needy and to the poor, in your land.’" This passage does not support indifference to the poor, but the need for constant care for the people, since it will always be a problem. Earlier in the chapter the Lord said that if Israel was obedient there would be no poor (Deut. 15:4), but since that would not be the case, they were to be charitable. And of course Jesus' point was that He was only going to be accessible a few more days, so the disciples should focus on the immediate. In many other place, Jesus spoke about helping the needy (Mark 10:21 for instance).
    The key point you made is that utopia is impossible, ultimately because of sin. So anyone who promises that the government can eradicate poverty (as liberals often do) or tyranny (as conservatives often do) are foolishly misguided.

  16. "However, many evangelicals (particularly in the South) have also adopted a view of economic policy much different than that of their grandparents, favoring lower taxes, less government spending on poverty programs, and fewer federal regulations on business."

    Some historical confusion here -- the grandparents of those who made this switch in the 1970s-80s -- were not necessarily in favor of "government spending on poverty programs"(e.g., the BIG 'poverty program' spending was of LBJ's "Great Society", in the 1960s!) And, in fact, prior to FDR, much of the Democratic Party was NOT big fans of lots of government spending (not at all really prior to Wilsonian Progressives).

    Remember too that both were big 'coalition' parties. So, the fact that NORTHERN Democrats moved in the direction of bigger government (not just $$ but in its overall role) does not mean that was the direction generally favored by the 'evangelical' SOUTHERN Democrats [though we didn't use the term 'evangelical' just yet]. In fact, this whole view of the role/size of government was ONE of the significant reasons many Southern Democrats LEFT their old party (or felt it had left them)... though obviously the rise of key "social issues" pushed the choice on them a bit more.

  17. Did you notice that these same provisions in the Law of Moses mentioned "sojourners" as well as the poor? I did a little digging, and sojourners are mentioned in several places, such as Ex. 22:21. Maybe in a follow-up post you could address the Bible and immigration.

  18. Bruce thanks for your feedback. Sorry for my lack of clarity- I was speaking of my generation (I am 45). I agree that historically, the Democratic party has at times favored limited government. However, I am not sure that was true even of southern Democrats in the early 1900s as a whole. Many southern Democrats opposed the New Deal, but many more supported it. The conservative wing of the party was still willing to support a lot of the new deal, but feuded with FDR after the court-packing fiasco. I think that what tipped many southern dems to leave the party was the civil rights issue, which in a way was about the power of the centralized government to dictate to the states, but was not really en economic issue per se.

  19. Great post. One comment re your post, and a couple comments re comments.

    (1) People admire Ayn Rand for different reasons of varying confusion. The least-confused reason is (I think) the most common among Christians: they recognize that she does a great job of making a critique of economic collectivism that works independently of her too-confused-to-be-called-philosophy philosophy. I'd never mention my extremely limited/qualified admiration of Ayn Rand because it would probably confuse more than it would illuminate, but among Christians who do mention admiring her, I think most admire her for an acceptable reason.

    (2) Eric, I'm not sure why you say the "safety net" provisions of the OT wouldn't be popular among conservatives today. Most conservatives favor a much vaster safety net than was enshrined in OT law. Re: how OT programs dealt with abuse by the poor, (1) provision for the really destitute was meager enough that it wasn't really very tempting, (2) it was often tied to social status that almost irrefutably demonstrated poverty (orphan/widow), (3) methods of provision like gleaning required significant labor for a relatively small return, reducing temptation for abuse. OT provisions seem designed to discourage abuse.

    (3) "First, I don't think anyone could seriously argue that either party is interested in solving the debt crisis." I'd agree that neither party is solely *responsible* for the debt crisis, but I think it's unfair to say neither party is *interested* in solving the debt crisis. At least the Rs have proposed a plan. My understanding from closer sources is that Ryan would probably endorse Simpson Bowles if it included Medicare reform (which is basically essential to any solution). (Of note, Simpson Bowles proposes higher taxes than even President Obama's proposed budget, and *drastically* higher taxes than the average over the last fifty years or so. It's by far the highest-tax proposal on the table. Although Obama's ultimate proposal--if he ever proposes a solution--will presumably include even higher taxes.)

    For my part, I don't care that much whether the top tax bracket is 35 or 50%. I'm no libertarian anymore. But I agree with Ryan that the only real route to a debt crisis solution is Medicare reform, and only one party is willing to fight for Medicare reform. Of course, our abortion regime is an injustice on a much greater scale than any other policy issue. But fortunately the party interested in reforming Medicare is also the party pursuing correction of our abortion regime...

  20. You are a good guy but I disagree. Please take a look at this