What is the role of government in helping people? What is the role of religion in governing? Can Christians be capitalists? These are just some of the questions presented by the authors of Left, Right & Christ: Evangelical Faith in Politics during a panel discussion at Union Theological Seminary in New York City Thursday.
Authors Lisa Sharon Harper and D.C. Innes served on the panel, which was comprised of members from both ends of the political spectrum. The authors were joined by Jim Wallis, a social justice advocate and influential progressive evangelical, and Richard Land, president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist convention., who served as the right-leaning voice.
In the book, Harper, who works for Sojourners, a progressive Christian journal, presents the main liberal argument. Innes, a political science professor at The King’s College, offers a more conservative approach. The joint work is aimed at helping Christians see ways in which Scripture can interact with today's culture and political landscape.
Poverty, as the panelists mentioned, is a big topic of our times. There are nearly 50 million Americans living below the poverty level and many Americans are out of work. What can Christians do?
Fox News contributor Kirsten Powers, the panel moderator, raised the issue of how God and money can agree, noting that it might "sound un-American."
"The Bible says you can either serve God or serve money. How does that play into politics?" she asked.
All of the panelists agreed that poverty is a key problem that Christians cannot ignore.
Land said he sees capitalism as the best way to fight social malaise, especially poverty.
The left and right have different ideas on how to solve poverty, he said, with the left leaning more toward government intervention and the right toward private charity.
"Business is not the devil and neither is money," Harper writes in the chapter about the role of business. "Business is just people providing goods or services for money. … There are plenty of business people mentioned in Scripture."
Harper said it is important to take human depravity in the use of money under consideration. It is also crucial to consider how the outcomes of the capitalist system compare to God's purposes on earth.
Wallis suggested perhaps being American is not always an excuse, since "We're supposed to be Christians first and Americans second."
In the book, Innes clearly makes a stand on the role of government intervention, suggesting that first and foremost, people should act like Christians and be responsible for themselves and others, and not rely on the government.
"The American political left is eagerly working to make our country more like Europe," Innes states in the book. "They see our individualism as selfish and immoral and they view reliance on private charity as ineffective and degrading in comparison to government services and entitlements."
Land agreed with the other panel members on the role the government has in providing affordable education to youth. Land said he comes from an average, lower-middle class family, and would not have received an education had the government not provided one.
All panelists agreed that promoting the institution of the family is crucial in fighting poverty.
The speakers also agreed that government is necessary for protection of the underprivileged and vulnerable, although their opinions differed on the details.
Innes is on the side of a limited government and the idea that people should first take care of themselves. Yet he acknowledged that government is needed to protect the vulnerable and poor. All that can be found in the Bible, he said.
"God has established government," Innes said, "and He's established it for a purpose: to punish the evil, and praise what is good."
When the government does that, it creates a "sphere of liberty in which people can go about their lives and help one another."
Left, Right & Christ raises many timely questions that are important to every Christian. Should the government care for the sick? Is the definition of marriage universal for all? Does a free country mean that everyone is free to live here? Does defending our nation mean we should kill our enemies?
The answers varied somewhat during Thursday's discussion because, as the panelists concluded, their various socioeconomic backgrounds affected they way they interpret the Bible.
"Holy Scripture is perfect, our understanding of it is not," said Land.