You can almost hear the gears turning in the heads of campaign managers for Democratic presidential hopefuls. They’re thinking Mayor Pete Buttigieg may have been on to something when he claimed recently that Christian faith leads in a “progressive” direction. If the Democrats can make persuasively make that case, they just might tap into the powerful bloc of conservative, heretofore-Republican, voters.
The recent media attention on Buttigieg shines a glaring light on a particularly large elephant that has long been standing silently in the corner of the Republican living room. Sure, the Republican platform appeals to Christians in its stance on abortion and religious freedom, but what about those pesky “social justice” issues?
At first glance, Mayor Pete seems to have a great point. After all, Jesus Christ is the ultimate example for the Christian. He spent much of his life ministering to the poor and healing the sick. And didn’t Jesus himself say that whatever we do to care for “the least of these” we do for him?
These are the points trotted out by proud liberals, often in an effort to shame Christians into getting on board with their policy initiatives. I have personally stood on the receiving end of such shaming efforts.
Several years ago, during the heat of the debate over the Affordable Care Act. I wanted to learn more about how the law would work, so I attended a forum where a renowned health-care law expert was speaking about it. At the end of the evening, I still had questions. So I e-mailed the speaker, who knew me as a conservative Christian.
This was his response to my policy-focused questions: “My basic orientation to public policy issues is as a Christian. Jesus said repeatedly in various ways, ‘Insofar as you have done it to the least of these, you have done it to me.’ He never said that we would get to heaven by being fiscally conservative. Indeed, he said give all that you have to the poor and follow me.”
Frankly, I found this insulting. Of course I don’t think that being fiscally conservative will get me to heaven. But certainly supporting a government health care program doesn’t either. In fact, any Bible-believing Christian will tell you that even if I were to give all that I had to the poor, that wouldn’t get me to heaven. But beyond the bad doctrine, this is an example of a liberal yanking Scripture out of context in order to support his political position.
The crucial missing context for the oft-misused passage is this: Jesus was speaking to his disciples when he admonished them to care for the least among them. He was not addressing a group of government officials.
Christians, as individuals, and the Church, as an institution, are called to love our neighbors and to be “salt and light” to the world. One of the most obvious ways for us to do this is by caring for the needy; feeding the hungry, giving to the poor, and welcoming the stranger. Those are our duties--and they aren’t properly fulfilled when we attempt to delegate them to a cold, impersonal government bureaucracy that has its own distinct duties to perform.
While the Bible is not primarily concerned with offering a blueprint for government, it does provide certain principles on the topic that ought not be missed. The most important of these have to do with the question we don’t ask nearly enough anymore. And that question is, “What is the proper role of government in society?”
For Christians who take their cues from the Bible, the primary purposes of government are to protect its citizens and to punish wrongdoers. For Americans who take their cues from the Declaration of Independence, the answer is similar: to secure the peoples’ rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
Conservative Christians who vote Republican don’t do so because they are against taking care of the needy. They do it because they are for constitutionally limited government. They are for taking care of the needy in the best way possible--doing it themselves, personally, and through their churches, communities, and the countless non-profit organizations that show Americans to be one of the most generous, compassionate people on earth.
No, God isn’t a “progressive.” He’s not even a Democrat. Or a Republican. So to the faithful who care about honoring God with their votes, I would say this: look closely. Mayor Pete (and many others) make a huge logical leap when they go from “Jesus cared for the poor” to “Christians should support big government welfare programs.” It’s up to us to mind the gap.
Rita M. Dunaway is the author of Restoring America's Soul: Advancing Timeless Conservative Principles in a Wayward Culture and a regular contributor for The Stream. She serves as Senior Vice President for Legislative Affairs at The Convention of States Project.