In my last post, I made a fairly controversial claim:
I contend that Christians need to rethink the assumption that government is a morally neutral instrument for inculcating values. I don’t think it is . . . It may be that civic virtue is admirable in itself but there is a danger that some non-Christians will settle for civic virtue instead of redemption. That leaves us with little more than better behaved unredeemed sinners.
So that is a significant reason for us to think twice about using political tools to accomplish Christian ends. As always I speak for no one but myself. This isn’t MCOI’s position just my own. But I can hear some of you right now. “But what if the role of Christians in politics isn’t to make Christians but to preserve something, namely a society where the Gospel can bear fruit? This is the reason we fight against porn, homosexuality, and gay marriage. This is the reason we boycott television shows and call our congressman. We are salt as well as light and that means we should preserve our country from corrupting influences as part of our Christian duty. This is especially true for the children.”
This sentiment is, I think, precisely what has aligned Christians with the conservative movement. Conservatism seeks to conserve a core set of beliefs that create a national identity. Christians can easily align themselves with that because much of those core beliefs are compatible with a moral life and civic virtue and we feel a strong desire to protect our children from nihilism and relativism. In other words Christianity and Conservatism have like-minded visions. So why shouldn’t we preserve our values through legislation?
Perhaps in another post I will comment on the potential conflict between preserving our culture for our children or as its often trumpeted “Taking back America” and the great commission, but this post has a more modest aim. I want to suggest that there is a real cost to using congress to preserve a moral culture rather than preserving it through our daily Christian living. I hope to convince you there is a price to pay for using the hammer of government to fix the shaky house of culture. It isn’t a morally neutral choice to put our faith in legislation in addition to our own efforts.
The reason I don’t think Government is a morally neutral tool within a democratic republic such as ours was really brought home to me when I read Gordon Tullock, Arthur Seldon, and Gordon Brady’s book Government Failure. Tullock is an Economics professor at George Mason University and is the co-developer (along with Nobel Prize Winner James Buchanan) of Public Choice Theory which argues that markets and government work the same way.
“Just as a businessperson designs, let us say, the latest automobile so as to attract customers, the politician selects policies with the idea that the customer, who is the voter, will reward the politician in the next election.”
I know, I know we would all like to think that our politicians are really Jimmy Stewart in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, serving only the public interest and voting their conscience. But those two things are often quite at odds with each other. I am not suggesting that all politicians are underhanded and really just pander to their constituents, I’m saying that politics in a republic make this kind of voter appeasement inevitable. There is no way to satisfy the moral or economic wishes of a state or district and still vote one’s conscience on every bill. There are simply too many conflicts.
The most we could hope for is that our demands of our representatives are small and infrequent. We’ve all seen the damage that can occur when representatives earmark federal funds for projects within their state. In my home state $90,000 was earmarked to provide jobs for people who replaced doorbells. We rant and we rave, but a certain amount of pork is simply necessary to stay in office. This is the first conflict our “Christian Mr. Smith” or “Brother Smith” must face. How can he preserve our family values in congress unless he gets elected? That means he has to convince his constituents that he is working for them AND the preservation of America. In order to make that crucial vote on gay marriage, our Mr. (or Ms.) Smith will likely have to use their vote to fund things their conscience and Christian moral center would say is either wrong or at least not good stewardship.
But there is a far more important conflict. It can be summed up in one descriptive term: “Logrolling”
Tullock et al, describe logrolling as simply “vote-trading.” In Government Failure, the authors remark that vote-trading has been a staple of American politics since its inception. We just consider it the price of doing business.
Legislators frequently vote for legislation they really do not like in return for another legislator’s agreement to vote for something they favor strongly.
But once our Mr. Smith is a Christian things become complicated. In order to assuage the consciences of legislators, most bills are bundled together with provisions that may have very little to do with each other. This allows legislators to say that although they object morally to some parts of the bill, it is better over all to allow those provisions rather than throw the baby out with the bath water. This is sort of a lesser of two evils option. But the problem is that those bills are traded and bundled in committee where our Bro. Smith’s conscience is subjected constantly to the pummeling of rationalization. “I have to allow funding for planned parenthood in order to get the provision for pregnancy counseling.” Never mind what this does to him come election time, consider what it might do when he sleeps at night.
Conceivably using legislation to ban pornography could force our Bro. Smith to compromise on gay marriage, gambling, or some other thing that undermines the moral fabric of our society. This is an overlooked cost of using government to preserve culture.
Now I can think of two responses to my claims about logrolling. One is to say that while regrettable, logrolling is a necessary evil. Better to preserve our moral fabric even if it requires moral compromise than to let it unravel. This very well may be true, and I am certainly not suggesting logrolling is unchristian in itself. As Tullock indicates, it may be impossible not to logroll when aggregating the consciences of one’s constituents. But the thing that bothers me about this objection is that it sounds kind of like “the ends justify the means.” And I thought Christians didn’t decide things like that.
Second, someone might object that my argument just says that Christians shouldn’t be politicians at all because there is no way to legislate and remain true to Christian principles. But if we stop electing Christians we leave the laws to the secular state. I’m not saying that at all. There is an alternative. We could minimize the moral conundrums for Bro. Smith and his staff by requiring him only to protect our rights rather than preserve our culture and leave culture preserving to churches, para church organizations, and individual Christians who act like salt in the world. This would certainly include mandating Bro. Smith to vote down public funding for abortions (since the state might not have a right to use my taxes to violate the rights-in-trust of the unborn) but it might not include cleaning up the neighborhood by banning pornography or trading a vote on partial birth abortion for one banning a state lottery.
I will end by re-emphasizing that logrolling does not mean government is evil or hopeless and useless for conserving things. I only bring up logrolling to show that it is not a morally neutral method of preserving the culture. And if legislation were the only way to preserve a virtuous culture, then we might think using legislation to preserve our culture would be better than not preserving it at all.
But that just isn’t true. We are to be salt and light whether there is a bill in congress or not. We preserve our culture by how we raise our children, what we write, what we give our money to, and each and every conversation we have in the public square. Maybe the best use of political influence is to preserve our rights to do those things. Maybe we should instruct Bro. Smith that his role is to make sure the hammer of legislation is kept far away from our liberty to be salt in the world and leave the preserving to us. If we did so, Bro. Smith might sleep better at night.