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Means vs. Ends

How can Christians navigate the turbulent waters of politics and public policy?

I often wonder this as I read through websites and blogs about Christianity and politics. Should Christians generally support liberal causes? Should they generally support conservative causes? Should they be somewhere in the “middle” as one organization suggests and follow the mold of Ron Sider and Evangelicals for Social Action?

What makes this question especially tricky is the fact that every individual and organization claims to be interpreting the Bible correctly while generally criticizing those who disagree with their positions as too narrow minded or wrong in their interpretation. While part of the problem is that we are not very careful in our exposition of Scripture (this author included), I think there is more to it than that.

Clearly people can be fervent Christians and still genuinely disagree on some policies—they can see certain things about the world differently while still believing the same gospel. I think the Manhattan Declaration, while incomplete, captures some of the important issues that Christians who believe in the infallibility of scripture and that Christ is the Son of God can agree on.

Setting aside some of the important differences in biblical interpretation, most of the strong disagreements between Christians on the right and the left come from differing views of how the world works. For example, I think Christians on the left and the right generally agree that:

  • We want stronger families and fewer children born outside of wedlock
  • We want lower unemployment—it is good for people to work and provide for themselves, and we want them to have the opportunity to do so
  • We want a better educated society, one where rich and poor alike can learn and grow

So far so good, but when we start talking about how to achieve those three statements, we are talking less about biblical exegesis and more about economic and political philosophy. We are talking about the means, not the ends—and this is where I think Christians on the right and left primarily disagree. To illustrate this point, let’s look at the concrete steps outlined for the petition: A Call for Intergenerational Justice. The steps include increasing various taxes for social security, raising the retirement age, reforming the payment system for Medicare, cuts to the military, agricultural subsidies, and congressional budgets, and maintained or increased support for food stamps, WIC, and Pell Grants.  I applaud them for outlining concrete proposals that allow us to have a meaningful conversation.

However, we should be wary of the claims that cutting back on food stamps, or WIC, or Pell grants is immoral and against God’s will. We need to address some major assumptions in these claims. Will thousands of people starve if food stamps are repealed? Will women and children die if WIC goes away? Will fewer poor children be educated if we reduce Pell grants? The implicit assumption is yes, and if we agree while still advocating for the reduction of food stamps or to abolish WIC, then we can rightly be condemned as not following Christ.

The problem is that those making these claims argue that whether or not we have these programs is a moral issue—when in reality it’s not the programs; it’s the care for the poor that is the real moral issue. To disagree with the assumptions about how effective these programs are or what will happen if they are decreased or eliminated is not contrary to what the Bible teaches.

Most of the problems we run into stem from this conflation of means with ends. It is difficult to have a conversation when people assume that questioning their proposals means disagreeing with their goals, not just the practical means to achieve them. There is a lot of room for progress here by thoughtfully treating issues through the lens of economics, sociology, and political philosophy. The Bible is not a how-to book on whether to raise property taxes from 3% to 3.25% or whether we should increase unemployment insurance by a $100 a month or abolish it altogether. It is God’s revelation to man about how we are to live, and it lays out general goals and principles that generally apply in a variety of contexts. It doesn’t prescribe any particular culture, race, time period, or government policy.