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Theology of Bureaucracy

In a recent attempt to influence the budget battles on Capitol Hill, Jim Wallis has taken his typical progressive stance by asking, “What Would Jesus Cut?”

After initially posing the question in The Huffington Post, Wallis’s organization ran a full-page ad in Politico arguing that obviously Jesus would prefer mosquito nets to defense spending. But have no fear: In case such claims don’t offer enough rash politico-religious fusionism to satisfy your appetite, the Sojourners web site is happy to assist you in scolding your local representatives for their lack of Christian charity.

There are plenty of problems with Wallis’ over-simplified approach, but one of the most egregious (in this case) is his depiction of Jesus as a bureaucratic authority.

As Acton Institute’s Ray Nothstine points out inhis marvelous commentary, such an approach “tends to reduce Christ to a distributor of material goods through government programs.” Rather than elevating Jesus to his proper “person, nature, and mission,” Wallis’ campaign demotes Jesus to the role of mere endorser — nay, legislator — of progressive policies. By pushing and promoting his aims through such a drastic debasement, Nothstine argues, Wallis “reduces the Word of Life to moralism.”

Nothstine is right to note that there is something belittling about the framing of Wallis’ argument, but while the bizarreness of the theological positioning is well worth analyzing, deep within such confusion is an additional misunderstanding of basic economic arguments.

This confusion is evidenced by the general logic of Wallis’ argument, which seems to proceed as follows:

1.      Jesus calls us to give to the poor and help the downtrodden (true)

2.      Obviously Jesus wants us to do that through government (false)

3.      Obviously government redistribution actually benefits the poor (false)

Put simply, in the same way that Wallis diminishes Jesus to a bureaucratic authority who promotes Policy Agenda X over Policy Agenda Y, Wallis exhibits a similar narrow-mindedness in his pretending that Christian charity is helpless without coercive force and that all opposing socio-economic views are intent on hurting the poor.

In his Huffington Post piece, Wallis ridicules Republicans for proposing cuts for “programs that benefit the most vulnerable members of our society” (as if this is the undeniable consensus). In addition, now that Republicans have shown themselves to disagree with his more Christian policy objectives, Wallis gloats that “it’s good to finally know what their priorities are” (read: “obviously not with Jesus!”). After proclaiming specific knowledge of Jesus’ policy “preferences” (e.g. vaccine distribution over tax cuts), Wallis offers this gem: “So many of us in the faith community are ready to make a moral argument against the proposed budget cuts to our members of Congress” — as if no one else has been — “especially to those who claim to be people of faith” (emphasis added…by an obvious hypocrite!).

Rather than even consider whether conservative evangelicals might disagree with him on the actual success of such programs, Wallis skips past all of that, quickly stamping the “Love of God” label on his select list of Jesus-approved policies.

Wallis does not explain how bed nets will actually help the poor (as opposed to being sold on the black market, most likely for extra liquor). He does not explain how various social programs will actually alleviate poverty (as opposed to disintegrating family and creating slaves of the State). He does not explain why he thinks tax cuts for the rich will hurt the downtrodden (as opposed to helping them).

Indeed, rather than utilizing the numerous Keynesian or Krugmanian (or even Marxist) arguments at his disposal (inadequate though they may be), he jumps straight for the spiritualized kicker: What Would Jesus Cut?

This is a convenient and often-utilized tactic among many Christians of the progressive persuasion. Rather than focus on the root economic disagreements and engage in deeper discussion, there is a tendency toward hasty advocacy of “action” on behalf of the poor, regardless of the real-world implications or results. Rather than talk about the earthly-realm implications of a higher-realm mission, or the actual economic science involved in completing that mission, such discussions are quickly curbed, avoided, or cut off altogether as a “LEAST OF THESE” sign is shoved promptly in the opponent’s face.

But if one is really going to take th e risk of propping up Jesus in defense of some faulted economic policy (and yes, all of them are faulted to some extent), one should be ready discuss — or at least recognize — the significant doubts surrounding that particular policy or position. To do otherwise is rash, careless, and extremely audacious.

But let’s be clear: There is certainly a place for Jesus in our discussions of economic matters. As Christians, we must consider the various implications of our political beliefs, whether theological, philosophical, or ideological. But such considerations are bound to provoke a number of tough questions that cannot be summarized by some cheeky banner in Politico. They cannot be diluted into a bullet list of Jesus’ 21st-century policy preferences.

The questions we should be asking — as opposed to “WWJC?” — include the following:

  • What is the proper role of Jesus’ teachings in matters of economics and politics (i.e. the “common kingdom”)?
  • How can we properly understand the differences (and/or similarities) between the Kingdom of God and the kingdoms of man?
  • How are our earthly institutions (e.g. markets, schools, governments, etc.) intended to function, and how can we properly leverage them in order to fulfill our God-given missions and His ultimate will?
  • How would God view the particulars of a given policy? In meeting its given target, does it need to be 1% successful, 50% successful, or 100% successful in order to achieve His sovereign “preference”? And how would God view the unintended consequences and diverted funds that are involuntarily sacrificed for such a policy?
  • Are Christians to draw identical conclusions when it comes to true economic success and political ideology?

Unfortunately, these are not the areas with which Wallis seems to be seeking engagement. Instead, as Peter Wehner notes, he is mimicking the same distasteful elements of the Religious Right that he claims to oppose. Wallis has found himself absorbed with legalistic, line-item concerns that he imagines constitute Jesus’ list of budget-policy dos and don’ts.

Wallis may say that Jesus is neither a Republican or Democrat, but that apparently doesn’t exclude “progressive.”

Note: I recognize that Wallis has since noted that, “the Bible doesn’t mandate specific programs or prescribe a specific level of funding for any of them.” However, this claim clearly contradicts the overall indications he provides in both his Politico ad, and the various related articles. Given that Wallis provided a specific list of policy stances that he claimed were “more important to Jesus” than others, I will assume that this “clarification” is simply an admission that his original argument is not, as he says, “Biblical.”