One of the most difficult parts of engaging in any sort of online discussion about either religion or politics is that there is an increasing tendency to conflate principles with prudential decisions. This sort of fundamental categorical error can become a rhetorical move which disarms one’s opponent from the get-go, at least if he is unacquainted with logical expression. A simple semantic shift and the battle is ostensibly won.
This sort of argumentation was on full display in a piece which appeared here, entitled 10 Political Things You Can’t Do While Following Jesus. I normally try to avoid political discussions as I would the plague or a Justin Bieber listening party, but as I read the post I was struck by the author’s prevalent use of a rhetorical bait-and-switch. The process goes like this:
1. Make a statement about some sort of moral position with which hardly anyone would disagree.
2. Include an opening statement that solidifies the numbered statement and which is generally innocuous.
3. Express the opening statement in light of vague references to some policy or program
4. Move on without further elucidation.
The difficulty, which should be immediately obvious, is that a prudential decision regarding a specific aspect of political life is not (necessarily) categorically identical to a moral principle. This will become more clear later, but simply because one has a certain moral principle (e.g., feed the hungry) does not equate to a particular way of carrying that principle out.
With that established, let’s move on to the items in question.
10) Force your religious beliefs and practices on others.
One of the strengths of the faith Jesus taught was in its meekness. The faith he taught valued free will over compulsion – because that’s how love works. Compelling people to follow any religion, more or less your personal religion, stands over and against the way Jesus practiced his faith. If you are using the government to compel people to practice your spiritual beliefs, you might be the reason baby Jesus is crying. This does get tricky. There is a difference in letting your beliefs inform your political choices and letting your politics enforce your religion. This article is about the first part.
You might be the reason baby Jesus is crying? It would seem that the author has decided from the beginning that he does not wish to be taken seriously. Which is probably good since there is nothing terribly specific in this paragraph to flesh out either the principle or the prudential decisions arising within the political sphere. In the lead-up to this point he mentioned that
Frequently, people who are the most vocal about not making Jesus political are the same people who want prayer in school and laws based on their own religious perspectives.
One could quibble over the prayer in schools part, since that is quite vague. What sorts of schools are we talking about- public, private, religious? And what form of prayer are we discussing- school-led, student-led, public, private? Something mandatory, something encouraged but voluntary, or something else altogether? It’s easy to cast a wide rhetorical net, but without specifics one merely falls into the cage of conflation.
And what exactly is meant by ‘laws based on their own religious perspectives?’ After all, there are many laws which are prompted by both religious belief and non-religious belief. One does not have to be religious to think that murder is wrong, yet one can also be religious and think that murder is wrong. That there is some level of co-incidence here does not therefore make the law religious in nature, nor is a law that arises primarily or historically from religious belief necessarily religious in nature. Alas, without specific examples it is impossible to tell exactly what the author is talking about, which I suspect is a feature since it is much easier to make wide-ranging pronouncements than to prudentially engage in an issue.
9) Advocate for war.
There’s a reason why he was called the Prince of Peace. Sure, you can quote, “I did not come to bring peace, but a sword,” and even two or three other verses but they don’t hold a candle to the more than fifty-some verses where Jesus speaks about peace and peacemaking. It’s funny how things keep coming back to love but it needs to be said, it is way far away from loving a person to kill them. I guess there’s a reason why we say, “God is love.” In the end, love wins.
Since we are given no specifics as to what exactly the author is referring to, one can only presume that he is opposed to war in every situation. There is a crucial difference, however, between advocating for war in and of itself (and as a good in and of itself) and acknowledging that there may be instances where war may in fact be the only just alternative. The just war theory has been a staple in Christian thought for more than a thousand years, and vague statements about advocating for unspecified wars simply is not a rebuttal nor even a response.
Nor would being committed to the concept of just war in principle be tantamount to desiring to kill other persons. The flip side of just war, in fact, is that one is committed to the equally prominent biblical theme of protecting the innocent. Nor is just war in principle opposed to peace peace-making en toto. In classical moral judgment, public authorities (i.e., the king and those who govern) were understood to have a duty to justice and the pursuit thereof. This pursuit of justice entails the risk of injury to themselves and to their subjects, but such is the duty to justice. If an unjust situation existed between peoples to which no other recourse but war was possible, war could then in principle be understood as an act of justice, even an act of love, since one of the points of justice is to remove what stands in the way of the love of one’s neighbor, which is the fountain of peace. In this understanding, then, there may arise situations where war is a potential good even for the vanquished. St. Thomas explains through St. Augustine:
Hence Augustine says (Ep. ad Marcellin. cxxxviii): “Those whom we have to punish with a kindly severity, it is necessary to handle in many ways against their will. For when we are stripping a man of the lawlessness of sin, it is good for him to be vanquished, since nothing is more hopeless than the happiness of sinners, whence arises a guilty impunity, and an evil will, like an internal enemy.”
In other words, yes, in the end, love wins.
8) Favor the rich over the poor.
This is actually related to #4. Favoring the rich over the poor is a slap in the face of Jesus, his life and his teachings. In terms of the teachings of Jesus, it is bad enough when we allow the rich to take advantage of the poor, but when we create laws which not only encourage the behavior but also protect it? Well, let’s just say it becomes crystal clear how ironic it is that we print, “In God We Trust,” on our money.
We begin to notice here more clearly how our author conflates prudential decisions with moral statements. I would not disagree that it is not good to favor the rich over the poor, but the trick here is linking this particular behavior (the rich taking advantage of the poor) with any particular piece of legislation absolutely. Economics is not a a precise science, and there are competing viewpoints on the best way to manage economies viz-a-viz the rich and the poor. An economic theory which believes, for example, that people with means are more likely to produce and thus more likely to employ, might understand that creating incentives for people with means to produce or at least not placing more barriers in their way of doing that is an economically viable route that will have the impact of additionally helping those who have less, through things like employment, infrastructure improvements/developments, etc.
This is only one example. Naturally, those opposed to such an economic approach might complain that it doesn’t work and therefore unjustly favors the rich over the poor, and the former will no doubt make a similar rebuttal viz-a-viz the latter’s economic predilections, but given the nature of economies and how imprecise they are both in terms of implementation and even in measurement, it becomes harder and harder to infer one’s motives simply due to the economic system one might prefer or the policies one might be inclined to enact.
On the other hand, simply because a piece of legislation is ostensibly aimed at serving or helping the poor by no means guarantees that the poor will benefit from it in any meaningful way. It could also very well be the case that such legislation actually ends up favoring the rich over the poor, even if this was not intended (or at least was not explicitly said in the selling of the legislation).
It becomes very easy to see, then, how legislation in these regards is far more a matter of prudential judgment than merely lining up with an axiom. All Christians of goodwill can agree that we should be interested in helping the poor, but the purview of prudence is deciding what the best means for accomplishing that is.
7) Cut funding that hurts the least of these.
To some degree, this is the inverse of #8. Favoring the rich is despicable. We Jesus minions should avoid it. Hurting the poor? Well, that’s just.. just… um, something a whole lot worse than despicable. Despicabler? Über-dispicable? When Jesus said, “Whatever you do to the least of these, you do it to me,” he meant it. When you cut funding and it hurts people, according to Jesus, you are hurting him.
This point seems to make the assumption that there is a moral dimension to budgets, but an even greater assumption that ‘funding’ is some integral part to helping the poor. What ‘funding’ are we talking about? Given that the author feels this is an inverse of the previous point which mentions legislation, the natural assumption is that we are talking about some sort of governmental funding of programs designed or intended to help the poor.
Much like with the previous point, simply because funding exists for a certain program does not entail that that program is either effective, necessary or desirable. It could very well be the case that funding for certain programs has perpetuated the problems it has ostensibly sought to solve, creating perverse incentives for those under its auspices to remain there.
As such, while under one metric (say, sheer number of dollars spent) cutting funding might ‘hurt the poor,’ that does not necessarily entail that the ‘hurt’ is either something which has a moral dimension or even something that is worse than continuing the funding. For example, someone may receive some sort of benefits through some government program that creates a disincentive for them to work, or even find a job, even though they may be capable of doing so. In such a case, cutting funding may actually be morally beneficial to that person since they may be forced to work for a living, rather than being dependent on government funding for their livelihood.
It will of course be argued that there are many who cannot find work even if they want it, plus others who are incapable of doing so even if they wanted to. One could multiply cases on either side, for and against, which only underscores the prudential nature of the dilemma, rather than creating an iron-clad presumption in favor of not cutting funding.
On a more mundane level, funding is a limited commodity, and funding is only useful if it is viable. It could be the case that the expenditures promised were unsustainable from the beginning, and thus the harsh reality of cutting funding doesn’t have a moral dimension, but is rather simply a natural one in that there are no infinite resources. If anything, one might question the morality of creating funding that is unsustainable, promising that upon which one could never deliver. Promising people funding that one cannot deliver on- especially when they later become dependent upon it- is no less hurting the poor than cutting funding might be.
As can be seen, this area involves a great deal of prudential judgement, rendering this conflation invalid.
6) Let people go hungry.
Well, well, well. What have we here? Is this an item from the original top ten list which I claimed was not politically motivated? Looks like I’ve stepped into my own clever trap! Muh wah ha ha! Seriously though, of course it’s on both lists. It is a spiritual issue and it is a political issue. Spiritually, Gandhi said, “There are people in the world so hungry, that God cannot appear to them except in the form of bread.” Politically, hunger causes problems with education, production and civil behavior which are all necessary for a successful nation. More importantly for Christians, Jesus said when we feed the hungry, we are feeding him. So, yes, this item is on both lists – and I’m going to do it again.
Most of what was argued in the previous point is likewise applicable here. All Christians of goodwill would agree that we should feed the poor, but the prudential question is in how the best way to do that is. Of course feeding the hungry is a political issue, in so far as any issue involving society and the civil order is political, but that does not therefore entail that the best way to feed the hungry is by ‘political’ means; that is, by direct governmental intervention.
All governmental intervention is any area comes with a price, and it bears asking whether that price is worth it. The Roman Empire was able to feed the populace of Rome, but the price of such a boon was endless wars to protect shipping lanes, vast amounts of slaves to work monopolized (and empire-funded) farms, massive tax burdens and other such niceties. In modern times we may not have slaves (at least in the sense that the Romans did) but we still have wars and taxes to protect the resources which the government uses to provide services to its people. if feeding the hungry is a political issue in this sense, it behooves us to ensure that our way of feeding the hungry does not come at the cost of our souls.
The author makes an interesting conflation in thinking that political issues equate to some sort of governmental policy or program. While one is hard pressed to escape the all-consuming gaze of many political structures in the world, NGO’s (as an example) provide excellent illustrations of doing large scale humanitarian work outside the auspices of governmental programs or funding. And given that they often do not have a bloated bureaucracy to feed, they are genially more efficient and effective in the services they provide. My point is not to argue that NGO’s are an answer in and of themselves, but rather to illustrate that a political issue can be addressed outside of governmental policy and/or programs.
5) Withhold healthcare from people.
This time I’m not only repeating an item, I’m repeating a lot of what I said. Did you ever play the game “Follow the Leader”? If you don’t do what the leader does, you are out. Following means you should imitate as closely as possible. When people who were sick needed care, Jesus gave it to them. If we are following Jesus, we will imitate him as closely as possible. No, the government can’t repeat the miracles he did but I’ve seen modern medicine do things that are about as close to a miracle as I expect to get. While the government can’t do miracles, it can supply modern medicine. Every year, 45,000 people die in the U.S. because of the lack of healthcare. We Christians like to talk about “saving” people. Well, I know of about 45,000 people who’d love for us to do it and we should – because that’s how love works.
This point is a bit of a head-scratcher. For while the author is already engaging in a conflation of one sort, he plunges further down the rabbit hole to demonstrate that any word will do to make a point. For it bears pointing out that there is a vast difference between health coverage (i.e. insurance) and health care.
But there is another conflation here. Healthcare and health insurance, like any other resource, are limited commodities. More to the point, they are not generally free given that they usually involve great skill on the part of their practitioners and relatively rare materials in the form of medicine, equipment, etc. Because it is a limited commodity, it is going to be the case that there are some who, for one reason or another, cannot afford it. But simply because one cannot afford something does not entail that it is being ‘withheld’ from you.
Granted, healthcare is a different commodity than a car or something else that is expensive in that it is so essential to one’s health and well-being. The author wants Christians to save people by giving them healthcare; well, one only has to look at how many hospitals have been built by Christians and churches over the centuries to notice that this is something Christians have always been engaged in.
But even though the author thinks Christians should be concerned about healthcare, he shows where he really thinks it should come from- the government. After all, he states that “while the government can’t do miracles, it can supply modern medicine.” Of course, on one level this is true, in that governments can supply medicine. However, the question then becomes where the government is getting that medicine. If the government is procuring it from private companies, for example, and then dispersing it to the populace, it would seem that one might potentially run aground of point #8 in that the rich are potentially being favored. After all, a population that is receiving healthcare from the government entails a massive market for any company which supplies healthcare products.
Notwithstanding this, while the government can supply modern medicine, that by no means entails that only the government is capable of supplying it. As already mentioned, Christians have long constructed hospitals and such outside of the auspices of the government, and in many countries NGO’s and such (both religious and not) provide these types of medicines outside of government funding of its supply.
As such, one could very easily oppose particular types of legislation viz-a-viz health coverage without withholding healthcare from anyone. In fact, it is very likely that a subsidiarity approach could be more efficient and responsive to needs of people who are in desperate need of healthcare, rather than government supply in the abstract.
Whatever the case, there is clearly room for prudential judgement is this matter, as opposed to the easy conflations the author makes.
4) Limit the rights of a select group of people.
Jesus loves everybody – but he loves me best. Kind of sits the wrong way with you, doesn’t it? Well, it should and with good reason. If you spend any time reading the Bible you know that we all were made in God’s image. Exactly which part of us is in God’s image is less clear but what is clear is that we were equally made in the image of God. Any law that doesn’t treat people equally is as good as thumbing your nose at God. Even worse? Doing it in the name of God or based on religious beliefs (see #10).
I actually wholeheartedly agree with this point. Murder, after all, is always and in every situation wrong. Abortion involves the murdering of a select group of people, and if they do not have the right to existence, then such an act limits their rights unjustly. Over the last 40 years this type of injustice has, ahem, limited the rights of over 50 million persons. Given that this group is so large, it becomes more difficult to describe them as ‘select,’ but that is in fact what they are, since their limitation of rights is solely due to their life circumstances.
The worst aspect of the situation is that this select group of people has no recourse to the law nor even the chance to voice their protest. And since they are made in the image of God, they should have equal rights with the rest of us, as the author argues. Thus, if our laws don’t treat them equally, we are, as he says, thumbing our nose at God.
Wait, he’s talking about abortion, right?
3) Turn away immigrants.
Christian heritage runs through Judaism. We are an immigrant people. Even our religion began somewhere else. Our spiritual ancestors, Abraham and Sarah were told by God to pick up what they had and start traveling. Moses, Miriam and Aaron led a nation out of Egypt, into the desert and ultimately to new lands. Even Jesus spent part of his childhood as a foreigner in a foreign land. As Exodus says, we know how it feels to be foreigners in a foreign land. If you don’t think being foreigners in a foreign land is still our story, ask the Native Americans. At best, turning away immigrants makes us hypocrites; at worst, it makes us betrayers of our ancestors and our God.
Immigration is a complex subject, and I generally refrain from making any comments on it. However, the author engages in some bad exegesis by drawing a direct line between immigration in the ancient near was and the experience and reality of immigration today. The question in the modern era, as far as I can tell, is not whether there should be immigration or not, but rather the prudential question as how to best accomplish that. It does not seem unreasonable to have some sort of requirement for entry into any country, nor does doing so entail that one is turning away the immigrant. One could thus both support tight borders as well as welcoming immigrants who wish to enter.
Given these prudential questions, it is hardly the case that supporting a certain policy entails one is being hypocritical or betraying one’s ancestors. There are, to be sure, some who are flat out anti-immigrant, but once one actually gets serious about discussing the question there are wide ranges of decisions that need to be made and that involve prudence. Conflating a prudential decision with turning away immigrants simply shows one is not terribly serious about the discussion.
2) Devalue education.
We learn in Proverbs that wisdom is something in which God delights daily. As a matter of fact, according to Proverbs, wisdom is better than gold. When you look at the percentage of our budget which goes to education and at what Congress is trying to do to student loans, it’s pretty clear that delighting in wisdom is something our government no longer does.
The author seems to have a penchant for mixing up separate things, for here we find him conflating ‘wisdom’ with ‘education.’ From an exegetical standpoint this is rather laughable, in that one can be wise without being educated, and conversely can be well-educated without being wise.
It is likewise curious to draw a straight line between budgets and educational outcomes, as if the latter is entirely dependent on the former. As far as student loans are concerned, one could decide prudentially to take a certain course without necessarily devaluing education. After all, viz-a-viz public schools, one could notice that additional monies have not necessarily equated to better educational outcomes; a change in budget could be meant as a means to re-prioritize funding, strive for more efficiency, cut out bloat that does not contribute to educational outcomes, or a host of any other reasons.
But back to the prudential question- one could actually oppose governmental educational funding and yet still value education. it is quite possible to believe that public schools are not the only valuable means of education and thus support alternative models- private schools, homeschooling, etc. If the value of education is related to the educational outcome of those being educated, then it could be the case that supporting alternative educational methods places as much or greater value on education.
1) Support capital punishment — execution.
Jesus died by execution. He was an innocent man. Every year, innocent people die by execution in our nation. It’s time to be a shining city on a hill. It’s time to express the fullness of love, to express the value of life. It’s time to stop the government-sanctioned killing.
It may be true that innocent people die by execution every year. That fact alone, however, does not entail that capital punishment is an unjust form of punishment. In the case of an innocent person it clearly is, but not necessarily in the case of a guilty person.
One can actually support capital punishment in principle while being opposed to it for prudential reasons. For example, the author gives a good example here. While one might believe that capital punishment is a just principle, the fact that it could be misused against the innocent might give one prudential reasons to avoid its implementation. It is important to note, however, that simply because the innocent may be unjustly executed does not therefore entail that capital punishment is wrong in principle or even as a prudential decision.
The imperfection of this world and our knowledge means that there are things we cannot know but must strive to reason to correctly, including those of law. Further, anything that is just in principle can be misused- whether intentionally or unintentionally- for some injustice. This basic fact of our existence does not therefore entail that the principle which becomes perverted is therefore itself perverse.
Given the stakes of capital punishment, many are inclined to view it as just in principle but prudentially unwise in most circumstances, and I am inclined towards this view. That does not mean that someone who disagrees with me prudentially on this cannot hold such an opinion while following Jesus, for such an opinion of my part would be the height of hubris.