Monday, May 31, 2010

Pondering Self-Government

Over the years, Sojourners and Rev. Jim Wallis have tried to be a corrective to the politics of the Religious Right. They are the natural heirs of the social gospel movement from late Nineteenth and early Twentieth Centuries. They have bathed (or perhaps baptized) their policy proposals in the language of faith. Although he comes from a very different perspective, the rhetoric that Wallis uses is almost as judgmental and condemnatory as a Fallwell or Robertson. Despite my own criticisms, I like reading Jim Wallis. Arguing about politics with the Scriptures in hand is a wonderful discipline.

Most recently, Rev. Wallis has turned his sights on the Tea Party Movement. Frankly, I find the Tea Party Movement so amorphous that I don't know exactly what it believes. There are no party platforms, and leaders are typically self-appointed. Anger at the status quo and politicians in general seems to be the unifying theme. I do also hear the rhetoric of limited government and devotion to the Constitution or the Declaration of Independence. Beyond these vague notions, I don't find much else. I'm sure there are racists in the movement, but that isn't the defining characteristic. People are simply frustrated and scared, and they have a right to assemble, speak, and vote. That seems a preferable way to deal with dissent.

Where I haven't found a governing philosophy, Jim Wallis has found "libertarianism", and he states that in "several major aspects of biblical ethics, Libertarianism falls short." Wallis is quick to build straw men, and warns us against libertarians who wish to sell liquor to our children and segregate lunch counters.

Wallis tells us that these libertarians "seem to believe in the sinless market and that the self-interest of business owners or corporations will serve the interests of society." I don't know if they were libertarians, but I have met a few people who suggested as much. Where it exists, I agree with Jim Wallis that the idolatry of the market should be unmasked.

However, Wallis seems to replace the sinless market with almost sinless government.
Revelation 13 depicts the state as a totalitarian beast -- a metaphor for Rome, which was persecuting the Christians. This passage serves as a clear warning about the abuse of governmental power. But a power-hungry government is clearly an aberration and violation of the proper role of government in protecting its citizens and upholding the demands of fairness and justice.
The word "aberration" suggests that power-hungry governments are against the norm. I would argue that governments that voluntarily limit their power are actually more the aberration. That doesn't mean that government isn't necessary or that it doesn't have an important role protecting citizens and upholding the demands of fairness and justice. Nonetheless, history, including biblical history, has shown us that tyranny is always a temptation for those in power. As a simple example, consider David and the unfortunate incident with Uriah.

I do not understand how we must mistrust the self-interest of business owners and corporate shareholders and not mistrust the self-interest of politicians and the voters. Devotion to the rule of law, the checks and balances of our political institutions, limited government and local rule help curb vice and encourage virtue. Other institutions outside of government such as families, businesses, and a free press also limit abuse. Finally, churches have a huge role to play in society. Along with social services and a prophetic voice, the church remains salt and light in the world.

Will a society of freedom, limited government, and competing institutions create some utopia? Of course not. However, a naive reliance on the government as a panacea for all our problems is even more utopian. A better question for Jim Wallis (and for that matter, the Tea Parties) might be: How best can a society of sinners provide justice for all, including the least and the vulnerable?