Church and State

When I hear Christians talking about something “we” ought to do, it often disturbs me how easily they confuse what “we” should do as individual Christians, as the church, and as citizens of a secular state.

Christians from the ideological right often ask the state to base its policies on a Christian understanding of marriage, or sexuality, or the point at which life begins. Christians from the left ask the state to base its policies on a Christian understanding of generosity and responsibility to help one’s neighbors.

Take this article about Republican Paul Ryan, who was chastised by (his) Catholic Bishops. (The article summarizes and critiques an original article in the Washington Post.)

I’m not saying that Christians shouldn’t help their less fortunate neighbors. Anyone who’s read Matthew 25 should tremble at the responsibility Christ lays on we who are his disciples. But it doesn’t necessarily follow that Christians have the responsibility to help their neighbors by implementing a welfare state, any more than they have a responsibility to help their neighbors by providing for prayer in public schools.

We should do good for several reasons: because Jesus told us he credits good done to others as if it were done to him, or the golden rule (Leviticus 19/Luke 10). We do good as a way of “putting on Christ” — of stretching ourselves, or more accurately, allowing ourselves to be conformed to the likeness of Christ. And we do good to exhibit the Kingdom of Heaven to the world. It’s not at all clear to me that there is a role for the state in any of that.

To be sure, people can take off their Christian hats. Then they can argue in their capacity as citizens that the state should do something or other for reasons of state. We should help the poor to reduce crime, or to build a solid middle class, or whatever. But it’s not obvious to me that Christians are expected to do any of those things. (We may do them, of course, but there is no obligation to reduce crime.)

(If it did, that would lead to another discussion, which is whether or not a government program is the best, or even an effective, means to do something. After all, Jesus was unmoved by the argument that nobody realized it was him they were seeing hungry, naked, in prison, etc. How much less will he be impressed with an argument that we voted for a program, but didn’t bother to ensure it was doing what it was supposed to?)

So there may be a “marriage of convenience” where the work we do as Christians, and the policies we favor as citizens, reinforce and support one another. But we should be very cautious about tying the knot. The history of Church-State interaction is fraught with peril.

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