life, liberty, and the pursuit of car loans

I participated in a conference call last week on Christian Worldview and government. The session raised several profound questions which are worthy of consideration:

  • What does the Bible teach, if anything, about the proper role of government with regard to entitlements?
  • What does the Bible teach, if anything, about the proper role of believers and churches in terms of their participation in civic governance?
  • Have we confused government-sponsored welfare with the Christian virtue of compassion?
  • How should believers and the church respond to the secularization of social assistance programs?

While the answers to these questions could form the basis for an entire book, I’d like to take each one this week and attempt to formulate an initial response.

First, what does the Bible teach, if anything, about the proper role of government with regard to entitlements? Whereas the Declaration of Independence declares we are entitled to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” it seems that this has mutated lately into “life, liberty, and the pursuit of car loans.”

A fantastic book related to all of this is ‘The Tragedy of American Compassion‘ by Marvin Olasky. Mr. Olasky notes that the great Methodist leader John Wesley, who did so much to minister to the American working class of the eighteenth century, summed up his philosophy this way: “Put yourself in the place of every poor man and deal with him as you would God deal with you.”

Olasky then observes insightfully:

The only question might be, how would we want God to deal with us? As a cold official who provides material without love? As a warm sugar daddy who gives without discipline? Cultures build systems of charity in the image of the God they worship. . . In colonial America, emphasis on a theistic God of both justice and mercy led to an understanding of compassion that was hard-headed but warm-hearted. Since justice meant punishment for wrongdoing, it was right for the slothful to suffer. And since mercy meant rapid response when people turned away from past practice, malign neglect of those willing to shape up was also wrong. Later, when ideas of God changed, so did systems of charity, but early on, it was considered right to place sinners in the hands of a challenging economy (p. 8).

I don’t think our present approach to social welfare is either hard-headed nor warm-hearted. It isn’t hard-headed because we’re spending money we do not have. It isn’t warm-hearted because we’ve de-personalized and systematized our approach to the point where the lazy get too much and the deserving don’t get enough.

Wouldn’t we all be better off if we got state and federal government out of the entitlement business? What if we could return this country to a strong, stable dollar and budgets that lives within their means? I read recently that with all the federal government bailout money given to the financial industry we could have payed off 90% of the existing home mortgages in the country. If we are going to spend the money of our children and grandchildren, why not do that versus what we’ve done? And why do any of this? It’s madness. Wouldn’t it make more sense to let market prices clear toxic assets and bad decision-making, and then rebuild based on justice, mercy, and wisdom?

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