Friday, December 16, 2005

Another Republican for Jesus

There was a time, not that long ago, in this nation when the issues surrounding public policy were framed in such a way that productive dialogue could move the process of governing along in a manner that seemed at least to attempt to include everyone. Things are different today.

The way issues--especially those related to "values" as understood by the extreme right--are presented today sets us up for immediate and ongoing conflict.

Though it is not my intention, I expect this post will created some of that.

What follows are the words of former Lieutenant Governor Bill Ratliff, a Republican from Mount Pleasant, Texas. He served in the Texas State Senate for fifteen years. He delivered this speech in early November in Austin, Texas.
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As a backdrop to the current political situation in Texas, I want to discuss with you a current phenomenon. However, in the way of a preface to this discussion, let me explain that I will be making references to the Christian faith and its New Testament.

I do not intend any slight to other beliefs by doing so. It is simply that I am a Christian, I regularly attend a Christian denomination church, and I simply know more about the Christian faith than I do of the Jewish faith, the Muslim faith, Buddhism, or others.

Not too many years ago, a small group of religious leaders, who were concerned about what they perceived as a drift of our country away from its moral foundation, decided that they would become politically active and do what they could to stem this tide toward moral bankruptcy.

Most prominent among these groups, but certainly not alone, were Pat Robertson and the Christian Coalition. Their strategy was to go to the grassroots of the Republican Party and to capture the party mechanism – the precinct and county conventions – in order to apply leverage to those who would be candidates for political office.

While the influence of the Christian Coalition may have cooled somewhat from its peak a few years ago, I need not tell this audience that, over the last decade, this movement has come to exercise a great deal of influence over the success and/or failure of candidates and over the success and/or failure of legislation.

While there have clearly been examples of political tactics carried on by some of these groups which can only be described as “vicious,” “unscrupulous” and “un-Christian,” for the most part they have simply taken the position that they will assess the suitability of a political candidate based on that candidate’s adherence to and advocacy for the group’s interpretation of Christian principles. And there is certainly nothing wrong with that, in fact this type of advocacy is what our country is founded upon.

While Bob Bullock was one of the first to bring religion into the political dialogue with his “God Bless Texas” theme, prior to the Christian right’s emergence I was not aware of candidates or office holders bringing their relationship with the Almighty into their political and campaign dialogue. It now is not only the mantra of those who subscribe to the Christian right’s agenda, but now other candidates, having sensed the need to protect their right flank, have felt compelled to bring their religious convictions into the public arena as well.

The growing influence of the Christian right on candidates and public policy has been met with an argument by some that religion should not be brought into the governmental arena. The nature of this backlash is to argue that it is inappropriate to base legislative decisions on religious beliefs or moral convictions.

Just as an aside, for my entire political career I have heard people make the statement that legislatures cannot legislate morality. O fcourse, if one simply stops and reflects, that is an absurd statement. Virtually all legislation has its basic premise grounded in morality.

When we enact laws against murder or assault, they are based on moral and religious teachings condemning such activities. When we enact laws against robbery and theft, they are based on moral and religious teachings. All laws are, or should be, based upon the notions of fairness which are grounded in moral codes, most of which came originally from religious premises, the most conspicuous of which is that one should “do unto others as you would have them do unto you."

Let me advance a proposition to those of you who may be concerned about the growing influence of the Christian right on public policy. May I suggest to you that, as opposed to the suggestion that we have too much religious influence on public policy, we actually have too little.

Before you react, let me flesh out this proposition.

Up to now, the application of religious principles in political debate has been mainly applied to social mores such as abortion rights, same sex marriage, intelligent design vs. Darwinism, and other similar social issues. But all too often, those Christians who take strong stands on such issues based on moral or biblical teachings, do not then continue the application of such teachings to other issues.

For instance, when considering how many of the poor children in Texas will be removed from Childrens’ Health Insurance [Program (CHIP)] in order to hold down costs to the state, they choose not to consider Christ’s admonishment to “Suffer the little children to come unto me.”

When considering how much to reduce funding for indigent health care, Medicaid for nursing homes, child abuse protective services, or special education for handicapped children, there seems to be little recognition of Christ’s teaching that “In as much as you have done it to the least of these, you have done it to me also.”

All too often, these Christian admonishments are qualified to read,“Suffer the little children to come unto me, unless of course, their needs require a vote to raise additional revenue.”

Or to read, “In as much as you have done it to the least of these, you have done it to me also, but you are absolved if your compassion would require you to cast a vote for a tax bill.”

There are, of course, many members of the Legislature who recognize this disconnect. They truly worry that they are not living up to the Christian principles which they espouse.

However, they are caught inthe dilemma of having pledged not to increase taxes and they realize that, in order to truly apply Christian compassion in these areas will take additional state funding.

Once again, perhaps we need more religion rather than less.

It was Christ who said, “Much is required from those to whom much is given.”

We even have the teaching of Christ’s parable where he tells the richman, if he wishes to enter the kingdom of heaven he must “Go, sell everything you have, give the money to the poor, and follow me.”

Talk about a high tax rate!

How does a devoted Christian cut funding for needy children based on a no new taxes pledge while reading this passage of the Bible?

A year or so ago, there was a commendable teenage fad where youths were wearing bracelets containing simply four engraved letters, WWJD –“what would Jesus do?” The purpose was to provide a constant reminder to youths to assess the right or wrong of a decision before making it.

I wonder what the impact would be if every Legislator who avowed a religious motivation were required to wear such a bracelet – a “What Would Jesus Do?” bracelet, or a “What would Yahweh Do?” bracelet, or a“What Would Mohammed Do?” bracelet, or a “What would Buddha Do?” bracelet.

Then, whenever they were preparing to cast a vote to reduce or restrict programs for the poor, the sick, the elderly, or the children, they would be reminded of their previous avowals?

Wise people of many different eras have made this case before me.

George Bernard Shaw once said, “The worst sin towards our fellow creatures is not to hate them but to be indifferent to them--that’sthe essence of inhumanity.”

Pearl S. Buck said, “The test of a nation is in the way that it cares for its helpless members.”

And finally, Alexis de Tocqueville once said, “America is great because she is good, and if America ever ceases to be good, America will cease to be great.”

I submit to you the proposition that we do not have too much religion in government today, we have too little.

We do not have too much advocacy for Christian principles in government and politics; we have a highly selective and hypocritical application of Christian principles in government and politics.

Those who advocate for Christian principles in our public institutions should have the strength of their convictions so as to truly follow the teachings ofChrist in His care and compassion for the poor, the lame, the sick ,and especially the children.

I submit to you, we can and should legislate morality.

We can, and weshould legislate based on moral and religious principles.

But we should do so even in those areas where political courage is required.

It was Aristotle who said, “Virtue is not knowledge of what is to be done, but rather the doing of it.”

12 comments:

Steve Jr. said...

That is probably one of the best descriptions of this phenomeon that I have read. Very well done. I've actually re-posted the link and a portion on this blog in the comments section. Interesting conversation.

Jason Coriell said...

Tremendous speech--thanks for posting it.

Ed Harrell said...

I live in Alabama where the poster child for the Christian Right is running for Governor, Roy Moore. Since the gentleman quoted is one of your FORMER politicians, could you please send him to us? Pleeeeeeeese, no Moore!

John J. Pitney, Jr. said...

The Tocqueville quotation is fake. See http://www.tocqueville.org/pitney.htm

Larry James said...

Thanks, John for this correction! I enjoyed the entry to which you refered us. Amazing how these things get started. I can remember this quote from Jr. High! All the best.

Eric Livingston said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Eric Livingston said...

...sorry for the double post...

What Mr. Ratliff discusses is certainly a struggle for me, and, I think, the majority of American Christians. How do we reconcile our capitalistic values as Americans with our faith and obedience to the love and generosity that is taught in the New Testament? In fact, one could argue the 1st Century church lived as a group of socialists, sharing their resources amongst themselves.

My belief is that, as Christians, we should lean more towards the socialistic tendencies to help meet the physical and urgent needs ("urgent needs" are not mutually exclusive to "important needs") of people around us.

My fear is that if the United States continues to move more towards socialism, that we will lose our dominance in the global market place and eventually not have the resources to dispense to those in need. Some might argue that that scenario would take many decades, and we should only concern ourself with immediate needs. Others might argue that capitalism creates efficiency and an increase in quality and quantity of goods and therefore is a pattern of good stewardship.

As I stated, I'm not sure where I stand on the politics of this issue. I do know this: I want to be like Jesus. Jesus healed, fed, loved, and saved people. I plan to continue to try to reach out and help those whom I see in need.

Matt Tapie said...

Interesting speech. And it is even more interesting to hear it come from a Republican. I truly desire for people to have equal opportunities and access to needed resources. Nevertheless I believe that Bill assumes government should be too large a part of the moral equation.

I agree that the laws of any society are influenced by morality and a religious understanding of human beings. However, I also believe that most political/policy questions are matters of prudence--meaning the question "what works best?" is usually more helpful and relevanat than "what is more Christian?" The Bible has a lot to say about how to treat people--it says little about when to coerce them. Especially on issues like poverty relief which has to do mostly with economics. Political questions on abortion or murder are quite clear; it is easy to see that the state has a clear mandate to prevent the killing of the innocent. Using force is what the state does best.

But what is not so clear is a biblical mandate for the state to take from person A and then give person A's belongings to person B. Indeed, Christ said, “Much is required from those to whom much is given.” This is very true. But Christ did not say "Much is required from those to whom much is given...and this 'much' should be given to the government." That is a bit of a leap.

Most Christians do in fact want to help the poor. The problem is that many people disagree on how to best accomplish helping the poor. Do we help the poor by paying monies into to the state? Or do we help the poor by setting up private poverty relief systems? Or is it a mixture of both? Many lean toward socialist policies and some lean toward libertarian policies. ANd both sides have their arguments. What would defuse a lot of the tension among left-leaning Christians and right-leaning Christians regarding this issue is to try and help explain the best policies or "what works best" rather than what is perceived to be the most Christian policy. What is the most effective form of charity? What makes charity work? These are the questions that are most important.

I personally believe that the answer to much of our country's dilemna with poverty relief comes from providing incentives to the civil society sector. Civil society is the network of institutions that serve as a buffer between the state and the individual: they are things like the family, small businesses, schools, associtions, neighborhood councils, etc. Pouring money into the government is not the most effecient answer nor do I believe an expansive god-like state is biblical. One cannot be charged with being less Christian simply because he or she believes that the govt. should not always be the first-responder for poverty relief.

Anonymous said...

M. Tapie-

I certainly understand your perspective. I used to believe it whole-heartedly. The argument that the argument is merely one of appraoch (i.e., public vs. private) I know is a sincere one.

However, it's hard to escape one fact: proponents of this argument never have really demonstrated the will to really address poverty concerns in any meaningful way.

Don't get me wrong, I know that there are a number of people who volunteer in church pantries and the like and provide assistance to those in need. Thank God for them.

The difference is one of imagination. In my lifetime, the Christian right has identified certain evils in society as problems they want to solve: abortion, homosexuality, objectionable content on TV. They attacked each of these as problems to be solved . When it comes to poverty however, the effort is more prefunctory. How many people can truly say that their church is even asking the question "how can we make things better for the least in our society?" I'd venture to say the percentage is pretty small.

I grew up in a conservative church and graduated from a Christian university. My take-away from these institutions was a focus on getting myself "saved" to be sure, and what I learned regarding the poor was that we needed to show them how to sin less so that they wouldn't be in the shape they were in. Maybe this just says more about me than the institutions, but I think the evidence indicts us all.

Brandon Toombs

Matt Tapie said...

Brandon,

I appreciate your response to my comment and your sharing of personal experience.

I am not too sure about the "fact" that proponents of my view have "never...really demonstrated the will to really address poverty concerns in any meaningful way." I think you would be hard pressed to provide justified evidence for this. There are many people working for poverty relief that do not believe the government should be the first responder. This is why there exists a heated debate over the issue (to read about people who really address poverty concerns in meaningful ways from a number of angles visit the Pew Forum's website on Religion and Social Welfare at http://pewforum.org/social-welfare/).

It may be true that the churches and Christian universities you have known do not care about poverty relief. This begs the question as to whether or not the government provides the most effective forms of poverty relief.

Furthermore, it begs the question about how well other churches and institutions (those outside your experience), independent of the state, can provide effective poverty relief. I believe there is much evidence for approaching poverty relief with a broad array of methods that include govt. as well as the private sector. For more on this approach see Peter Berger and John Neuhaus's To Empower People: From State to Civil Society.

Anonymous said...

M. Tapie-

Our disagreement isn't over ideals. "whether or not the government provides the most effective forms of poverty relief". I would wholeheartedly embrace the demolition of the entire welfare state if it was demonstrated that churches would fill in the gap.

I just don't think the will is there in most churches. Evidence? Larry posted an article back in the summer that contains some facts that I think bear out what I'm talking about:

http://www.harpers.org/ExcerptTheChristianParadox.html

I won't post the article to save space, but the gist is that by most empiral evidence we as Christian Americans give less and that outcomes in American society are worse than other, less-Christian countries.

It's not a failure of ideas as I know there are some great approaches coming from Christian sources. It's a failure of will.
I have no doubt that if our major religious institutions society took on reducing poverty as their #1 (or even #2 or #3) priority that we would see real improvement in outcomes in America and in the world.

If you think that our Christian instiutions really are focused on dealing poverty, then we can just agree to disagree.

Brandon

Larry James said...

Brandon, I agree with you concerning the "will" of the church. Beyond the lack of a force of will there is the sheer scale of the issues involved.

For example, all the churches in America could not solve the affordable housing dilemma facing the nation. Working people who lack skills to command a wage high enough to allow them to find decent housing need help at a scale and scope that only government can address.

Thanks for the post.