Adopted by the House of Delegates, NC Council of Churches, April 18, 1996
Fifteen years ago the N. C. Council of Churches’ House of Delegates adopted a statement on the subject of Christians, churches, and politics. This statement is an update of that earlier one, repeating some of the same points but also elaborating on some new ones. Once again we raise the question, should church groups be involved in politics? What is appropriate or inappropriate in this area?
The statement sets forth some guidelines on some aspects of religion and politics which reflect the perspective of the N. C. Council of Churches and which we commended to the denominational bodies which comprise the Council’s membership. The guidelines offered do not cover every aspect of the subject, but touch upon several which seem urgent at the current time.
I. VIGOROUS INVOLVEMENT IN POLITICAL CAUSES AND POLITICAL ACTIVITIES ARE A VITAL ASPECT OF CHRISTIAN WITNESS IN THE MODERN WORLD
Politics in our democratic society is the process whereby citizens determine how they will live together. The direction and shape of our community and our communities are influence by political decisions. Almost all political decisions have a moral dimension. The living conditions of neighbors in need are determined in significant measure by politics. Issues of war and peace, the distribution of resources, of crime and punishment, and many other vital matters are dealt with in the political arena.
As Christians we believe in a God who works in and through the world to bring justice, peace, and reconciliation. God’s salvation includes the whole creation of social and economic orders, as well as individual persons. If we are faithful to this God, we will engage political issues and enter political struggles in pursuit of compassion and justice. We will labor to see God’s mercy and God’s passion for justice reflected in so far as possible in public policies.
Often, when Christians have entered the political realm, they have fallen into the sins of fanatical self-righteousness and dogmatism. These sins must be guarded against. The more common sins among our ecumenical and mainline churches, however, are the sins of indifference, apathy, and hopelessness. We must especially guard against these sins and constantly renew our faith in the God who promises salvation and promises to be with us in the struggles for justice and peace. We need to be reminded of our power and responsibility as Christian citizens in a democratic society, and of the need for witness in the political sector.
II. WHILE CHRISTIANS SHOULD PARTICIPATE IN POLITICS WITH ZEAL, THEY SHOULD CAREFULLY A VOID PRIDEFUL, SELF-RlGHTEOUSNESS AND DOGMATIC CERTITUDE
Christians and church bodies are never free from the limitations of finitude or from the influence of sin. Our capacity to know and understand is limited. Our perspectives may be tainted and distorted by self-interest even when we seek to know God’s will. We can be mistaken in some measure even in our most idealistic convictions and vision. We can never claim to know with utter certainty what God would have us do or think about any particular political matter.
Furthermore, no political program can be wholly identified with the will of God, and no political ideology adequately represents divine truth. One program, one party, or one philosophy may more nearly reflect God’s will than another. One piece of legislation may move the community a little close to justice. But it would be idolatrous to identify any political program too closely with God.
Awareness of the above should not paralyze decision or action, or dampen conviction and zeal. Such awareness, however, will mitigate against self-righteousness. It could help Christians of different political persuasions to engage in fruitful dialogue with one another.
III. CONCERN FOR THOSE WHOM JESUS CALLED” THE LEAST OF THESE” MUST BE A DOMINANT FACTOR FOR CHRISTIANS IN DETERMINING POLITICAL JUDGEMENTS AND ACTIONS
One of the most persistent and pervasive themes of the Bible is God’s special care for the weak, the vulnerable, and the poor, and the imperative that protection and provision be made for them in the economic system (Deuteronomy 24:19, Exodus 22:22). God insists that justice be done by the community, and justice means defending the cause of the poor and the needy (Jeremiah 22). In the New Testament Jesus identifies with the hungry and is presented as one who came to liberate the oppressed (Luke 4).
A people faithful to the Bible will be strongly influenced by this theme. They will evaluate political leaders and programs with this theme in mind. A key question for every public policy will be: How will this impact the poor, the weak, and the vulnerable in this country and overseas?
In 1986 the U. S. Catholic bishops declared that the extent of poverty in the U. S. constituted a moral scandal. The scandal continues as the poverty rate is as high now as then, (over 14%), and it is concentrated among children, women, and minorities. More than one out of five American children live in poverty and for black children the rate is over one out of two. Nearly one third of black families are below the official poverty line.
The Budget Reconciliation Bill which recently passed the U.S. Congress will push over a million more children into poverty. Reductions in Medicaid will remove 7 million more children from health care coverage. Food and nutrition programs will be cut for 14 million low income children. Taxes will increase for low income workers with families as the Earned Income Tax Credit is reduced (Children’s Defense Fund).
Half of the program reductions in the proposed budget bill will fall upon the poorest 20% of the population. Twenty five percent of the cuts will fall on the next poorest 20%. The tax breaks will benefit mainly the richest 5% of the population (David, Broder, Raleigh News and Observer, Oct. 30, 1995).
We believe that these kinds of measures are inconsistent with a Christian perspective of solidarity with and special care for the poor.
IV. A STRONG INTEREST IN GENUINE EQUALITY AND A WIDE SHARING OF MATERIAL AND SOCIAL GOODS SHOULD INFORM CHRISTIAN THINKING AND ACTING IN THE POLITICAL SPHERE
Closely related to the theme of God’s care for the poor in the Scriptures, is God’s intention that the fruits of the earth be shared and distributed justly. The prophets continually inveigh against the concentration of wealth and power in the hands of a privileged few and call for redistribution (Isaiah 3:13-17, Micah 2:1-2, Amos 6:4-6). The Song of Mary speaks of the coming of God in these terms: “He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.” (Luke 1:46)
Absolute equality in wealth and income is not required by Christian social teaching, said the U.S. Catholic bishops in 1986. However, they also said, there is a strong presumption against extreme inequality as long as there are destitute people in our midst. Extreme inequalities are detrimental to the development of social solidarity and community. Finally, the bishops said that they found the disparities in wealth and income in the U. S. to be unacceptable (Economic Justice for All, P.92).
Those disparities have continued to increase as the rich grow richer and the poor poorer. The trend which has been underway since 1973, and which is now widely recognized, is disturbing to Christian social conscience.
Recent reports reveal that while the U. S. economy grew by 30% since 1980, almost all of the money made off of that growth flowed to the richest 20% of U. S. families. Sixty percent of U.S.families made less money in 1994 than in 1979, adjusting for inflation, while the richest 20% enjoyed a 25% increase, and the richest 5% a 44% increase (The Raleigh News and Observer of2/16/96). The degree of economic inequality in the U. S. is much greater than in other developed nations. In the U. S. the top 20% of the population gets almost half of the total income. The bottom 20% gets 4.5% (America Unequal by Danziger & Gottschalk, p. 42).
The causes for these trends are many and complex, as are the measures which can modify such trends. Christians informed by the biblical vision of justice and community however, will seek and support measures which lead to more genuine equality.
V. GOVERNMENT, INCLUDING THE FEDERAL GOVERNMENT, CAN AND DOES SERVE MANY GOOD PURPOSES. IT IS THE AGENCY THROUGH WHICH THE WHOLE SOCIETY CAN ACT TO PROMOTE THE GENERAL WELFARE AND SERVE THE COMMON GOOD.
From a Christian perspective government can be good or evil, effective or ineffective, wasteful or frugal. To see government as a Savior, and a solution to all problems would be idolatrous and foolish. But to see government as the enemy, as always suspect, and as the source of most social problems is also wrong.
Many problems in contemporary society need to be addressed by the whole society through the agency of government. Some of the most urgent problems before us which require governmental action include: the abuse and degradation of the environment; the deficiencies in public education; poverty among children; crime and gun violence; falling wages among persons without higher education; deprivation in urban ghettos; deprivation in rural ghettos; etc. These and many other problems cannot be left to the winds of free market economic forces, nor can they be adequately addressed by voluntaristic, private efforts. They require collective action and the resources of the whole society. Private charities and church related programs can and do meet some social needs. They provide crucial ministries to many people in desperate need. They do not and cannot, however, substitute for a basic social safety net which must be provided through governments. Nor do private ministries of mercy obviate the need for structures of justice which have to be constructed through governmental action.
With regard to the debate over the size of government, there is no Christian answer. Neither small nor big government is intrinsically better. Government needs to be big enough to ad- dress the problems which need to be addressed by the whole society. Some fear that more government means less freedom. Such fear is justified by the appearance of tyrannical regimes in history. Sometimes, however, an increase in government has meant more freedom. In U.S. history a strong central government has often enhanced freedom and dignity for many. African Americans, industrial workers, the unemployed, elderly persons, and children of indigent parents have gained in liberty through the actions of a strong central government.
VI. CHRISTIANS SHOULD SUPPORT PUBLIC POLICIES WHICH, STRENGTHEN FAMILIES ESPECIALLY FAMILIES WITH CHILDREN
Many of our most serious social problems, such as crime and poverty, are strongly associated with family disintegration and the increase of single parent families. The high rates of divorce and out of wedlock births are alarming. The causes for these trends are complex and solutions are not easily wrought. Moral values and economic forces are involved Christians should approach these matters with compassion and an eagerness to support positive, helping measures.
Public policies and programs cannot be expected to supply all the answers. Some public programs, however, can help to strengthen families. They include: job training and the provision of jobs which pay a family-sustaining wage; wage supplements for persons, working for poverty level wages; guaranteed access to health care for all person regardless of income; available and affordable child day care; family preservation programs; and tax relief and refundable tax credits for low and moderate income families with children.
In recent days the most popular version of “welfare reform” is to move people from welfare to work. For many people dependent upon public assistance such a move will not be feasible unless the above supportive measures are provided.
Some groups in the name of “family values”, advocate reducing public support for poor single mothers, supposing that this will discourage out of wedlock births. Such an approach would be cruel and ineffective. There is no evidence that increasing the destitution of the destitute will encourage responsible reproductive behavior or strengthen fragile families. Family values are not served by punitive measures toward the poor, by denigrating homosexuals, or by insisting upon the subordination of women in family structures.
From a Christian point of view “personal responsibility” is an important value to be encouraged in all persons. Such an emphasis, however, should not be used to judge and punish disadvantaged people. It should not out weigh an emphasis upon social responsibility.