Jesus called for charity, not coercive government
Thursday, July 26, 2012
Beth Cody, Writers’ Group member
Iowa City Press-Citizen

Despite what many local readers seem to believe, as indicated by letters in response to my past columns, I am only marginally religious. I was raised Roman Catholic, but now only periodically attend a local Episcopal church where my husband and children attend services every week.

As a member of this local church, I receive email updates, mostly about upcoming worship and social activities. However, I occasionally receive word of the national Episcopal Church’s programs and have noticed something disturbing:

Many of the Episcopal Church’s programs seem to be centered on government lobbying and other ways of influencing government to control people in order to achieve its goals.

Their national website lists Public Policy at the top of its list of “What We Do,” and has announced that the United Nations’ Millennium Development Goals are the “top mission priority” of the Episcopal Church. The goals themselves are laudable, but the U.N.’s emphasis is predictably on increased government redistribution and regulation, not the establishment of stable markets to allow people to enrich themselves (“give a man a fish…”).

This emphasis on government action to help the poor is a departure from the traditional private charitable efforts of churches, and is problematic for several reasons:

1. Working to increase the power and size of government, even in the name of helping people, is politically divisive and risks alienating parishioners. A sizable part of our population – not just a fringe element – has increasingly grave misgivings about the size and power of our federal government.

A religious organization that disregards the views of a large segment of churchgoers by championing radical “social justice” (defined by as pursuing “a greater degree of economic egalitarianism through progressive taxation, income redistribution, or even property redistribution”) is an organization that deserves to have a declining membership. The Episcopal church has lost two-thirds of its members since 1970, and pursuing radical politics will only accelerate the exodus of members.

2. Focusing on political issues takes away from the main mission of spiritual guidance. If people begin to view their church as just one more political action group, they may begin to look elsewhere for spiritual needs.

3. Government programs are simply not the most effective way to help people. Church leaders are clearly falling prey to the fallacy that government action is the only (or best) way to achieve worthy goals, when historical and economic evidence suggest otherwise. Is encouraging people (here or internationally) to rely upon government programs rather than on themselves, their families and local community charity really wise in a time of impending government bankruptcy? (“Paved with good intentions…”.)

  1. 4. Most importantly, government action is not in keeping with the ethos of Christianity, which uses persuasion, not force, to change people’s hearts and make the world a better place. Government is pure force, taking our money and our freedom, with the authority to use guns to ensure that we obey. This is not the “charity” that Jesus spoke of, which must be freely given to have meaning. Can anything truly good come of such coercion and theft?

Churches should recognize that powerful, redistributive central government is no friend of religion. During the 20th century, government programs coercively usurped the roles of charity, education and health care, making churches less relevant to society. And other countries’ governments either subsidized them, leading to their slow deterioration, or more deliberately destroyed them. No wonder religiosity is waning.

I am obviously no theological expert, but it’s clear to me that colluding with coercive governments is not the right path for churches to follow – it’s not consistent with the original way of Jesus Christ: persuasion, not force, to gain followers and change hearts and minds.

Churches should resist the temptation to resort to any means to achieve goals, no matter how worthy. Abandoning founding principles is always the beginning of the end and will make things worse, not better.