Last Friday, AEI hosted a Values & Capitalism discussion on faith in politics with two prominent Evangelical political thought leaders.
I was especially excited for this event because from my experience, Christian circles have done everything to hush controversial conversations. Political topics were avoided like the plague, and faith was easily compartmentalized from secular intellectual thought. Conversely, faith in politics is a topic that D.C. Innes and Lisa Sharon Harper fervently believe Christians are called to discuss.
Innes and Harper, who together wrote Left, Right & Christ: Evangelical Faith in Politics, both agree that God created government for good but that good intentions are not enough in public policy debates. However, they disagree on the role of government and the appropriate policy solutions.
Innes, an associate professor of politics at The King’s College in New York City, opened the debate by arguing God’s purpose for government is a limited government that facilitates liberty. Rather than just expanding liberty for the individual, Innes believes the “more Christian thing” for the government to do is to expand liberty for family units and communities. Since liberty and prosperity are seen as good in God’s eyes, government policy should reflect these dignifying principles in order to foster a free and flourishing society.
Harper, director of mobilization at Sojourners took the podium with a different view. She argued that political discussion should not be focused on ideology but on discerning good or bad policy. Harper believes the best policies that reflect Christian principles are ones that protect “the least of these” suggesting the need for redistribution policies.
Though Harper was extremely engaging and well-versed in both American history and scripture, I had a number of problems with her argument.
- Her reasoning on being a Democrat: She said, “Republicans take money from the poor and give it to the rich [...] Democrats take back that money from the rich and give it to the poor. That’s why we’re Democrats.” The problem with her analysis is that it is simply incorrect. Republicans do not take money from the poor and give it to the rich. Moving on.
- The metaphysical disconnect between political philosophy and policy: Harper seems to start the “faith and politics” conversation with policy and then demonstrates how a particular policy is aligned with scripture. But she has missed the connector: political philosophy. Political philosophy is where theology and policy meet; it is where the two worlds are reconciled, yet Harper jumps the gun and avoids the “high level battle of ideas.” Her argument is seemingly aligned, but not soundly intertwined. Because she approaches policy from a consequentialist view, she has failed to recognize the political philosophy implied by the policies she supports, which is not solely theological but rather one of “big government.”
- The failure to understand the correlation between government regulation and unintended consequences: Harper gave an interesting policy case concerning government zoning and tax regulation that created food deserts in New York City. She used this illustration as an example of bad policy that should have been more properly discerned to meet the needs of the poor. The irony behind her example is that this is the exact kind of policy free-market economists denounce for the same reason. But a free-market economist goes deeper than Harper. Evangelical conservatives, like Innes, understand that regulatory policies, like the one Harper mentioned, often unintentionally hurt certain groups of people because the means are coercive and market-distorting. Harper considers only the ends, but if she took the time to evaluate the means, maybe she would find she is more conservative than she realizes.
But who am I? That’s just how I see it, and opinions are a dime a dozen.
It is still a wonder to me how one Christian faith can point to opposite policy solutions to the most critical issues of our time. Nevertheless, the purpose of this event was not to determine whether Christ would lean left or right but, but rather to center political discussion on the values and principles of a Christian worldview—and for that it was successful. Christ’s example teaches it is not enough for faith to be in our minds; it must be lived out in our hands and feet as well. Innes and Harper are wonderful examples of Evangelicals who follow Christ’s teachings and live out their biblical convictions in all areas of life.
My biggest take away from this debate was D.C. Innes’ encouragement to use a humble spirit when discerning the role of faith in policy:
“In reading the Bible, in anything, but even something as life forming as politics, it requires a humble and sober and careful submission to the scripture. Humble above all, because it is easy to use the Bible … to justify your passions and political passions are very strong.”
When it comes to the always interesting and sometimes heated faith-based political discussions, keeping a spirit of humility is far more important than asking, “How Would Jesus Vote?”