Civil Governance & The Church

What is the Church’s proper role in civil governance?  From government contracts for faith-based social service agencies (ie, Lutheran Social Services, Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service) and President Bush’s faith-based initiatives, to the Ten Commandments on courthouses and government-salaried chaplains in Congress, what role does the church appropriately play in civil governance?

Two articles in Wednesday’s Washington Post Metro section quote leaders who, in my opinion, have incorrect understandings of the church-government relationship.  These leaders – one a politician, one a leader of a social service agency – perpetuate misunderstandings that are dangerous for both the work of the church and the work of the government.

EXHIBIT A: Virginia Attorney General Robert F. McDonnell (R)

Criticizing Governor Kaine’s decision to cut funding for abstinence-only sex education programs (programs the Governor and many researchers contend are ineffective), the Attorney General invoked their shared Catholic faith to score political points with social conservatives:

"He is a Catholic, and I am a Catholic, and I know our church teaches
abstinence," McDonnell said of Kaine. "I am puzzled by his decision."  [from Va. GOP Assails Kaine on Sex-Ed, Nov 21, 2007]

Mr. McDonnell’s church teaches a lot of things that I’m sure he’s not advocating become the law of Virginia.  I’m sure his Republican party does not advocate the reordering of society according to the Blessed Mother’s prophesy that the mighty be thrown down and the rich sent away empty, for example.  But more than that, his comment fails to reference any nuance between the different roles church and state play in society.  From this comment one could wonder if Mr. McDonnell believes that Catholic politicians must govern in absolute lock-step with Vatican teachings.  So much for the deliberation and compromise inherent in our political system!  In the wake of the recent Conference of Catholic Bishops, where the issue of Catholic politicians who differ from Rome on social and political issues was discussed, such a comment comes across as religious and political bullying.

EXHIBIT B: Andy Johnston, executive director of Loudoun Cares, a service and referral organization in Loudoun County, Virginia

Referencing the growth in the homeless and economically at-risk population in suburban and wealthy Loudoun County, Andy Johnston seems to pine for a (supposed) past when the church took care of the poor:

Moreover, [Johnston] said, there has been a cultural shift toward a more
suburban lifestyle in which people turn to government rather than
charities to solve social problems. "In the past, the church took care
of people, and that was that," he said. [from Loudoun to Run Daytime Shelter, Nov 21, 2007]

This in-the-past-the-church-took-care-of-people notion is a bunch of hooey.  First, lots of people in the past – whether you’re talking about the 19th century or the 1950s – were simply not taken care of by anyone.  Not by the state.  Not by the church.  Not by the community.  Not by anyone.  The church was never a perfect, catch-all social service provider.  That’s a myth and a fantasy. 

Furthermore, the care of the poor is not the church’s proper role in society.  Rather, the just ordering of society – which includes the care of the poor – is the duty of the state.  The church’s offerings of social services are at best stop-gap and temporary measures.  When the church serves the poor, we do so out of charity, that is, out of love and concern for those who suffer.  In the model of Jesus, the church gives bread and fish to feed the hungry in the hope and expectation that one day all will be fed in the Kingdom that is to come.  But in this day it is the government that is tasked with ordering society in a just manner, by establishing structures or changing existing structures to see that all people – or at least, a larger share of the population – have real access to social and economic opportunities.  We can’t expect (or outsource) the church to do the government’s job!

– – – – –
There’s much more to say on this topic, but I’m getting tired and the kids are already not sleeping well (it’s only 11pm – this doesn’t bode well for the night).  I’ll leave you with a recommendation to read two posts by Lee, who blogs over at A Thinking Reed: The political Christian, and the last paragraph of this post about the so-called "Evangelical Crack-Up".  He writes very intelligently about the proper role of government from a Lutheran perspective.

Published by Chris Duckworth

Spouse. Parent. Lutheran Pastor. Veteran. Jedi. Political Junkie. Baseball Fan.

2 thoughts on “Civil Governance & The Church

  1. Kayne’s decision is eminently reasonable from a Catholic perspective (even a Roman one). Ab-only programs do not delay the onset of sexual activity in teens (Waxman Report, Mathematica Report). Abstinence-plus (comprehensive) programs do. It’s really that simple.
    Also, ab-only programs often do not teach negotiation skills and refusal techniques that teens can use to make their “no” be heard loud and clear. Those techniques help them avoid peer pressure and make them more assertive and in control of many aspects of their lives.
    If only Republican lawmakers would understand that while many of us share the same values as Christians, we see very different ways of living those out — often ways that are more effective than party orthodoxy dictates.

  2. Hey – thanks for the links and kind words!
    I’m intrigued by your statement that the kind of social services provided by the church are at best a stop-gap measure. While I agree that the state has the primary responsibility for the just ordering of social institutions, I wonder if there aren’t services that can only be provided by more personal, face-to-face, “faith-based” communities? That is, maybe the vast impersonality of the state make it ill-suited to certain kinds of services that the church is uniquely (or at least specially) equipped to provide. I think I’m more inclined to see the possibility of different but complementary roles here (I also think questions of subsidiarity may come into play).

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