Photo credit: 2007 Marc Nozell/flickr. Use does not represent endorsement by the photographer.
In my experience, conservatives are the ones who insist there should be no separation of church and state. While on the campaign trail, Rick Santorum told America that the idea of such a separation makes him want to vomit. So I guess he’s against it. Conservatives respond to the culture war by asserting that we’re a Christian nation with the can’t-miss implication that our government (when not highjacked by liberals) is godly, founded by Christian men, with laws and freedoms based on Judeo-Christian principle. I know these positions well, having grown up in conservative circles.
But when it comes time for the government to act in ways congruent with Christianity, like feeding the hungry (food stamps) or caring for the sick (health care), conservatives grimace, play the small government and personal responsibility card, and argue that we can’t have government in the role of the church. So which is it?
The First Amendment of the Constitution is wonderfully concise. It covers religion, freedom of speech, the press, peaceable assembly, and the redress of grievances in 45 words. Yes, this means I was nerdy enough to bother counting. Regarding church and state separation, the First Amendment takes a bold position of equality for all religions: there will be no establishment of a national religion, but also no prohibition of religious free exercise. We’ll come back to all of this in a moment. But first, an example of the evangelical double standard about church and state.
As the Supreme Court is hearing arguments about the constitutionality of Obamacare, a very prominent pastor associated with conservatism tweeted this:
That is a Whopper of a false dichotomy, with cheese.
I have never met any member of a centrist or liberal church who believes the government is the answer to all problems. They just happen to favor health care and food stamps over warfare and feeding the military industrial complex when it comes to what the government actually does, which should be pleasing to conservative ears if we are indeed a Christian nation (and by extension, a Christian government).
Notice also that you’re a Biblical church in the eyes of this prominent pastor if you think local church is the answer. One of the more nasty byproducts to come out of fundamentalist thinking is that which erases personal interpretation of scripture from the application of scripture in a contemporary worldview. “Well I’m Biblical and you’re just out there relying on the world” is a response I’ve heard from conservative evangelicals. The government is equated with the world. Then a triple backflip of confusion is performed as the same conservative evangelical relies on “the world” to police and execute individuals at home and abroad while defending such things as earning the honor of Jesus before condemning that same part of the world when it helps the hungry and sick. Even on this pastor’s own terms, I can’t wrap my mind around the magnitude of ignorance in that short tweet. The local church is the answer to what? Everything? Disease? Clean water? Wall Street regulation? Libraries? Roads? And how’s that working out for the local church when it comes to basic essentials like health, shelter and food, things also the focus of evangelical outreach? In the U.S. alone 50 million are without health care and 36.3 million including 13 million children are hungry or facing a serious risk of hunger. This is not an attempt to discredit the church for the wonderful outreach it does, but rather to recognize that the church either has not or can not solve the problem alone.
The conservative explanation tells us there is no separation of church and state, and the state should not be in the business of care and social services. What then should this so-called Christian government do?
Look at the size of the new Homeland Security mega-complex (DHS was created under George W. Bush, as a reminder). Read about the size of our military compared to the next 10 countries. Or check out this figure:
photo credit: iiss.org
Paul Ryan’s budget? It slashes food stamps and federal pensions but doesn’t touch the sacred cow- a Pentagon budget raking in hundreds of billions annually. In Afghanistan (which Republican candidates favored an expansion of even after a decade of war there, minus only Ron Paul), look at the troop to al Qaeda ratio. Even by our government’s count there are only 200 terrorists left there, while 68,000 of our men and women will remain after Obama’s September 2012 drawdown. Why? And is that small government? In fairness, the left also seems largely anesthetized now that Obama is running these wars, but they also aren’t the ones touting a small government philosophy or claiming that our government is godly when it wages war.
We have ourselves the largest military and defense budget on earth with no nation close enough to be called second place, and the sad irony is that the church-based small government advocates look the other way when it has to do with this warfare and surveillance apparatus while moaning about the threat of big government when the policy actually parallels some of the works of Christ.
It appears that for many conservatives, the size of government doesn’t matter as long as it dovetails with their worldview which, since 9/11, includes a growing allegiance to our police force, prison system, and military. I want to ask them what “tough on crime and tougher on terrorism” has to do with Judeo Christian principle or the life of Christ. I’ve heard the distinctions that conservatives offer about the government’s role to handle the dirty work of security and law enforcement, while assigning the Jesus stuff to the individual or the church. But that answer troubles me. That answer washes its hands of reckless militarism and oppressive domestic surveillance and punishment at the hands of our sprawling security state, and doesn’t seem to mind that the hunger and health needs in this country are out of control. When you take it all in, the conservative endorsement of the broken status quo doesn’t exactly give off a Sermon on the Mount vibe.