Photo credit: http://www.calvin.edu
by Rick Plasterer
How specific can Christians get in identifying a Christian perspective on public policy? That was the question considered by Dr. Stephen Monsma, a senior research fellow at the Henry Institute for the Study of Christianity and Politics at Calvin College and Professor Emeritus of Political Science at Pepperdine University at a Faith and Law presentation on Capitol Hill on February 22.
“Can one properly speak of the Christian answer or even a Christian answer” in public policy? There are three possible responses to this question, Dr. Monsma claimed. 1) Yes, because faith speaks to all of life, 2) No, because the Bible does not speak to technical issues, and 3) It depends, because the Bible speaks to general but not technical issues. According to Monsma, in attempting to assess if there is a Christian answer to a particular public policy question, one should look to 1) basic Christian principles (identified from doctrines that permeate Scripture), 2) an assessment of relevant facts, and 3) prudence.
In addressing the first criterion, we look first to the basic Christian doctrine of creation and redemption, in which we understand that God created the world good and perfect but it fell into sin. In this, we understand that Jesus Christ and his redemption, and not pessimism engendered by the doctrine of sin, is the center of the Christian confession, and the salvation he gives us saves us from despair. Secondly, a Christian looks to social solidarity “rooted in Christ’s command to love others as ourselves … unconcern for others is not a Christian position.” Thirdly, justice is a basic Christian principle. God’s will is that governments order “their actions to promote justice in society.” Quoting Augustine, Monsma noted that justice involves “giving all persons their due.” This both “empowers and limits governments and their tasks.” Monsma seemed to hold that this Biblical concept of justice mandates a relatively activist role for government addressing injustice in society. In particular, he holds that governments must go beyond libertarian limits to achieve justice. Fourthly, there is the maintenance of civil society. Civil society is the host of intermediary social structures between the state and the individual. These institutions are “part of the God-intended nature of society.” Christians have developed doctrines to address the danger of an overreaching government superseding civil society. “Higher social structures ought not to supersede lower social structures,” Monsma said. Calvinist thought defends civil society through its doctrine of “sphere sovereignty,” however, Monsma referred to the similar Catholic doctrine of “subsidiarity.”
These basic principles are not specific enough to answer the question of whether there is a “Christian answer” to a particular public policy issue, Monsma claimed. To do that we need the additional considerations of factual assessment and prudence. Noting that “the facts are often in dispute,” Monsma referred to his own experience at the beginning of George W. Bush’s administration in which he was asked whether there is in fact evidence that faith based social services are superior to others. Influential persons and members of the media turned to him for answers because of his involvement in this policy area, but he found it necessary to give what he found to be an honest answer that there is no conclusive evidence answering this policy question. The way to address the matter of empirical verification is to “study and research the facts as best we can,” and then combine the result with basic Christian principles.
Finally, there is the criterion of prudence. This involves “perceptiveness” and “good sense,” asking how Christian principles apply. Here Christian principles and a factual assessment are considered with prayer, to reach a conclusion.
In the course of question and answer interaction with the audience, Monsma indicated that it is rarely possible to identify a definite “Christian position” on a particular issue. He did say that we “turn to our faith for help and insight,” but should not claim that we have “the Christian position” on public policy. Yet we “must not be paralyzed by our humility.” Against the common secularist claim that Christians are “imposing” their beliefs and values on others, he observed that all persons in making public policy positions ultimately rely on axiomatic beliefs, the secularist simply relies on secular axioms. Nevertheless, he said that in public discourse, the statement “this is my position molded by my Christian belief” will be better received than “the Bible says so.”
In the course of further discussion, Monsma did agree that there is one “Christian position” on abortion and homosexuality. On the other hand, referring to the current effort to repeal Virginia’s law against fornication, he was unsure as to whether there should be civil laws against fornication and adultery.
To justify a Christian conception of civil society, Monsma claimed we need to appeal to both Biblical principles and general observation. Good and evil with respect to society are based on things that are “inborn in human beings.” What God intended for human beings he structured into them at time mankind was created. But prudence is necessary in the restoration and preservation of good order in society. In moving society toward the will of God, Monsma held that “normally, incremental change is to be preferred over radical change … large changes can be achieved by a series of small steps rather than one large leap.”