As a political scientist and a Christian, I have long been concerned with the relation of the Church to public policy. I used to regret that Jesus did not urge vigorous social action on his followers. Why didn’t he recommend active involvement in the political arena? Shouldn’t he have admonished his followers to fight the good fight for freedom and equality, for a just and humane political order?
But alas, he did ignore the political plane. Virtually nothing in his recorded life suggests that he thought in terms of political action or urged his followers to think that way. And after thirty-five years of political observation, I think I understand a little better why he may have taken this position.
It still seems reasonable to me that the Church should condemn such public evils as racial discrimination, cruelty, oppression, hypocrisy, deceit, corruption, and war—especially war, which I find wholly incompatible with the Sermon on the Mount and all that Jesus stood for. And 1 think the Church should encourage its members to oppose these things by every peaceful and ethical means. All of them are evils that Jesus opposed by word or example, implicitly or explicitly. Although he did not say his followers should enter the political arena to eradicate them, such action is compatible with the spirit of his ministry.
Having identified such general evils, should the Church go on to prescribe or support specific public policies or strategies to eliminate these evils? This I doubt. Why? Because social problems are enormously complex, complex in their roots, their character, and their response to treatment. To deal intelligently with them requires an immense amount of detailed knowledge not only about problems per se but also about political and social institutions and processes, and about man as a political animal. Precious few theologians, church leaders, or Christian laymen have this expertise.
As one who teaches a course in national issues and writes extensively about them, I am obliged to read a great deal about our domestic problems. I do not become a full-fledged expert on any of them, but I am reasonably well informed. When I hear churchmen discuss public policy, what they say usually strikes me as naïve, superficial, simplistic, jargonistic, and unhistoric. Lacking real expertise, they tend to support policies that have a pleasantly humanitarian ring—and that are compatible with the dominant intellectual climate. In recent Western history this has meant compatibility with the views of the liberals (or the avant-garde), whose approval they covet above all else. Somehow the modern Christian social activist is supremely confident that the liberal—or the ultra-liberal—has a near-monopoly on social wisdom. To be out of step with them is the most dreadful fate he can imagine. Better the rack and the gallows!
Substantive ignorance on public policy is enough to disqualify churchmen as leaders of public policy. Unhappily, even the best-informed persons don’t know much more about what will work and what won’t.
We have been learning some discouraging things about government in recent years—primarily, that government can accomplish far less than we once thought possible. I predict that the period 1880 to 1970 will someday be called The Age of Faith—in Government. And I predict that the balance of this century will be called The Age of Disillusion—With Government.
From the time of the Populist movement down through the New Deal, the Fair Deal, and the Great Society, Americans believed government could do much to better the lot of man. Ten thousand laws later, a trillion public dollars later, we find Americans more restless, more troubled, more discontented than they have ever been. Should this striking outcome not tell us something about the limitations of the state? Does this era of growing frustration have no message for churches seeking to promote the Kingdom of God on earth?
A host of liberal proposals have appealed to churchmen (and to me) in recent years; when their results have been weighed, however, they have usually been found wanting. Only Medicare and the Civil Rights Acts come to mind as reasonably successful measures.
The Federal Highway Act of 1956 was regarded as the major domestic accomplishment of the Eisenhower years. But ecologists now regard the gigantic appropriations in its support as more of a disaster than a triumph.
The Poverty Program? A grievous disappointment. Mostly it nourished an uncreative bureaucracy, poured billions into patchwork local agencies, and brought only marginal gains to the poor.
Federal aid to education? Long a favorite with liberals, it expands regularly without enhancing the quality of American education. There seems to be almost no correlation between bigger federal appropriations and better education. The celebrated Coleman Report proved this almost beyond cavil.
Operation Headstart? A sincere effort to get at the root of educational inequality but one that has produced few if any enduring results.
Federal housing programs? Beginning with the first public-housing experiments during the New Deal, moving through the Housing Act of 1949, the urban-renewal amendment in the fifties, and the low-income housing subsidy program of the sixties, these efforts have been among the more dismal disappointments.
Manpower and retraining programs? A succession of bills have been passed and reasonably well financed, with monotonously uninspiring results. Major federal aid to invigorate and modernize high school vocational education seems to have gotten us almost nowhere.
Aid for depressed areas? Hundreds of millions for this worthy cause have proved relatively sterile. And who believes the Appalachian Regional Development Act has really helped the poor very much in that stricken area?
The farm program? Ostensibly designed to help the poor and struggling farmer, it sustains or fattens the large and middle-sized farmer while sprinkling crumbs to the small operator. Liberal enthusiasm for the program disappeared years ago.
Foreign economic aid? A few successes here and there, but overall a dispiriting record despite some capable administrators and regular congressional attempts to improve the program.
The Peace Corps? A great experience for those who participate but of trifling consequence to beneficiary nations.
The historic Safe Streets and Crime Control Act of 1968? Violent crime keeps rising at an appalling rate; the act has accomplished almost nothing.
A recent article in the New Republic summarizes the results of a long list of prison “reforms” designed to rehabilitate prisoners—and faithfully supported by liberal churchmen. Group therapy, psychiatric treatment, remedial education, halfway houses, small case loads for the probation officer, on-the-job training—these and many more have been appraised. The author concludes, from 231 scholarly studies, that “the present array of correctional treatments has no appreciable effect—positive or negative—on the rates of recidivism of convicted offenders.”
Busing black children to predominantly white schools? The latest studies show that educational results are meager. The self-esteem of (predominantly) lower-class black children apparently suffers when they are intermingled with (predominantly) middle-class white children; racial hostilities rise rather than fall.
Almost every public program ends in disappointment. Yet we plunge ahead, undaunted, through the desert of our blasted hopes, believing an oasis must lie ahead. The next proposed reform that wins approval in the intellectual community will surely provide the breakthrough we have long awaited.
Professor Amitai Etzioni made a profound observation when he wrote (Saturday Review, June 3, 1972):
We have come of late to the realization that the pace of achievement in domestic programs ranges chiefly from the slow to the crab-like—two steps backward for every step forward—and the suspicion is growing that there is something basically wrong with most of these programs. A nagging feeling persists that maybe something even more basic than the lack of funds or will is at stake.… We are now confronting the uncomfortable possibility that human beings are not very easily changed after all.
Maybe it’s the system. Maybe we need socialism. But the dream of socialism as a means of bringing justice, order, and felicity to man has become tattered in Western Europe. Not that democratic socialism has been a conspicuous failure; it just has not been a success when measured against the high hopes of those saw it as the answer to man’s quest for the Good Society.
This is not to say there will not be public policies advanced from time to time that will promote somewhat greater social justice—but the theologian has no unique criteria for separating the few programs that will meet with some success from the many that will fail. He cannot foresee the end results of social experimentation any better than others. He can only say, “Its objectives mesh with my ideals”—a feeble basis for judging public proposals. “Will it really work? Will its gains outweigh its losses? Should society concentrate on this rather than that? What will be its over-all, long-run effects?” On these critically important questions the churchman speaks with no authority.
Unhappily, even the “experts” can do little better. Even they act on the basis of staggering predictive ignorance in our incredibly complicated society. All of us see through a glass very, very darkly. It is time we recognized how intractable social problems really are, how little the most brilliant social scientists really know about dealing with them, and how little we should expect public policy to accomplish in promoting human happiness. We should recognize how unlikely it is that any legislative reform, any social engineering, will really do much to make Western man happier, more virtuous, or more wise. We should remember—churchmen should never have forgotten—Samuel Johnson’s wise couplet: “How small of all that human hearts endure, that part which laws or kings can cause or cure.”
Ask yourself a question. “Of the unhappiness that afflicts people I know, how much of it is due to public policy?” Not very much, I suspect. That should indicate where the Christian should direct his major efforts. And that may be why Jesus cast his message as he did—on the plane of personal and man-God relations rather than that of political action.
While acknowledging their severe limitations as social engineers, church leaders should still, I think, advise their members to apply Christian principles as best they can to public policy—but always with due humility, awareness of the fallibility of their vision, and modest expectations. Making solid progress in public affairs is as difficult as making moral progress in our personal lives. If we haven’t found that to be a discouraging, painfully slow process, we aren’t very perceptive or very honest. Or we are en route to canonization!
Although government cannot do much to solve our major problems these days, it can—in the absence of men actively dedicated to humane values—do much to make life worse. After all, Hitler and Stalin did live in our age. Hitler was staunchly opposed by many German churchmen—to their everlasting credit—while Stalin (and the czars) found little opposition from Russian churchmen—to their everlasting shame. The Church, to repeat, has the same obligation to condemn gross public injustice as it had in Isaiah’s day.
On the other hand, the perils of promoting the candidacies of particular presidential candidates are well illustrated by the recent election. Conservative churchmen often yielded to the temptation to support openly or indirectly a candidate who had long acknowledged religious pieties and who had cultivated conservative religious leaders. But suppose the Nixon administration should prove to be seriously corrupt at the higher levels? And suppose the Communists soon seize Saigon and 120,000 American casualties plus over a million Vietnamese casualties (over the last four years) prove beyond cavil that American participation in a civil war between a right-wing and a left-wing dictatorship was indeed for naught? Will public support of this candidate by these religious leaders not redound to the discredit of Christian orthodoxy in general?
Conversely, other religious leaders publicly supported Senator McGovern. Suppose he had won and then proved to be naïvely idealistic and incapable of adequate executive leadership. Would this enhance the public’s respect for the faith with which his religious champions are associated? Are religious leaders—whether right- or left-minded—really competent to guide others in judging between presidential candidates? Or is their political judgment just as fallible as that of the average citizen?
Where does this bring us, then? I think it brings a fresh awareness that the most important contribution almost all of us make in this world is in our interpersonal relations. Our personal acts of kindness and concern have probably a hundred times more actual impact on the lives of others than our advocacy of “enlightened” social ideas. Let me repeat: Our personal acts of kindness and concern have probably a hundred times more actual impact on the lives of others than our advocacy of “enlightened” social ideas.
College professors, for instance, may talk endlessly and learnedly about social reforms. Yet for all but a very, very few, I believe the only part of their lives that really makes much difference to the real lives of others is the way that treat their wives or husbands, their children, their neighbors, their students in and out of class—and the general moral example they set. The world would probably not be one whit the worse if 95 per cent of all the books and learned articles were never written and most of the lectures never delivered. But each time an individual performs an act of kindness, someone’s life is brightened at least a little. Wordsworth wisely spoke of “that best part of a good man’s life, his little nameless, unremembered acts of kindness and of love.”
If the principal impact of almost all political activists is found not in their political ideas and activities but in their personal relations, then should not the churches largely concentrate on helping all of us make the most of our private lives and relationships? This is where the action really is; this is the crucial battleground for 98 per cent of us, 98 per cent of the time.
This approach parallels the main thrust of Jesus’ life and teachings. He was concerned about political action very little, if at all. But he was endlessly concerned with people’s daily behavior and the values ordering their private lives. His priorities offer the safest guide to the Church yesterday, today, and tomorrow.
Last but by no means least, Jesus never forgot that man hungers for more than bread, more than justice, more than the here and now. Man desperately needs to believe in a God, a God who cares about man. A God who cares beyond the grave. This, too, many churchmen have forgotten or minimized. Jesus did not forget, as Scripture abundantly testifies.
The Church has something unique to offer, something the humanists and secularists cannot supply. It can help men satisfy their deepest hunger, their deepest need. This need is to believe that man is not abandoned in a cold and uncaring cosmos of moral absurdity—that human life has significance both today and in the long tomorrow.
George M. Marsden is associate professor of history at Calvin College, Grand Rapids, Michigan. He has the Ph.D. (Yale University) and has written “The Evangelical Mind and the New School Presbyterian Experience.”
Have something to add about this? See something we missed? Share your feedback here.