Silly Memes, Volume 1

by Brian Watson

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Generally, memes are a lazy way of making an argument. They can be rhetorically powerful, particularly since they make such a visual impact. Yet they often consist of a sentence or a paragraph, taken out of context. Real arguments require more time, more thought, and more evidence. Yet a society that is trained to respond quickly to visual stimuli—and to think shallowly—doesn’t care for those types of arguments.

If I am able to write more frequently, which is always my desire, I want to take some time to refute some errant memes.

I just saw this meme posted on Facebook. I have seen similar memes posted in the past. One similar meme had these words:

[I]f you don’t want your tax dollars to help the poor, to help the sick, to avoid violence, to take better care of those in prison, to help the needy, fine. Don’t vote that way. But don’t ever say you want a government based on Christian values, because you don’t.[1]

In the picture above, this nun says that if one doesn’t believe that the government should take care of children from cradle to grave, then one isn’t truly pro-life. Instead, if one is merely against abortion—and not for cradle-to-grave governmental care—then one is merely pro-birth. In the block quote above, the argument is this: If you don’t vote to use tax dollars to help the poor, the sick, and the needy (along with preventing violence and taking care of prisoners), you don’t want a government based on Christian values.

At first glance, such arguments seem powerful. Shouldn’t Christians want to take care of the poor? Shouldn’t they thus want government funds to be spent in the care of those in need, regardless of whether they are in the womb or outside of it?

No real Christian would debate whether or not it is good and right to take care of the poor. But the real question should be: What is the government’s role in taking care of the poor? That question leads us to a larger question: What is the role of the government?

What Is the Role of the Government?

Unfortunately, in these memes, there is little room for substantive argumentation. That’s why memes are a lousy way to make an argument. Sure, memes are effective in confirming one’s already-held beliefs. But they often don’t deal with the underlying, fundamental issues, and that’s why they fail as arguments.

So, what is the role of government? First, one should consider what makes government unique. What separates the government from various voluntary and free associations (charities, churches, non-profit organizations, corporations, clubs, etc.) is that the government has the power of force. The government can force people to pay taxes and to obey certain laws. If its citizens do not obey, the government has the power to penalize and/or imprison its citizens. This is not true of other institutions within society.

When we have considered what makes the government unique, we then should move to the question of the role or purpose of the government. In order to know the answer to such a question, we need a standard. Christians should turn to the Bible, God’s Word, to understand God’s intent for the role of government. Two passages in the New Testament speak clearly to this issue:

Romans 13:1–7 (ESV)

1 Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment. For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Would you have no fear of the one who is in authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive his approval, for he is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain. For he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer. Therefore one must be in subjection, not only to avoid God’s wrath but also for the sake of conscience. For because of this you also pay taxes, for the authorities are ministers of God, attending to this very thing. Pay to all what is owed to them: taxes to whom taxes are owed, revenue to whom revenue is owed, respect to whom respect is owed, honor to whom honor is owed.

1 Peter 2:13–17 (ESV)

13 Be subject for the Lord’s sake to every human institution, whether it be to the emperor as supreme, 14 or to governors as sent by him to punish those who do evil and to praise those who do good. 15 For this is the will of God, that by doing good you should put to silence the ignorance of foolish people. 16 Live as people who are free, not using your freedom as a cover-up for evil, but living as servants of God. 17 Honor everyone. Love the brotherhood. Fear God. Honor the emperor.

These two passages are similar. They both state that the government is instituted by God to punish evil. The Romans passage says that we should pay taxes because the government has a legitimate role to play. It exists to punish evil. The 1 Peter passage says the government also praises those who do good. It does not say, “The government exists to provide goods and services.” The government bears the sword; it does not bake the bread. In other words, the government protects people and punishes evil. It does not give out free stuff.

What is a Christian View of the Role of Government?

The arguments presented above—in the meme and the block quote of John Fugelsang—suggest that government, to be a pro-life government or a Christian government, must provide for the poor, the needy, all the way from birth to death. However, you won’t find such statements in the Bible. (When I say, “in the Bible,” I am referring to where we are now in the biblical plotline, in the time between the two advents of Christ. We are not taught to expect that any government in this time period will be a theocracy, as was the case with Israel in the Old Testament.)

Jesus didn’t tell his disciples to go lobby Caesar. He didn’t tell them to get involved in politics. However, Jesus told his disciples that it was their duty to take care of their neighbor, whomever that might be. He told his followers to love the poor. The apostles repeat this message. James says true religion is both to take care of the orphan and widow and to keep oneself unstained from the world (James 1:27). Yet he didn’t say it was the government’s role to do that. If we are led to believe that Jesus’ commandments (whether in “red letters” or whether through the apostles and prophets—the Bible makes no distinction between the two) apply to government, such a position, if held consistently, would lead us to believe that the government must also make disciples, baptize people, and teach them everything that Jesus taught (Matthew 28:18-20). Yet no one seems to be advocating such a position.

Instead, a truly Christian view of government would be this: The government should protect the lives of its citizens. It should protect those citizens from harm by others. It should give its citizens negative rights, not positive rights.

Nowhere in the New Testament do we find a concept of a government providing what are called positive rights. Instead, we see that the government is supposed to provide negative rights. J. P. Moreland, a Christian philosopher, explains the difference between positive and negative rights:

A positive right is a right to have something given to the right-holder. If Smith has a positive right to X, say to health care, then the state has an obligation to give X to Smith. . . . A negative right to X is a right to be protected from harm while one seeks to get X on one’s own. If Smith has a negative right to X, say to health care, then the state has an obligation to protect Smith from discrimination and unfair treatment in his attempt to get X on his own.[2]

On Abortion

Abortion is the intentional termination of an innocent human life. It is murder. That assertion, which sounds rather stark and perhaps harsh, is nonetheless supported biblically, scientifically, and philosophically. I have presented these arguments elsewhere.[3] If abortion is the killing of innocent life, it must be stopped by the government. The government has the obligation to protect the unborn and punish those who would seek to kill the innocent human life in the womb. In so doing, the government would be protecting the negative rights of the child.

Once the child is born, the government still has a role in protecting that child’s life and punishing anyone who would harm or kill that child. When the child grows up to be an adult, the government still has an obligation to protect the innocent human and punish anyone who would seek to harm or kill that person. Yet the government does not have an obligation to provide positive rights to that person. The government does not have to give the person, once outside the womb, free food and clothing and shelter.

A Christian view of abortion is that it is wrong; a Christian view of government is that we should expect the government to protect the unborn child. Yet Christians would also say that the government has no obligation to care for all the needs of a person from cradle to grave. What the government ought to do is protect people and punish those who would harm and kill them. Christians, on the other hand, have the opportunity and the obligation to personally care for those around them.

On Poverty

Let’s now think about poverty. According to the argument above, the government has no obligation to feed, clothe, and house the poor. Yet the government does have an obligation to protect the poor from harm. The government can punish those who seek to rob from the poor. The government should create laws to protect the poor from predatory lending, or other unfair business practices. The government can and should punish companies who would practice racial discrimination.

Let’s say the government, though it has no obligation to care for the poor, decides to do so anyway. Can government really do a good job of caring for the poor? Obviously, the government has the power to tax people heavily, and can therefore accrue great amounts of money. But does money alone cure poverty?

In an article on The Gospel Coalition, Joe Carter relays some facts about the “War on Poverty,” which has been waged since the mid-1960s.[4] I won’t repeat all the information Carter presents there. To me, the salient fact is that in almost fifty years, the government has spent $15 trillion on poverty, and has only been able to reduce the percentage of Americans living below the poverty line by a few points.

Why can’t government fix poverty? Government’s role is to punish vice. But it does a poor job of instilling virtue. Many, though not all, of the factors that contribute to poverty are related to virtue. Carter says that the percentage of married couples living below poverty is only 6 percent (compared to 15 percent of all Americans). Yet 31 percent of single moms and 25 percent of single dads live below the poverty line.  The government has done little to keep families together. I would argue that government can’t really help in that area because it’s not the purpose of government. To address the problem of the broken home, one must get to the root problems. This is where Christianity can do much more than the government. Christianity addresses the design and purpose of marriage: to reflect the relationship between God and his people. Christianity teaches forgiveness and grace, responsibility and love. If we let the government be the government and the church be the church, things would be better.

So a Christian view of government as it pertains to poverty is that it should protect the poor from theft and unfair business practices. But the government has no obligation to feed, clothe, and house the poor. There may be wisdom in having the government provide certain tax incentives to married couples, or to people seeking re-education to train for a new job.

I personally think there should be some kind of safety net, but one that is limited in scope.

Twisted Logic

Let’s return to the meme posted above. I don’t think this nun suggests what I’m about to write, yet it is the logical conclusion to her argument. Her claim is that to be truly pro-life, the government must care for people from their birth to their death. Anything short of that is merely pro-birth. She seems to suggest that unless we provide for everyone from cradle to grave, we shouldn’t protect their lives in their mother’s wombs. She does not celebrate the notion of “pro-birth.” It’s almost as if this meme suggests, “Unless the government pays for all kinds of goods and services for these babies that are being aborted now, it’s better to let them be aborted.” Again, I don’t think the nun would say such a thing, but that’s where her argument leads.

I think the failure of self-proclaimed Christians to denounce abortion as evil is cowardice. These kinds of arguments work against any progress that our society can make in fighting against the murder of more than a million children each year. Since Roe v. Wade in 1973, there have been over 55 million abortions. That number is frightening. It far surpasses the number of slaves in America and the number of Jews killed in the holocaust. To suggest that this is anything other than the greatest evil of our day is folly.

A Limited Government Is Best. A Large Government Is Beast.

If we are to take what the Bible says about government seriously, we should advocate for a limited government. Since the government has the power to force people to do or not to do certain things, we should be careful about how much power government has. When considering the size and scope of government, we should also consider Christian anthropology (the doctrine of humanity) and hamartiology (the doctrine of sin). To put it in simpler words, we should consider what the Bible teaches about humans and sin.

The Bible says that each person is sinful. We are fallen. We have disordered desires. Even Christians struggle with their sin nature as they tread the road of sanctification. The government is not some impersonal force. Government consists of many humans, all of whom are sinful. This large, sinful group of people has the power of force. That force can be used for good and evil. If the size and scope of government is limited, it won’t do as much harm as a large government.

Hunter Baker, in his excellent primer on the Christian view of political philosophy, writes, “The most powerful governments in history have often been the most murderous and the most oppressive.”[5] One need only think of the Soviet Union under Stalin, or Communist China under Mao. Baker then suggests, “If we accept the truth about the sinfulness of human beings—and it is the better part of wisdom and experience to do so—then we should perhaps consider revising our expectations of what can be achieved through the institution of government.”[6] A large, benevolent government is a utopian dream. We may all long for a government that can provide for everyone. Yet what happens when the sinful people in charge of the government start to use the power of force in evil ways? According to Baker, “A limited government with very specific mandates can still successfully punish evil. But it takes a Leviathan to envision and enact our dreams. And too often, they become nightmares.”[7]

According to the Bible, large, godless empires are like beasts that devour its citizens. One need only think of the examples of Egypt and Babylon and the Roman Empire, as well as texts like Daniel 7 or Revelation 13.

So, a consistent, pro-life, pro-charity Christian can and should be for a limited government, one that protects the negative rights of the unborn and born. That same Christian should also get his or her hands dirty in helping the poor. Loving one’s neighbor directly through action takes more work, and requires more virtue, than allowing the government to tax more, operate inefficiently, spend wastefully, and see little fruit.

Notes

[1] John Thomason, “A Conversation with John Fugelsang,” Boca, May 16, 2012, http://www.bocamag.com/blog/2012/05/16/a-conversation-with-john-fugelsang/, accessed May 30, 2015. The words above are Fugelsang’s.

[2] J. P. Moreland, “A Biblical Case for Limited Government,” Institute for Faith, Work, and Economics, http://tifwe.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/04/JP-Moreland-Limited-Govt.pdf, 5, accessed January 15, 2014.

[3] “Defending Life: Arguing against Abortion,” a sermon presented at Pinehurst Baptist Church on January 20, 2013, https://brianjameswatson.files.wordpress.com/2015/06/defending-life-arguing-against-abortion.pdf

[4] Joe Carter, “9 Things You Should Know about Poverty in America,” The Gospel Coalition, January 16, 2014, http://www.thegospelcoalition.org/article/9-things-you-should-know-about-poverty-in-america

[5] Hunter Baker, Political Thought: A Student’s Guide, Reclaiming the Christian Intellectual Tradition, ed. David S. Dockery (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2012), 84.

[6] Ibid., 85.

[7] Ibid., 86.

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