Christian Values in American Public Policy

With the presidential campaign season in full swing, the politicians are out trying to promote their religious credentials to their potential constituents, which gives the citizenry the opportunity to, once again, process and respond to their comments and write about the ideas of religion and politics in American political affairs. Many of the politicians’ comments are not out of the ordinary and merely a product of identity assertion and constituent building, which is necessary for campaigning and elections.

There are, however, many comments and assertions that bring cause for concern, particularly when the person commenting could end up being the President of the United States of America. Given all the comments to date from the various candidates, I think Governor Rick Perry’s assertion that Christianity guides American values is seriously disturbing. Perry says, “America is going to be guided by some set of values. The question is gonna be, whose values? It’s those Christian values that this country was based upon.”

When you consider the fact that the President is supposed to represent all Americans, along with each of their religious predilections, such an assertion has to be addressed.

Before addressing his comment specifically, I would like to point out the fact that Gov.  Perry needs to do more research about the religious preferences of the founding fathers of the United States. It is dangerous for our political leaders to ascribe a universal religious identity to all of the founding fathers in the hopes of linking their political aspirations to the deep core beliefs of potential constituencies. Religious and Early American historians have stated that the founding fathers’ Christian religious assents were varied and quite different from one another: some believed in the Trinity, others did not; some believed in the resurrection, others did not; some believed in the divinity of Jesus, others did not. Such a differentiation calls into question the assertion that all the founding fathers were “Christian” in a mainstream connotation.

Gov. Perry asks an important question in his speech. He says, “America is going to be guided by some set of values. The question is gonna be, whose values?”

He is, of course, referring to an idea that some set of religious values will be doing the guiding. He says that it should be Christian values. My question to him is, Which Christian values would he prefer govern America and how would he incorporate these “Christian values” into his Administration as President?

I ask this question for multiple reasons. He has made many statements about Social Security, Medicare, and healthcare that need to be addressed, particularly in terms of their “Christian value” in relation to policy. Moreover, it makes some wonder how Gov. Perry has embraced “Christian values” type policies as Governor of Texas. This question was brought about by some hearing his speech; people are questioning how “Christian” his policies were and are as Governor.

The Social Security Act of 1935, arguably the most recognizable program that came from the New Deal era, was designed to mitigate the dangers posed by old age and poverty, among other things. Social Security is a government program that aids older and persons with disabilities with supplemental income. In fact, about 54 million Americans receive some sort of benefit payments. Medicare is a health insurance program that provides care to those Americans who are low-income or cannot afford to pay for their care themselves. These government programs are there to help the members of our society that are unable to help themselves fully.

It is nearly common knowledge that Gov. Perry claims that Social Security, and indirectly, Medicare, is a Ponzi scheme. It would be safe to say that he does not think that these policies are beneficial to American political affairs. And, based upon his insistence that Christian values guide American policy, I would say that he does not think that Social Security and Medicare are Christian values policies. Based upon my understanding of Christian values, he could not be farther from the truth about the Christian values present in Social Security and Medicare.

In James 1:27, the Christian Bible says, “Pure and undefiled religion in the sight of our God and Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world.” Commentaries on this verse point out that the object of the pure and undefiled religion–the orphans and widows–are those persons who are unable to help themselves. For example, Wesley’s notes on this verse state that the recipient of relief should be those who need the help the most; the Jamieson-Fausset-Brown Bible Commentary asserts that the orphans and widows are “particularly helpless” entities that must be helped by someone or something else.

In other words, helping those who are unable to help themselves is the purest form of the Christian religion as well as the purpose of Social Security and Medicare. It seems that the Christian religion, Social Security, and Medicare might be paradigmatic examples of someone or something helping someone who needs help.

Gov. Perry has also repeatedly discussed healthcare, particularly universal healthcare, with much disdain. Most of his comments are in reference to ‘Obamacare’ and his promise to repeal it if he is elected to the Presidency. Moreover, he has also made references to Presidential candidate Mitt Romney’s healthcare plan in Massachusetts, ‘Romneycare.’ One of the disappointing elements of Gov. Perry’s discussions of healthcare, especially since he is particularly concerned with Christian values in American politics, is his lack of depth on the substance of healthcare for Americans. He has simply referred to it as ‘socialized medicine’ and  discussed the amount it costs to provide the service to the citizenry.

The Bible, the New Testament in particular, is full of stories of sickness, disease, and other healthcare-related issues. In fact, I think that it is common belief, among Christians, that one of Jesus’ primary missions was to bring health and healing to those he encountered. Jesus himself says, “The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to release the oppressed” (Luke 4:18). His message was one that proclaimed the alleviation of the challenges of poverty and the mitigations of sickness.

The early Christians, Jesus’ followers, were used to visiting the sick and afflicted in the prisons of Ancient Rome. Jesus discusses how important this was for Christians to do when he  says, “I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me” (Matthew 25:36). In fact, many Christians continued this practice after the Ascension of Jesus and for years afterwards.

The Roman Empire did not concern itself with providing social services to the ordinary citizenry. For example, when someone was convicted of a crime and sentenced to prison, the state did not have an obligation to feed the prisoners or provide clothing for them. Had it not been for the followers of Judaism and Christianity, many prisoners would have starved or frozen to death without the proper attire and nourishments to aid in their survival.

Moreover, the Romans did not have program initiatives that would allow for the appropriate care of the elderly and the ill. These marginalized citizens were left to fend for themselves as best they could. The religious tenets of Christianity indicated that it was a believer’s divinely mandated responsibility to provide necessary social services in order to alleviate the burdens of those in need, and the Roman government allowed these religious groups to absorb the responsibility of providing for the citizenry. Without the Christian value that asserted it was necessary to care for those marginalized citizens, many would have perished without a second thought.

This religious mandate from Christianity was the impetus for the first hospital, as we know them to exist today. The idea that Christians were the servants of humanity and charged with the responsibility of providing charity to those who needed it most facilitated in the creation of healthcare as we know it. Again, I think one faces a difficult challenge in arguing that healthcare is not a Christian value. Providing charity and healthcare for every human being is as close to a Christian value as one can get.

There is no sense in testing the constitutional limits of the relationship between the Church and the State. The State needs to be protected from pressures from the Church just as much as the Church needs to be sheltered from the restrictions of the State. The wall of which Jefferson masterfully spoke is a fundamental element of American government.  It must be preserved at all costs. It should not and cannot be compromised on the altar of efficiency or effectiveness, but rather it should be embraced as an American principle that serves to perpetuate life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

I am not opposed to certain Christian or other religious values influencing the policies of American government. The problem with Gov. Perry’s statement is that he neglects to consider two important elements. First, he neglects consideration of the negative impacts the Christian religion can have on American values and public policy. I will briefly outline a few of these negative consequences. The first that comes to mind is the perpetual oppression many Christian sects place on same sex relationships. Moreover, some parts of the Christian community need to stop hindering progress on issues such as the prevention of HIV/AIDS by refusing to acknowledge the need for serious discussions of safe-sex practices.  Pope Benedict of the Roman Catholic Church has made a great step in the right direction with regards to the use of condoms to prevent these diseases. However, his other statements on condoms show how far some Christian churches need to go to help alleviate this problem.

Additionally, the important values of other religions in America and how they can contribute to policy and political values need to be emphasized. I cannot explain each religion and the important values that they could offer U.S. policy in the scope of this article. However, I can mention a few important ones that America could use at this moment. For instance, the Jewish concept of “Tikkun Olam” or restoring the world to a better place through human actions could help public policy. The Third Pillar of Islam, Zakāt or alms giving to the poor, mandates compulsory charity-giving of Muslims who are financially able to do so. Such practices could seriously inform U.S. public policy. The aforementioned are just a sampling of the valuable contributions other religious practices might offer to the values that guide America and U.S. public policy.

So, my question to Gov. Perry still stands: Which Christian values would you employ in your Administration as President? Are you going to emphasize those values that tear down and destroy the fabric of our democratic experiment or are you going to reflect those values that help the citizenry that cannot help themselves?

Image taken from Wikimedia Commons, a “media file repository making available public domain and freely-licensed educational media content.” The photograph is of the US Capital by Kevin McCoy.

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3 thoughts on “Christian Values in American Public Policy

  1. Unfortunately, while Perry and other Republicans would agree with your points re: the works of mercy, they would also quickly point out that it is the role of individuals and religious bodies to provide such services – not the state.

    This begs the deeper question of how in a complex society like ours one can simply dismiss the role of the state to provide some semblance of care like the Social Security System or even Medicare. It’s absurd to think individuals or religious bodies ALONE can tend to all of societies problems which is want the mainline GOP seems to suggest. It’s not even to suggest that the state must provide these services per se – but it at least has a role in providing funding for them.

    I fear the problem of Perry and company is they’ve adapted the radical individualism of fundamentalist Christianity which focuses on individuals alone – individual interpretation of scripture (you are your own church) to individual conversion. The broader horizontal dimension present in the older, mainline bodies is completely missing. And i won’t even begun to comment on the absence of depth…

    1. Tom:

      I appreciate your comments. I couldn’t agree more with your assessment of Gov. Perry and other Evangelicals, which was the point of this article. I think that the GOP tries to use the language of Christianity to build constituencies without knowing what they are truly saying. I think that they would have a difficult time answering tough questions about their faith in Christianity and how it would form their decisions about policy. Unfortunately, they usually give some vague answer about the role of the individual, which, I believe, is contrary to the Christian faith. So, there is not much we can do.

      Again, thanks for your insightful comments.

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