Be Powerful as God is Powerful: A Christian Theology of Money in Politics

“Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, but not unto Tiberius the things that are Tiberius’; for Caesar is good, but Tiberius is bad” – Peter Crassus[1]

It is not uncommon to hear pastors telling their congregations that since we are made in the image of God we should be merciful as God is merciful, or holy as God is holy, or to forgive others as God has forgiven us. I have yet to hear a pastor say that we should be powerful as God is powerful. It is impossible to be as powerful as God; but it is also impossible to be as merciful, loving, and forgiving as God. So why then do we strive to imitate God’s justice, mercy, love, and forgiveness, but not power?

Power is an underrepresented subject in popular theology. However, if we are to interact as citizens in a pluralistic democracy it is important to have a theology that grounds us and informs our public actions. It is a common misconception that, because of the pluralistic nature of our modern democracy, faith has no role in our political decisions. In reality, one of the many freedoms we enjoy is that we do not have to sacrifice our individual religious beliefs in order to participate in government. Our religious beliefs can and should inform our political actions, just as the beliefs or non-beliefs of others inform their political actions. The political arena is one in which power relations are paramount, and so, in order to engage in public policy we must first have a theology that includes an analysis of power.

Theology is reflecting on the world in light of the Word. It is impossible for human beings to have a timeless and eternal theology, because we are limited by our particular time and place. In developing a theology of money in politics I will proceed in three parts. First, I will analyze the role of money in politics from a political science perspective. Since theology is a reflection on the world, the appropriate place to start is by understanding the world. Second, I will examine the Christian role in a pluralist democratic system. Finally, I will bring these parts together in developing a Christian view of power, using the case of money in politics as an example of disproportionate power being wielded in the political arena.

Money is a form of stored power. In Affluence and Influence Princeton political scientist Martin Gilens provides wave upon wave of statistical evidence for the straightforward theory that public policy outcomes are biased toward the very wealthy. In fact, when the interests of the wealthy and the non-wealthy diverge there is almost no correlation between percent of non-wealthy individuals who favor a policy and the likelihood of that policy being passed. In contrast, there is a strong and straightforward correlation between the percentage of wealthy individuals who favor a policy and the likelihood of that policy being passed.

That the U.S. government is more responsive to the desires of the wealthy does not prove that the mechanism by which those preferences are transferred is campaign donations. Most members of Congress are rich, and therefore are more likely to have views commonly held by the wealthy. However, one of the reasons members of Congress tend to be wealthy is the need for wealthy networks that can fund a political campaign. While a statistical proof that money in politics is the causal reason that policy making is skewed toward the wealthy is difficult for technical reasons, the theory is entirely straightforward. A system that relies on wealthy donors in order to function is quite naturally going to insure its own survival by continuing to cater to the interests of wealthy donors.

Deriving a Christian view of modern democracy is not a straightforward task. The Bible speaks of public policy in the context of theocratic dictatorships. The laws of ancient Israel were the laws of a theocracy. The law was handed down from God to the judges and then kings of Israel. Crassus’ formulation of giving to Caesar but withholding from Tiberius sounds like a cynical joke, but it is actually not far from a faithful reading of the Biblical tradition. Government is praised when it is good, and condemned by prophets and historians when it is bad. Paul praises the Roman government as ordained by God when it is merciful, and John of Patmos condemns government during a time when Rome was persecuting Christians. The Biblical view is clearly far more nuanced than simply saying Government is a God-ordained good that provides order.

There are a few goals of government that are made clear. In both the Hebrew Scriptures and the New Testament, God expresses concern for the vulnerable in society – for the poor, the widow, the orphan, and the stranger. Economic egalitarianism is expressed in law (Deuteronomy 14:19-21, Deuteronomy 15:1), prophets (Isaiah 5:7-8, Ezekiel 35:17-20), and Gospel (Matthew 19:21, Luke 3:11, Luke 14:33). Caring for the vulnerable and insuring a reasonable measure of economic justice are general public policy goals for a Christian following Biblical tradition. But there is no reason they should necessarily be the public policy goals of non-Christians (or even of Christians with radically different Biblical hermeneutics). So, in a society composed of both Christians and non-Christians, the central question is one of power. What kind of power should individuals have to implement their preferred policy agenda?

Christian theology also has something to offer to an analysis of power. Twentieth century protestant theologian Reinhold Niebuhr suggests that Christianity’s unique contribution to public policy is its understanding of humans as being simultaneously saint and sinner. In Niebuhr’s understanding, the love commandment is the supreme guide for Christian behavior, but in the public policy arena it is transmuted into an imperfect human justice. There are two reasons why love takes the form of justice. First “the love of the neighbor requires a calculation of competitive claims when there is more than one neighbor.”[2] Second, because humans are both saint and sinner, any human institution of justice will be a compromise between the love commandment, and human self-love. In light of this:

“A Christian contribution to the standards of justice in economic and political life must therefore not be found primarily in a precise formulation of the standard. It must be found rather in strengthening both the inclination to seek the neighbor’s good and the contrite awareness that we are not inclined to do this.”[3]

This contrite awareness is a reason to be suspicious of any concentration of power. Unfortunately, the elimination of power is not a possibility. Niebuhr argues that one of the critical mistakes of Marxism is its identification of self-interest with the system of property rights. History has shown us that eliminating property rights did nothing to eliminate self-interest, but instead concentrated power in the hands of an oligarchy or dictatorship. Attempting to remove ourselves from positions of power would be making a grave mistake, because we would no longer have the power to actively seek the good of our neighbors. An attempt to remove ourselves from power and so eliminate our responsibility for suffering is reminiscent of Caesar’s attempt to wash his hands of the execution of Jesus. We will never be perfect in our use of power, but we cannot opt out and leave a power vacuum to be filled by those who do not intend to seek the good of our neighbors.

Niebuhr lays out the central paradox of power with regards to peace and justice:

“There is no peace without power and there is no justice with power. There is no peace without power because larger societies can never be unified by purely voluntary association. There is no justice with power because power tempts every mortal man to gratifications beyond the requirements of his service to the community.”[4]

Consistent with Niebuhr’s broader theology, the ideals of peace and justice are compromised by the reality of sin. In a perfect society, power would be unnecessary. However, the reality of sin dictates that power is both a means to peace and a barrier to justice.

Niebuhr’s framework is valuable, but the view of power is perhaps not quite adequately nuanced. There are multiple types of power. There is the power of money in politics, which allows those who have money to have a disproportionate say in the political arena. It is clear that this kind of power is easily subject to the temptation for individuals to use this power for their own gain, and to overestimate the good that they do for their community. (The constant rhetoric of the wealthy as ‘job-creators’ in the last election is one of the many ways an individual can give in to the temptation to overstate their actual service to the community). There is a temptation to counter the power of money with the power of our own money, and to imagine that by defeating our political enemies we can create a just society. Part of the value of Niebuhr’s framework is to remind us that we are not only saints, but also sinners, and so no matter how saintly our intentions, we will always be tempted by the power of money. The nuance that is lacking is the recognition that not all types of power are equally susceptible to temptation.

God wields several types of power, from the absolute power of creation and destruction, to the more subtle power of prophecy and parable. In the Gospels, Jesus rejects the option of calling down the armies of God to liberate Israel, and instead uses the power of parable and self-sacrifice to call God’s people into the Kingdom of God. Jesus opts for a use of power that is persuasive, not coercive.

The first eleven chapters of the book of Genesis are devoted to reminding us that we are not God, and the powers of creation, destruction, and final judgment are not given to us. However, the power of story and parable is encouraged. The Bible is full of subversive stories that contradict the conventional wisdom of the day. The stories of Jonah and Ruth challenge the anti-foreigner sentiment of the post-exile rebuilding. Job and Ecclesiastes challenge the conventional theology that bad things only happen to bad people. Jesus’ parables show a way of life that values mercy over purity, and demonstrates the radical compassion of God. The power to tell an alternative story is one of the ways in which the Church can enter the political arena, in order to tell the story of the poor, the widow, the orphan and the stranger. The Church can challenge the conventional wisdom that holds that economic prosperity and human well-being are the same thing. It can remind us of the wisdom of Isaiah, who points out that the massive accumulation of wealth is not only unjust because of the plight of the poor, but that it also harms the wealthy by removing them from community, leaving them cut off and isolated (Isaiah 5:8).

The power of community is also encouraged. The people of Israel are united by ritual and religion. Jesus gathers the disciples and sends them out into the community to heal and to preach. God is a God who longs to be in relationship with us, and for us to be in right relationships with each other.

My church, Third Lutheran Church, in Louisville Kentucky, has recently joined with other churches in Louisville as part of an organization known as CLOUT (Citizens of Louisville Organized and United Together). CLOUT is intentional about building power by bringing people together to improve their community. The kind of power CLOUT wields is less susceptible to egoistic temptation because it derives directly from the community. The leadership of CLOUT cannot push an issue the members do not support, because the power is not economic or coercive in nature, it comes directly from relationships with the members of the church and the citizens of Louisville.

In CLOUT’s work on payday lending there is a direct example of the conflict between power as organized people, and power as organized money. There is no doubt that the interest rates charged by payday lenders are usury, and that capping them would prevent people from being caught in endless cycles of debt. It is not yet certain if this particular political battle will be won by the organized money of the payday industry or the organized people who are working to improve their communities by joining together to ban usury. It is clear, however, that the power of organized people is of a different type than the power of money. Power expressed through money can be used by a few in order to take advantage of others. Power organized by people, because it is jointly held by each of the people who choose to come together to exercise it, is almost certain to only be used for the good of the community; which is to say that each individual is using her/his portion of the power to seek the good of his/her neighbors.

The power of parable and the power of community are not perfect, because they, too, are human institutions and prone to the failures that Niebuhr cautions against. They are nonetheless the best forms of power available to the Church as it seeks the common good. Unlike money, which produces power that is only accountable to those supplying the money, the powers of parable and community are shared powers that are persuasive, not coercive.

The Church is to be powerful as God is powerful. It is to act as the body of Christ by gathering the people, telling the stories, and going out into the world to heal the sick and bring good news to the poor. The good news is that they are part of a story and a community that cares for them and seeks to use its power to ensure the good of its neighbors.

[1] Niebuhr, Reinhold ‘Do the State and Nation Belong to God or the Devil?’ in Faith and Politics, ed. Ronald H. Stone, George Braziller, Inc, NY 1968, p. 92

[2] Niebuhr, Reinhold ‘The Christian Faith and the Economic Life of Liberal Society’ in Faith and Politics, ed. Ronald H. Stone, George Braziller, Inc, NY 1968, p. 147

[3] Ibid

[4] Niebuhr, Reinhold ‘Do the State and Nation Belong to God or the Devil?’ in Faith and Politics, ed. Ronald H. Stone, George Braziller, Inc, NY 1968,  p. 90

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