There is no doubt that the Bible has much to say about character and personal conduct. Paul includes several lists of vices in his New Testament letters. Jesus mentions some as well. They warn believers against lust, greed, arrogance, lies, envy, etc. Instead, we should “clothe [ourselves] with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience” (Colossians 3:12). The book of Proverbs, as another example, is a treasure trove of wisdom about living well and personal morality. Jesus even said that others can be encouraged to glorify God through our good deeds (Matthew 5:16).
Although bad character and bad behavior can certainly have a negative impact on others, public policy is a different kind of morality that affects many more people in much more profound ways. A person in a position of power or leadership can have good personal morality but immoral policy, and vice versa. Though the phrase “public policy” does not appear in Scripture, comparable large-scale concerns receive an equal if not greater level of attention than “character,” and harmful societal practices arguably come with grimmer oracles of judgment than one’s bad character.
“Policy has much more of an effect on ‘the least of these’ and is tragically more neglected by those who otherwise have a lot to say about ‘biblical values.’”
It was these kinds of issues of large-scale suffering and oppression of the poor that set off the event we know as the Exodus. “I have indeed seen the misery of my people in Egypt. I have heard them crying out because of their slave drivers, and I am concerned about their suffering” (Exodus 3:7). Issues of public policy comprise a significant and repeated part of the Torah. “Do not deny justice to your poor people in their lawsuits” (Ex. 23:6). “Do not oppress a foreigner; you yourselves know how it feels to be foreigners” (Ex. 23:9). “During the seventh year let the land lie unplowed and unused. Then the poor among your people may get food from it” (Ex. 23:10). “Do not hold back the wages of a hired worker overnight” (Leviticus 19:13).
A substantial part of the witness of the prophets is the pronouncement of judgment upon God’s people for not upholding justice. Jeremiah 22 laments and specifically mentions things like extortion, neglect of vulnerable populations, wage theft and wealth inequality caused by insatiable institutional greed. The prophet Amos famously says that God despises their religious festivals, calling for justice to roll down, because of things like unfair taxation, widespread bribery and the cards being stacked against the poor in court (Amos 5:11-24). Nehemiah publicly calls on the people to return to a fear of the Lord when the impoverished masses have been forced to sell their means of self-determination just to be able to eat (Neh. 5).
Jesus himself, in Matthew 23, warns the religious elite against focusing on private moral and religious concerns to the neglect of justice. He refers to it as “straining out a gnat to swallow a camel.”
Character matters, but policy matters more. They both bear witness to God, but policy has much more of an effect on “the least of these” (Matt. 25:40) and is tragically more neglected by those who otherwise have a lot to say about “biblical values.”
Not only is the public morality witness of scripture largely ignored in much of the evangelical community, there appears to be such an absence of a mental model for it that commentary often reverts to personal conduct when it’s public policy that is at issue.
For example, many Christians are all too easily distracted by the conduct of protesters, missing the reason for their protest. Martin Luther King Jr. addressed this dynamic in his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail”:
“You deplore the demonstrations taking place in Birmingham. But your statement, I am sorry to say, fails to express a similar concern for the conditions that brought about the demonstrations.”
Whether it’s people of color, immigrants, the poor, etc., generations of suffering because of bad public policy ignite an anger that people of privilege conveniently see in isolation and ignore the issue at hand by saying, “They should behave themselves.”
We have seen this imbalance play out in an interesting way in how evangelical Christians feel about President Donald Trump. Even those who express concerns about the president’s behavior are missing the larger point and the bigger problem.
Last December, Christianity Today published an editorial by Editor-in-Chief Mark Galli calling for the removal of the president. To his credit, Galli, who had previously announced his plans to retire, did so in the interest of ethical consistency. The editor quoted the magazine’s own critique of Bill Clinton in 1998, adding, “The words that we applied to Mr. Clinton 20 years ago apply almost perfectly to our current president.”
Galli and the editorial board were at least being consistent in a way that Franklin Graham, James Dobson, Southern Baptist megachurch pastors Robert Jeffries and Jack Graham, and other conservative evangelical leaders have not. Even so, to little surprise, CT’s critique of the president focused almost exclusively on matters of character and conduct, citing his close dealings with convicted criminals, his mistreatment of women and his brash use of Twitter.
“Though the phrase ‘public policy’ does not appear in Scripture, comparable large-scale concerns receive an equal if not greater level of attention than ‘character.’”
There is no question that such things are a problem. Even the president’s most ardent evangelical supporters will acknowledge that his character is flawed and his conduct juvenile. But that’s OK, many conservative Christians will say, because God used many flawed people in the Bible. They also like to remind us of biblical injunctions to submit to authority.
Aside from my search (in vain) for when the same people applied that principle to President Barack Obama, brushing off serious problems by saying someone is not perfect is an all-too-easy, valueless statement that is more appropriate for one’s family and friends than an elected official with broad powers. It totally neglects the question of how policies are affecting large numbers of people.
Yes, God has used imperfect people, but for what purpose? To what end?
How “not perfect” does a leader have to be before we start to worry about the tens of thousands of asylum seekers victimized by a new “remain-in-Mexico” policy that puts them in imminent danger of kidnapping, abuse and rape? What is more important: that someone engaged in childish name-calling or that someone needlessly separated more than 5,400 children from their parents who were desperately fleeing their homes to escape violence and extreme poverty?
Where is the concern over the sickness and death that will result from the administration’s 95 environmental rule rollbacks – completed or in progress – that only serve to give big business and the fossil fuel industry what they want?
What of the unprecedented number of Cabinet secretaries appointed to lead large public service agencies who used to lobby against the protections those agencies enforce or don’t even believe the agency should exist? This had led to a decrease in protections for defrauded consumers and student borrowers, racial disparities in housing, and even the safety of the food we consume.
The list could go on, of course. These and other policies could not be more clear violations of Scripture’s public morality concerns; yet where is the outrage from self-proclaimed, Bible-believing Christians?
As St. Augustine put it, “Justice being taken away, then, what are kingdoms but great robberies?”
Christians who want to criticize the objectification of women’s bodies at a Super Bowl halftime show have sufficient moral grounds for doing so (and hopefully the same righteous indignation when this comes from a president). But I would rather these concerned Christians recognize and heed the largely missed message of justice for Puerto Ricans and immigrants that was embedded in the halftime performance.
As I write this, outrage is plentiful over Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi publicly ripping up the transcript of the president’s State of the Union speech. (So, we do still care about decorum among elected officials, do we? Fascinating). The act (like the president’s snub of the traditional handshake with the Speaker as he approached the podium) did not live up to the “fruit of the Spirit” to be sure; but might I suggest we save the outrage for human lives rather than symbolic gestures from political leaders?
Character matters, but policy matters more.