The Church's Losing Strategy

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With 50 states and the United States of America at war against them, the churches of America should at least recognize who their humanist foes are.

Some are joining the enemy they should be fighting, not because of a conscious decision that they can’t beat ‘em, but because they don’t even know who their enemy is.

In March of 2005, the leaders of five major churches representing almost 20 million Americans begged President Bush not to make budget changes that they claimed would cut social programs.

The five churches were

  1. Presbyterian Church USA, 2.4 million members,
  2. United Methodist Church, 8.6 million members in the U.S.,
  3. Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, 4.9 million members,
  4. The Episcopal Church USA, 2.5 million members, and
  5. United Church of Christ, 1.2 million members.

They did not just tacitly condone the state’s use of force. They positively approved it.

Their letter argued that works of mercy are part of our national life and appropriate to the government, not just private citizens. They argued that faith-based charities are unable to do what the government can do to stem poverty.

Their letter made no mention of the theft involved in forcibly extracting wealth from taxpayers. It made no mention of breaking the commandment not to steal.

Their letter ignored the corrupting influence of such forced charity upon potential donors and those who receive. It ignored the waste, inequities, inefficiencies, and ineffectiveness of legislated wealth transfers. The churches ignored the rancor and ill-will caused by such injustices, which sometimes harden the hearts of those forced to give. They ignored the failed War on Poverty and its offspring and relations.

In support of government-enforced charity, the churches cited Jesus’ story of Abraham and Lazarus in Luke 16 in which a rich man who does not respond to the entreaties of a diseased beggar named Lazarus, ends up in hell while Lazarus ends up in the bosom of Abraham.

One moral of the story is clear (it is not the only one). In brief, the rich should respond to the ills of the poor. (For a full exposition, see Matthew Henry.) Jesus did not say that the state should make the rich respond to the poor. And if they were forced to pay, would this substitute for personal repentance? Of course not.

The churches pessimistically argued that since they were incapable of softening the hearts of the rich, the state must make the rich pay the poor. If they had not abandoned children to state-run schools decades ago, they would have a greater influence in society today.

These five churches do not have a principled stance against the state or the evils it perpetrates. In supporting social programs run by the state, they strengthen their enemy and they weaken themselves.

How can they hope to maintain the moral high ground if they approve domestic social violence in the name of alleviating poverty? How can they hope to extend their ministries by publicly arguing that they do not have the means to combat social ills?

Such pessimism concerning their own abilities combined with affirmation of governmental force is a wholesale retreat from their missions. They are abandoning the field of combat to humanists. They are in full retreat on this front.

On another front, the Iraq War, all five of these churches (in varying degrees) have a more favorable record of opposing the state’s violence. One or another has condemned the war before its inception and during. One or another has called for withdrawal from Iraq.

Their anti-war positions did not stop the war or alleviate its horrors. If these churches had had a principled stance against all of the state’s coercive and unjust acts, domestic and foreign, wouldn’t their condemnations of the Iraq War have had a greater moral effect? If all or most churches in the U.S. had such a principled stance, wouldn’t such wars be far harder to sell to the public?

Without a principled position against all of the state’s unjust uses of force, the churches come across as merely another interest group favoring their particular goals even if the means used to attain them are condemned by the God whom they worship. Without holding the high moral ground, they make themselves less likely to gain converts.

On October 19, 2006, the State of New York’s highest court rejected an appeal of eight plaintiffs associated with the Roman Catholic Church and two plaintiffs associated with the Baptist Bible Fellowship International. They sought exemption from a 2002 law called the "Women’s Health and Wellness Act."

This law mandated that employers that provide health insurance for their employees include certain kinds of coverage such as mammography and bone density tests. The law also required coverage for contraceptive drugs and devices. Almost half the states require such coverage.

The mandated insurance law exempted religious employers. The plaintiffs were social service organizations affiliated with the churches.

Having lost this battle, which may go to the Supreme Court, it is but a short step to require coverage for murder, that is, abortion. Planned Parenthood supports this and the contraceptive legislation.

If churches wish to survive as churches, they have no choice but to fight the state. How can they do this if they look the other way and accept an unjust law as long as it has an exemption for them? For the laws mandating that employers provide health insurance are profoundly unjust and should be resisted in principle.

Moreover, the economic case against such mandates has been made strongly by many, such as Rothbard, Herbener, Hoppe, Sennholz, and Steinreich in articles available at mises.org.

By not vigorously protesting such a law in the first place on moral grounds, the plaintiffs find themselves in a weakened position. They are now arguing over whether or not their social service agencies are part and parcel of their religious establishments rather than about the propriety of the state’s wholesale infringements upon religious and other liberty.

If churches have at any time in the past supported the state’s social programs or edicts as expedients for resolving social problems, this will come back to haunt them; for the court decisions partly hinge on various humanist utilitarian grounds.

For example, in June of 2006, 22 New York religious leaders from a wide range of denominations joined 200 others in support of New York legislation called "Fair Share for Health Care." This is part of an AFL-CIO push across many states to force companies to pay a higher percent of payroll for employee health care.

If churches are so short-sighted as to agree to play ball in the state’s ballpark by the state’s rules, and even anxiously elbow their way into the park to sample the goodies, they will have no one to blame but themselves when the state locks and bolts the exits.

Michael S. Rozeff [send him mail] is the Louis M. Jacobs Professor of Finance at University at Buffalo.

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