Ill-Gotten Gains: Why Christians Shouldn't Take Government Money

by Hans Friedrich

It's not often that I agree with the California Teachers Association on anything, but this year they're making a good point: implementing vouchers would be disastrous for California's children.

Here in California there is a voucher initiative called, ironically, "The Quality Education Amendment" (Proposition 38), on the ballot this November. If Prop. 38 passes, every student in California will be guaranteed a $4000 voucher redeemable at any school their parents wish for them to attend. It's supporters include moderates, fiscal conservatives, social conservatives, private schools hoping for more business and homeschoolers hoping for free money. It's opponents are an unholy union of people silly enough to be influenced by what the CTA thinks and people who think for themselves. The CTA is against vouchers because vouchers would be very bad news for public school teachers. The rest of us are against vouchers because in the end vouchers would sound the death knell for truly independent education.

The many solid reasons for opposing vouchers in general and Prop. 38 in particular have been detailed eloquently and thoroughly elsewhere. Instead, I'm concerned with the reasons the conservatives, especially Christians and homeschoolers, have so easily jumped onto the voucher bandwagon. It's not even as if these otherwise fine and upstanding people have carefully weighed all the issues involved and reached the wrong conclusion on the voucher issue. Rather, when it comes to latching onto the public teat they don't even seem to see any moral dilemma in the first place!

When questioned, the typical rationale these people give for accepting goodies from the government, whether it be $4000 in private school tuition money or $50 in free diapers is that, after all, they are "just getting a little of their own back". From the gas tax to the sales tax to the property tax to the state and federal income taxes, we all pay massive amounts of money to the government every year and receive very, very little that's useful in return. So when a service that we can actually use comes knocking on our door it only seems fair that we should take advantage of it.

From this pragmatic view of things, if there were some sound way to guarantee that the government would never attempt to interfere with the operation of the home schools and private schools using its programs, if there were certainty that no politician would ever use all that free money as a tool to further his or her personal political agenda, then it would be perfectly acceptable for us to take their money.

I believe this pragmatic position to be immoral. Even if such an impossible guarantee of non-intervention were ever arrived at, I think it would still be wrong for Christians to take handouts from the government, for any purpose. As Christians we are called to be principled, not pragmatic; God demands principle not just in our spiritual lives, but in our economic lives as well.

We probably all agree that the messianic socialist government of America today is far from what the Founders envisioned or God intended for us. When we take money from the bureaucratic beast, we are validating the beast. And that's exactly what the bureaucrats want us to do. Without validation, without participation, without millions of people on the receiving end, the beast will collapse. We won't be able to bring about massive societal change merely by personal abstinence from the cash cow, but it's a start. As that time honored liberal slogan goes, we've got to "think globally and act locally." Putting our names down for freebies is definitely not responsible local action. Christ told us in Scripture to "render unto Caesar what is Caesar's." We can argue till we get blue in this face about the exact meaning of this phrase. One thing is certain though: Christ didn't have much to say about Caesar rendering anything back to us. Likewise, although Paul spent much time discussing the appropriateness of Christians eating food offered to idols, he did not have even one word to say about the ethics of eating food offered by idols.

This may seem facetious, but believe me, it's not. The point I'm trying to make is this: once we have given our money to the government, it's not our money anymore. As Christians, we are obligated to pay what is demanded of us and to comply with the government in any way that does not violate God's will for us. But more than this, we are also obligated not to take ill-gotten gains. When we take money offered us by the state, in moral terms we are not taking back some of "our stolen money", rather we're taking a slice of everyone else's stolen money. You see, once that money has been taken out of our hands and placed in the state's (idol's) purse, it becomes tainted money. The Christian cannot receive it back again and still maintain the spiritual integrity of his financial life.

The incrementalist philosophy behind Prop. 38 and similar programs around the nationu2014the idea that we can break up the bureaucracy bit by bit, top-down instead of bottom-upu2014this is the philosophy of defeat. The solution to bureaucracy is not the creation of more bureaucracy, in some vain attempt to trade one great evil for a lesser evil. Neither can we solve our personal financial problems in any meaningful way by signing a pact with a false messiah: our countrymen's goods in return for our allegiance. Only God deserves this kind of spiritual fealty. But God isn't in the habit of bargaining with other people's money: you'd do well to stay far away from anyone who is.

Hans Friedrich is a home-schooled high school senior from Northern California. His latest project is an (almost) daily updated weblog called Retrospection, where he provides a teenage libertarian perspective on current events.