* Since writing this article, my views have changed; see notes afterwards.

I've got your conservative right here.

There is this line of thought gathering steam out there that really needs to be euthanized.

It essentially says that Jesus’ teachings, such as those in the Sermon on the Mount, represent the ideal Christian approach to government. Implicit in this idea is the accusation that conservatives have turned their backs on Christ’s call to help the poor, the environment, to turn the other cheek, etc.

This is a subtle but very real error, probably started by religious people who ought to have known better, and propagated by well-meaning people to whom it smells nice. There are two aspects to this error. First it, makes Christ’s teaching nonsensical by twisting it away from its intended object. Second it deceives our consciences by appealing to our spirituality and piety while speaking from a selfish, materialist position.

The best recent example I have found of this thinking is found in a book by Rev. Ballmer called God in the White House, which I heard the author read on the radio a few weeks ago:

What would have happened, for example, if there had been a series of thoughtful follow-up questions to George W. Bush’s declaration back in Des Moines, Iowa, that Jesus was his favorite philosopher? “Mr. Bush, Jesus demands in the Sermon on the Mount that his followers ‘turn the other cheek’? How will that teaching guide your conduct of American foreign policy, especially in the event of, say, an attack on the United States?” Or: “Jesus, your favorite philosopher, says that we should care for ‘the least of these.’ How does that inform your understanding of welfare or Social Security or civil rights or the graduated income tax?” …“Mr. President, Jesus expressed concern for the well-being of the tiniest sparrow. Do you see any relationship between that sentiment and your administration’s environmental policies? “ Or: “Mr. President, Jesus, the man you invoked on the campaign trail as your favorite philosopher, invited his followers to love their enemies. How does that teaching square with the invasion of Iraq or with your administration’s policies on torture?”

I am not interested in defending President Bush from even one of his critics, but rather in highlighting the silliness of this line of questioning.

Rev. Ballmer and his companions in rhetoric make themselves nonsensical when they take Christ’s specific, personal teachings and abstract them onto the government apparatus. They might as well ask how the government should change its approach to planning and budgeting given Christ’s admonition to “take no thought for the things of tomorrow,” and to “seek first the kingdom of God, and all these things will be added unto you.” They might as well ask how the government should form its judicial system in light of Christ’s admonition to “judge not that ye be not judged.”

The important distiction is that Jesus spoke to individuals as private people, not to the government or about government policy.

Rulers, government leaders, and civil servants are under no less obligation to follow Christ’s teachings in their personal attitudes and actions, but when sitting in office they hold a different set of responsibilities than when they sit at the dinner table.

On justice and civil protection

Rulers are commanded in the Bible to fulfill certain additional responsibilities that you and I are not given: punishing evildoers, rewarding those who do well, administering justice and defending against foreign enemies.

A judge who unilaterally “forgives” a murderer on behalf of society is condemned, and not approved, by God. This is called “perverting justice.” Even though the judge is called upon by God to forgive from the heart the man who murders his family, he is also called upon by God to administer the law impartially when sitting in his office as judge.

In the same way a ruler who does not act to remove a proven threat to those under his care is no better than a tyrant. It does not matter whether the threat is domestic or foreign. He would not be “turning the other cheek” in this case; he would be sacrificing the lives of innocent people under his care, while soothing his own aching conscience at no personal cost to himself, just as much as he would by engaging his people in an unjust war.

Again, the assumption at issue here is the idea that Christ gave government leaders straightforward direction towards a policy of pacifism, when he clearly was not speaking of government policy but of individual conduct. To say otherwise is to oversimplify the issue to an embarrassing extent.

On caring for the poor

Jesus was not speaking to government positions when he said to “care for the least of these.” He was speaking to us as individuals. Whether or not the government provides some additional assistance to poor people, or how much assistance, is a question that is up to each society to decide. But it is silly of the Mount Leftists to talk as if we were threatening the world’s sole arm of Christian charity by opening the graduated income tax, for example, to examination and revision.

This kind of thinking on the poor abstracts the obligation of charity away from the individual and onto the whole society.

In practice, conservatives are far better at following Christ’s command to “care for the least of these” than those who prefer to meet this need by taxing it out of other people. If you believe the poor man’s first recourse is to the government, then you may feel you are doing your part as long as you pay your taxes; you may even allow yourself to think that you are doing your duty by the poor man in campaigning for more tax money from other people. The measured effect of this thinking on those that hold it has been a reduction, not an increase, in the charity that Christ taught.

On the use of Christ’s teachings in politics

In many ways it is encouraging that Christ’s teachings have suddenly become suitable for use in American political discussion. It gives us a chance to deflate populist myths about his teachings, and to spread awareness of his message about our individual responsibility to God. The only danger is that we miss the opportunity by failing to state the obvious.