Peace and the Politics of Conscience
Nov11
Faith & Politics3

Peace and the Politics of Conscience

Last month, I asserted that the Bible speaks nothing about how society should be governed, but has political implications only so far as it binds the conscience of the voter. Here, however, let us move beyond particular issues to whole ideologies. Scripture says nothing about Capitalism or Socialism. But can a Christian in good conscience be a Capitalist or a Socialist?

If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all.

Romans 12:18

To be clear, this verse is not saying that peace should be the ends of government. It is useless to try to build a social doctrine for unbelievers from scripture, for it has nothing to offer them without salvation. However, this verse should powerfully bind the conscience of any Christian with a political or economic ideology.

As an example, I believe it is well established that maximizing personal liberty is, in most cases, the most durable institutional safeguard for peace, both civil and international. The Democratic Peace Theory is better understood as a Capitalist Peace. Exchange turns hostile zero-sum relationships into mutually beneficial ones, and as these relationships pervade society they form an extended order – a social fabric of exchange. The more that order is diminished and restrained, the more competition becomes zero-sum, leading to the outbreak of violence. My conscience is therefore bound to support the expansion of the market and to oppose the diminution of that order so far as it depends on me – that is, in my vote and in my activism. If I were a lawmaker, “so far as it depends on me” would entail much more responsibility.

If, however, I believed that Capitalism is inherently imperialistic, then given my understanding, this verse would prohibit me from being a Capitalist. Or if it were believed that income inequality generates social unrest, then that could be an impetus of conscience for supporting the welfare state.

This verse does preclude some ideologies completely, for example Fascism, which also runs afoul of the prohibition of idolatry in its demand for total allegiance. Revolutionary Socialism would also be very difficult to square with the Biblical ideal of peace. However, for most ideologies enjoying a modicum of respect, it is important to note that the debate has moved from the theological to the ideological. To tell a Democratic Socialist that he is a bad Christian is to misappropriate the scriptures in service of an ideology. If he agrees that peace is his ideal, then he must be convinced on the merit of the ideas, not from scriptural proofs.

However, far from serving an ideology, the command to live peaceably with all gives our political ideologies an importance that makes partisanship and side-staking not only intellectually dishonest, but spiritually perilous. As voters and as activists, we wield a small portion of an enormous power over other peoples’ lives. If ever intellectual honesty mattered, it is here, in determining what policies best produce peace.

To those who support the welfare state as a matter of social peace, then, its rotten fruit is beginning to show in Greece, and here in America. An entitlement mentality created by the welfare state reacts explosively with the disillusionment resulting from its inevitable depletion. And no recourse can be had to compassion. The care of scripture is for the soul, precisely what the collectivization of charity removes from the picture. The Christian welfarist must be able to show not only that his favored system is better than Greece’s, but that the incentives are such that it will not devolve into bankruptcy.

It is not necessarily a failure of conscience to support welfare policies, or even Democratic Socialism. These ideologies share with Capitalism a belief in the primary social value of peace. The crucial point of conscience is, however, that these ideologies can never achieve what they aim for, most of all because they are not sustainable. Political incentives always lead to benefits becoming more and more widely distributed – the spoils of taxation. And what could be more inimical to peace than to create a class of dependents who will be left out in the cold when the money runs out?

Welfarism is not necessarily itself morally wrong, but it is a false promise. Scripture invites us to judge it on its own merit, and it fails. It is not unconscionable, but inhumane.

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3 Comments

  • 1

    David J. Weigel

    Nov 12, 2011 at 0:57 | Reply

    “Live peaceably with all” seems more like a reason to be a Xn anarchist than a libertarian.

    • 2

      thrica

      Nov 12, 2011 at 1:31

      I suppose “If possible, so far as it depends on you” covers more for some than others.

  • 3

    Steve Irby

    Nov 12, 2011 at 15:40 | Reply

    I agree with David j. Mins (Some) still haven’t shed their Empire-Building philosophy.

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