Friday, August 05, 2011

Should your tithe go to a lobbyist? (Part 1)

During the recent heated political discourse, I discovered something that is making me think hard about church membership. What if your denomination uses part of your offering to lobby legislatures and organize political action? Is that the most effective use of resources? Is there any biblical justification for it? Would that fit Francis Chan's challenge of Crazy Love? What standards should be held up for someone lobbying on behalf of a church or parachurch organization?

Michael Gerson's latest column, "What Would Jesus Cut?" illustrates two religious groups who lobbied for opposite outcomes on the debt ceiling debate. An ecumenical group of primarily mainstream denominations (with Jim Wallis prominent) led the "Circle of Protection" movement to prevent cuts in poverty relief programs. Two conservative groups, CASE and FRC, argued directly against the Circle, arguing that freedom and economic growth would help the poor and not "poverty programs." One group asks "What Would Jesus Cut?" and the other asks "Who Would Jesus Indebt?" (Gerson makes some salient points in his column, but he misses on some things--just like his book.) I agree with many goals of both groups (but seeing too many Jim Wallis-isms in the Circle documents makes me leery. HT to Brian Kaylor for all of this). Both groups spent money on attack ads.

As I laid out at the end of this post, I'm skeptical of the idea of Christians trying to legislate morality or remake the world by law as there is no biblical precedent for this. I see us as called to be set apart, a community that loves one another and sets an example that invites the rest of the world to join. Our chief allegiance is to God and His Church (worldwide), not to a temporary country. I see Christians lobbying for government to better fund certain poverty programs as a sign of laziness, the Church does and should be doing many of these things and shouldn't ask someone else to do it. Further, government funds these programs through taxation, which is a forced, coerced activity and there is no love in coercion. Why would we ask the government to do more of it? Why not, as Francis Chan says, just give until it hurts? Why not work for reformation and revival inside churches instead of political band-aids?

Granted, there are certain activities that a government should engage in that the Church or private sector can't-- like funding AIDS and other basic research. Those activities have positive externalities that the private sector won't realize on its own. Catastrophic insurance is another good example. But providing meals for the poor, homeless shelters, job banks, those are all things that churches and other faith-based charities do effectively. But why should my church provide meals for hungry kids if a government kitchen down the street does it?

Libertarians tend to argue that America did a good job in the 19th century of handling poverty--given how poor we were as a nation--without government getting involved. We had active churches and charities that didn't spend much time lobbying the government and you don't read of people dying of starvation, even in our most severe economic downturns. I don't know if any hard data exists about this, but I'd be curious what the arguments are for private charity decline and government rise (or vice-versa).

In Part 2, I'll look at some problems I have with my tithe money going to support Christians who are active in politics and offending a wide range of people with things other than the Gospel.

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