BY ANDRÉ FRENCH
Since I was eleven, and my grandfather sat me down in front of an old black and white to watch his party’s national convention, I have both enjoyed and deplored my addiction to the study of politics and the human condition. Something bit me that summer in 1972. Something beautiful and something bitter. Gramps was a staunch conservative, and he was going to do his part to make sure that his oldest son’s oldest son was prepared to take the baton. Little did Gramps know the bitterness of that baton when Watergate unraveled his pet presidency in the year that followed. I learned early on that the common sense so ingrained in the planks of the Republican Party platform could not shield the political players from grave lapses in character. So began a life of lessons in politics and the human condition.
This is the nature of the beast, isn’t it? This human condition, this capacity for good coupled with an inherent tendency to do evil. In the political arena, it reveals its ugliness in every campaign and fails to spare a single administration. The evangelical Christian community sought in part to stem its tide with the formation of The Moral Majority, an American political force prevalent in the 1980s. But while you can legislate morality – we do it every day – the legislating of Christianity is not only unconstitutional, it is akin to eliminating free will by edict, which is of course absurd. Inevitably, a country changes from the inside out, precisely the way it deteriorates. We think somehow, that every four years we are afforded an opportunity for a fresh start, one that can put behind us the slow demise of a formerly prospering nation. But the nation doesn’t need a head transplant. It needs a heart transplant.
So then how does one reverse the trend of depravity so pervasive in American culture and politics? I could exhaust you with religious platitudes, suggesting you fast and pray, preach and proselytize. But as essential as those disciplines and practices are, whether or not you do them, don’t they go without saying? I want to speak here of the personally spiritual while demonstrating the politically practical. God requires of his children a love that flows from every human faculty. Our heart, our soul, our strength and our mind. If our faith is to inform our politics, as most Christians profess, than our hearts, souls, bodies and minds must be engaged.
Theologian and philosopher, Søren Kierkegaard said, “Life must be understood backwards; but… it must be lived forward.” I would only add, for the purposes of this writing, that if the life of the body politic is to be lived forward, it must first be understood backwards. That is to say that the careful study of fruit must be applied to the implementation and history of all public policy. You will likely agree that a great many conservative politicians come into public service with good intentions. Would it surprise you to learn that just as many liberal counterparts possess the same motivation? The same good will? So what separates us if we are not separated by good intentions? Certainly our ideas differ, for our ideologies are poles apart. But I believe the empirical answer to the question of what separates us is good fruit, or good results. Here is political reality 101… Good intentions are always at the mercy of good results. It is never enough to say good intentions justify poor results, only to continue what is so obviously poor policy in deliberate denial. The good intentions that provide income for an able bodied welfare recipient without an expectation of work, may also offer the added advantage of garnering liberal and poor class votes. But it is demoralizing to the poor and destructive to the nation as a whole. It has been tried before and failed miserably. If insanity is defined by doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results, then America is an institution in need of an institution.
Let’s take a look at the fruit of what I call the government institution of “caring by proxy.” The average American conservative’s angst today, is born of the frustration left us by Roosevelt’s New Deal, where, in a futile effort to establish a government that becomes the solution to every problem, it forgets the most critical ingredient in any recipe for recovery… the human heart. An honest reading of American history reveals that loving thy neighbor was best on display when government got mostly out of the way. When family, churches and community members recognized and collectively met needs. Today, people are typically paid to care for one another, and consequently, that care is often void of real understanding or compassion. How sad is that? Sadder still is the fact that we as a people have now been programmed to expect “someone else” to love our neighbors. As we pay our taxes, we attempt to minister to those in need by proxy. Because caring has become big government business, enablement has been perpetuated in order to keep that business thriving, effectively entrenching many in the lowest class. For the needy, that is no way to exist. For the well to do, that is no way to live.
The true measure of human kindness cannot be equated with entitlement spending and the size of the federal or state budget. This is why American conservatives do not advocate the forced redistribution of wealth. Rather, they endorse the distribution of genuine compassion and accountability. While the American Christian and the American conservative are not synonymous entities, it is well documented that American conservative ideology is far more congruous with scripture than is the country’s current liberal worldview, despite good intentions evident on both sides of the aisle. It is interesting to note that our Christian heritage as a nation has withstood the test of the New Deal, demonstrated in acts of charitable giving still remarkably prevalent in the United States. The fact is, national statistics consistently show that while conservatives make 6% less income than liberals, they give 30% more to charity, volunteer far more and donate more blood. Conversely, Liberals give far less to charitable causes. Caring by proxy, they prefer Uncle Sam take the responsibility. Now, certainly not all caring by proxy is to be questioned. But a society that increasingly relegates the responsibility of individual love to a bureaucratic system of paid employees is a society that is losing its humanity. For the further away from suffering we position ourselves, the less we feel its pain, and the less we feel its pain, the more calloused we become. This is when paying taxes can become an excuse to withhold charity, and this trend should give us pause. An old Ukrainian proverb says it best. “Love will find a way. Indifference will find an excuse.”
I got a taste of conservative benevolence and the bureaucratic flags it can raise as a young kid. The same summer my grandfather decided to school me in conservative politics right there in his living room, he demonstrated his political persuasion in an office that few 11-year-olds were likely to enter. I was visiting him the entire month of August 1972, where he and my grandmother lived in a quaint little cottage in the hills of Vermont. You would never imagine that this guy, now in his retirement, was living off a very sizable nest egg. It’s true that they had recently enjoyed a trip around the world, pulled a luxury Airstream for a recreational vehicle, and on one occasion, he showed me a chunk of gold about the size of my little fist, stowed away in a cigar box he put in the keeping of a local bank. But to any casual observer, Gramps was a frugal spender who preferred to drive his VW wagon, enjoy target practice with his Winchester off the back patio, and watch the evening news on his old black and white television set. Hidden underneath his frugality was a man who had excelled all his life, first as a sales rep and then as an investor. While his neighbors hardly noticed, the Internal Revenue Service surely did, and the IRS office had once again dragged him in from an hour out of town to explain in detail just why it was that he was so generous to charity. You see, for Gramps, being a giver was a win-win situation. People in need needed what he had, and the government had allowed for him to be generous over the years without paying a tax on his benevolence. This pleased him greatly. What did not please him at all was the incessant suspicion on the part of the federal government that he had something to hide. He attributed this heavy handed, nearly annual ritual to the liberals in Washington, whose hunger for control sought to tie his charitable hands. He made it quite clear to this 11-year-old just how he interpreted politics… Right was right and left was wrong.
But if a bloated welfare state sustained by crippling taxes has not deterred the conservative or the Christian from giving, doesn’t this detract from my point that we have been trained to care by proxy? Not at all. The degree to which good and generous people are increasingly prevented from ministering to those in need, in lieu of the nanny state, is astounding. Let’s consider New York City as a microcosm. In March of this year, the Mayor of New York banned its citizens from donating food to the needy. That’s right. And I am not just talking about giving a burger to a panhandler in the NYC subway. “Because the city can’t assess their salt, fat and fiber content” all NYC homeless shelters and food banks have been forced to reject donations of food. So then how do you feed the poor in NYC? By proxy… Pay your taxes. Turns out Uncle Sam is not only a chef, but he also does all the grocery shopping. Now this would be an easier pill for the Christian and conservative to swallow if we could at least allocate where our tax dollars were being spent. But vices of every form are benefited by taxation, abortion being only one in a long list.
If ministering to the poor in New York City is a microcosm, then the coming American healthcare system represents the cosmos in caring by proxy. It was with high hopes that the Affordable Care Act was engineered to eventually model systems like that of our Canadian neighbor. Yet how few Americans realize that under the Canadian system, private healthcare providers are prohibited by law? Think about what that means. Canadians have long streamed into the US to get timely and essential healthcare because their system has made it illegal to get treatment unless the government deems it necessary. What’s more, the average Canadian waits over four months to see a specialist after receiving a primary care provider referral. Last year I sat with a radiologist who had recently relocated from Rochester to the Capital district. She told me that her former employer, a teaching hospital, consistently saw a steady stream of patients crossing the border to get diagnosed and treated for cancer and other serious conditions. Why did they choose to leave their free healthcare system and pay out of pocket? Such timely care was denied them under the Canadian system. Time was of the essence and their lives literally depended on it. Imagine the threat our neighbors to the north now feel as they see their only reasonable alternative to an inhumane system beginning to evaporate. If you think the use of the word inhumane is overstating it, what else do you call a government system that prohibits you from spending your own money on the provider of your choice, when you or your loved one, or your neighbor for that matter, needs to be seen? This is the direction many in America want to bring us. Not because they delight in suffering. But because they think it wise to keep experimenting with the same old self-aggrandizing nanny state care, which essentially and necessarily calls for rationing. In this illustration, caring by proxy seems hardly care at all. In Canada it is illegal to care in any other way.
These are just two examples demonstrating the extent to which good and generous people are increasingly prevented from ministering to those in need. This is a trend that has greatly escalated in recent years, as the capacity of government has multiplied. Additionally, there has been a consistent move on the part of the current administration, to limit how much wealthy donors can contribute to charity without being taxed. Now, it is certainly reasonable to expect that this will not deter Christians and conservatives from giving, but their dollars will not go as far if the government confiscates a percentage.
Let me leave the topic of caring by proxy with a final thought on the freedom of benevolence. No one ever argued that they gave generously to the IRS. Taxes are a mandate, not a choice. Unlike the act of ministering to the poor by proxy through government funded programs, giving to the needy via charity is an act of the will. We are just as free to participate as we are free to not participate. The liberal trend in America would have us surrender our capitalist roots for something far more statist or socialist, where government becomes the cure for every crisis, the bank to satisfy every need. But as a nation gradually drifts from a free market economy, individuals trade their right to be generous for the responsibility of taxes – the accountability for which they have little control. What does it say about a society that exchanges the will to give for the mandate to pay?
Now, it is not my intent to disparage all taxes or discourage taxation as a whole. Taxes are not a “necessary evil.” They are necessary for the good. But that brings us full circle doesn’t it? For what is good is defined not by intentions, but by results. As Christians, we have our own set of mandates. Here’s a synopsis of scripture… God requires us to reflect his nature and “He defends the cause of the fatherless and the widow, and loves the alien, giving him food and clothing.” He requires righteous judgment when he says “Do not pervert justice; do not show partiality to the poor or favoritism to the great, but judge your neighbor fairly.” He requires generosity when he says “Do not be hardhearted or tightfisted toward your poor brother.” And “If a man shuts his ears to the cry of the poor, he too will cry out and not be answered.” He promises that “A generous man will himself be blessed, for he shares his food with the poor.” And “If you spend yourselves in behalf of the hungry and satisfy the needs of the oppressed, then your light will rise in the darkness, and your night will become like the noonday.” He soberly reminds us that “If anyone has material possessions and sees his brother in need but has no pity on him, how can the love of God be in him? Dear children, let us not love with words or tongue but with actions and in truth.” And if we’ve been faithful, he invites us to come and take our inheritance “For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.”
Wow, you say! That’s a lot to remember! Okay… Here’s the short list. “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Tell me… Why do you feed yourself? Is it not because, as Paul said, you love yourself, nourishing and caring for your body daily? If, in good conscience you feel that your government does a fine job of caring for the needy, and your weekly paycheck deductions cheerfully tether you in a spiritual and emotional way to the poor, the sick, the imprisoned and the alien, then all is well. But if you believe that despite good intentions, the expanse of government taxation and expenditures has in large ways served to hurt rather than help the downtrodden, while its costs enslave generations to come, there is a remedy that begins with you.
Chuck Colson, a personal hero and no stranger to politics and the failure found in the human condition, was a veteran of the 1972 election and the Watergate debacle that followed. Colson came to Christ in the midst of the upheaval, pleaded guilty to obstruction of justice, and served time. The impact of his newfound faith was so remarkable that his reputation rose from White House hatchet man to compassionate Christian and founder of the world’s largest prison ministry. Chuck Colson passed away in April, at the age of eighty, after falling ill during a speech at the ministry’s annual Wilberforce Weekend Conference. He left us with these words on faith, politics and culture…
“Everybody looks to the elections and thinks, well the elections are going to settle this problem or settle that problem. Elections are important. Whoever serves in office… it makes a difference what kind of person that is and what that person believes. But elections can’t solve the problem we’ve got. The problem we’ve got is that our culture has been decaying from inside for 30 or 40 years. And politics is nothing but an expression of culture. …So how do you fix the culture? Culture is actually formed by the belief system of the people, which has historically been us, the church. So if things are bad, don’t think it’s going to be solved by an election. It’s going to be solved by us. …It comes right back to us. Look in the mirror, that’s where the problem is. And if we can, through the church, renew the church to really bring a healthy cultural influence, then there’s some hope that we can be changed.”
So change may ultimately end in the voting booth, but only after it begins in the prayer closet, in the church, in the checkbook, in the orphanage, in the prison and on the street. Perhaps it is your good intention to love a neighbor, a coworker, a single mom or a stranger. That is God in you just waiting to be demonstrated to the world. Let your intentions bear the fruit of Jesus by trusting him and stepping out. Let him be the judge of the results. If he is your vine, your fruit will feed the hungry. More than anything, understand how much your intentions bring him pleasure, and then act on them. “For God is working in you, giving you the desire and the power to do what pleases him.” Philippians 2:13
~André French © 2012
The Moral Liberal Guest Writer, André French, is a husband and father of three from Sharon Springs, NY. He is a small business owner, musician, songwriter, and worship leader, and writes regularly on history, politics, culture, faith, and family.
The Moral Liberal recommends James Madison: Writings: Writings 1772-1836 (Library of America)