The other day my friend told me something I’ve heard from many Christians over the years. He said, “As a Christian I think it is the church’s job to help the poor, not the government’s.”
While this sentence has a nice, reassuring neatness, it is actually a pretty problematic way to talk about politics “as a Christian.”
To see why this is the case, consider first the “as a Christian, I think” part of his statement. Now, obviously, we can think a lot of things "as Christians." To name three, we could think that Christians should love their neighbors, that the death penalty is wrong, or that pizza is delicious. It is clear that thinking of them “as a Christian” means something different in each case.
Christians generally agree that loving one's neighbor is a core teaching of Christianity, but saying pizza is delicious “as a Christian” does not seem to be the same sort of claim. In fact, it probably just seems silly. It is clear that being a Christian doesn’t have anything to do with thinking that pizza is delicious. I may think pizza is delicious while being a Christian, but not because I am one.
The middle example (“as a Christian, I think the death penalty is wrong”) is trickier. It is not the case that "the death penalty is wrong" is an explicit teaching of the Bible, but certainly many Christians conclude that it is implied by what the Bible says. Someone who says she thinks the death penalty is wrong “as a Christian” probably means to say something like “reflection on my Christian beliefs has led me to conclude that the death penalty is wrong.” This assertion might also convey that she thinks that all Christians should oppose the death penalty. This is common; if we see a conviction as a clear implication of Christianity, we usually think other Christians should agree with us, even if they can still be Christian without doing so. When she says she thinks this “as a Christian,” the person she's talking to might justly conclude that she is making a claim about what a Christian should think about the death penalty.
The second half of my friend’s sentence is also ambiguous. He could mean, on the one hand, that he happens to believe two separate things: that it is the church’s job to help the poor AND that it is not the government’s job to help the poor. On the other hand, he could mean to say that because it is the church’s job to help the poor, it is therefore not the government’s job.
The problem, from my perspective, is that he mixes together what should be two different kinds of statements. He presents his belief about government (about which Christians can disagree) as if it is is entailed in a core Christian belief: helping the poor (about which Christians should all agree). However, there is no logical reason why the church’s mandate to help the poor would mean it is not also the government’s responsibility, unless one subscribes to the premise that only one institution can be responsible for the poor. But what's the basis of that premise? A Christian might be a member of a church, family, charitable organization, business, neighborhood association, city, state, country, or international body at the same time. The conviction that the church should help the poor does not automatically imply that all those other institutions should ignore them. Figuring out the commitments and priorities appropriate to each of them is a difficult problem for human reflection and does not follow automatically from the Bible.
Now, it is certainly possible that my friend thinks the government is bad at helping the poor or that reliance on the government leads the church to neglect its duties or that the government should not be in the poverty amelioration business for some other reason. There is nothing clearly wrong with those convictions. He can think them while Christian. My concern here is the need to be careful about language if we want to avoid presenting our political conclusions as direct implications of Christian belief. We must be clear about which of our convictions are actually from the Bible, which are the result of our thinking about the implications of those teachings, and which we merely happen to hold while being Christians.