Democrats are talking at the national and local levels across the country in public forums and hushed church hallways about how their party can engage people of faith.
In a column critiquing this chatter, Cal Thomas wrote: “On public policy matters, Democrats and Republicans are divided in ways that religion will not bridge. Democrats mostly believe government should be a primary caregiver.”
Republicans, on the other hand, “think people should begin with themselves, making decisions and choices that are objectively right and beneficial to the one who makes them and to the wider culture.”
Thomas concluded: “Politics deals with the outside, but the Bible that Republicans have successfully used and Democrats now want to quote, deals with the inside. Government cannot go there with enough power to change lives.”
Thomas, who reads EthicsDaily.com and has cited it in a column, is right about the misuse of religion by both political parties, a rare and refreshing word among conservative evangelicals.
He is flat wrong about the Bible, however. He reads it through individualistic lenses of conservative evangelicalism and misses the broad sweep of the biblical witness.
The Bible does speak to the centrality of conversion, to the change of heart, to individual responsibility. Thomas is right that the Bible “deals with the inside.”
But the Bible also speaks to the centrality of social responsibility, to the outside, to the role of those in power to pursue social justice.
Regrettably, the religious right reads a small Bible, one that stresses individual conversion as the source for moral change and prioritizes only a few issues, most of which relate to sex—such as abortion and gay marriage.
The truth is that the biblical witness speaks in plentiful ways to the “outside,” challenging the notion that good individuals will do the right thing if their heart is right.
One of the best examples of the Bible speaking to social responsibility is one of the Ten Commandments.
“Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy” (Ex. 20:8), says the fourth commandment. It instructed the Hebrews, “in it thou shalt not do any work.”
The commandment charged the society to stop working one day out of seven to remember in reverence that God was the source of creation and that God had rested.
It spoke pointedly to the wealthy, who owned slaves and had migrant workers. The rich were commanded to give their slaves, non-resident aliens and even farm animals a day of rest.
The fourth commandment instructed society to protect its weakest members. It did not entrust their welfare to individual discretion.
Other biblical texts advanced social responsibility, such as the law of gleaning that commanded farmers to leave the edges of their fields unharvested for the poor to have access to food (Lev. 19:9-10). Leaving produce was not a matter of individual choice. It was the law.
When slaves were granted freedom every seventh year, slave-owners were instructed to provide “liberally” from their flocks and stocks to slaves (Deut. 15:1-18). The law of Moses sought social justice through establishing the sabbatical year and mandating that those who ran society gave the freed slaves enough resources to become self-sufficient. It was not a matter of the wealthy individual having a good heart and doing a little charity.
Unlike those who demean Democrats for social spending that indeed has not ended poverty, this text spoke with realism about poverty: “For the poor shall never cease out of the land” (Deut. 15:11).
The very next word said, “Therefore I (God) command thee, saying, ‘Thou shalt open wide thine hand unto thy brother, to thy poor, and to thy needy, in the land.”
Those who rely solely on the Bible’s inward working and the goodness of the individual miss the Bible’s realism about the grinding nature of poverty and society’s ongoing responsibility to care for the poor.
While Republicans and Democrats rightfully debate the role and size of government, they need to have an unmistakably clear understanding that the big Bible speaks about social responsibility, about the outside, to change lives.
Robert Parham is the executive director of the Baptist Center for Ethics.