The Apostle Paul of the Christian New Testament writes in his letter to the Romans: “Be a good citizen. All governments are under God. In so far as there is peace and order, it’s God order. So live responsibility as a citizen. If you’re irresponsible to the state, then you’re irresponsible with God, and God will hold you responsible. That’s why you must live responsibly—not just to avoid punishment but also because it’s the right way to live. That’s also why you pay taxes—so that an orderly way of life can be maintained. Fulfill your obligations as a citizen. Pay your taxes, pay your bills and respect your leaders.”
Given the exhortation of Paul, and the admonition of Jesus to render unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s and to God that which is God’s, how is it that many Christians, especially evangelical, southern Christians, have joined an alliance with neo-conservatives who believe that government is the enemy?
How has the mantra for too many Christians become lower taxes and less government, rather than asking what, in good conscience, are needed to provide a civil and just society and how can we best pay for it?
Neo-conservatives are the new conservatives that now control national politics and have great influence in the current White House. They believe in rugged individualism, market opportunities, privatization and individual initiatives, specifically those that make money.
They have less patience and little empathy with the common good as provided for by government, especially if it interferes with market opportunities. Thus, for them, less government and lower taxes makes sense, even if only in the quarterly balance sheets.
The goals for Christians, however, include the common good, care for those who cannot make it on their own, fairness and justice for all and, consequently, a positive role for government in providing a civil order in which individuals may make the most of opportunities and benefit, when needed, from the protection and peace and order provided only by civil governments.
Katrina revealed how fragile civil order may be when the citizenry calls for less government and lower taxes to the extent that the infrastructure of our cities goes unattended to, even when we know in advance the consequences. The failure in Katrina lies in an irresponsible collective citizenry. It lies in huge deficits brought about by tax cuts, irrespective of needs.
Katrina revealed what a positive and essential force government is in the establishment and maintenance of a civil society–peace and order. When that order is not present we humans can easily and quickly devolve into the state of nature of individualism, an idea fostered and developed by Hobbes and Locke through Jefferson and Madison to our present Constitution and governments.
We ignore our Christian citizenship responsibilities at great peril to our civil society. History is replete with examples of such.
Katrina is also showing the very positive side of individual citizenship as individuals and organizations respond to help meet the needs produced by Katrina. However, the individualism of the neo-conservatives in the private market place is not sufficient in the public market. Individual actions are not adequate substitutes for inadequate collective attention to the public and common good.
Hopefully, Katrina will reveal what it means to be a good citizen on both the individual and collective public levels and in both the civic and Christian contexts.
The facts are quite clear. We do not live responsibly in relationship to the state with a blind call for less government and lower taxes, if such means needs are not met and inadequate infrastructures in places like New Orleans result in the least of these paying a horrible price.
Unless we do better, similar tragedies can and will occur elsewhere, either by natural forces or acts of terrorism.
Katrina also reveals that we Americans can do more because we are doing more. The problem is not that we cannot, the problem is that we do not, until it is too little and too late.
Focus on display of the Ten Commandments and prayer in school, at the expense of inadequate state revenues and a fair tax system sufficient to protect and support a civil society for all of its members, is irresponsible citizenship in both the civic kingdom and in the Kingdom of God.
Gerald W. Johnson is emeritus professor of political science at Auburn University and a deacon at Auburn First Baptist Church in Auburn, Ala.