Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia recently gave a lecture (together with a subsequent Q & A session) at the Lanier Theological Library in Houston, Texas. on the following topic: “Is Capitalism or Socialism More Conducive to Christian Virtue?”—(the lecture can be viewed in its entirety here). Interestingly, he is both a devout Roman Catholic and a convinced fiscal conservative. And though I am neither a Roman Catholic nor quite so convinced a fiscal conservative as he, I find much common ground with him in what he has to say in this lecture. In spite of the checkered historical legacy of the religious community of which he is a member with regard to church-state issues (thankfully, much improved in more recent years), Justice Scalia appears to me to have keener insight into the proper relationship between faith and economic/political views than many of my fellow Evangelicals.
Here are a few key excerpts:
I do not believe that a Christian ought to choose his form of government on the basis of which will be most conducive to his faith any more than he ought to choose his toothpaste on that basis. To be sure, there are certain prohibitions. A Christian should not support a government that suppresses the faith, or one that sanctions the taking of innocent human life, just as a Christian should not wear immodest clothes. But the test of good government, like the test of well-tailored clothes, is assuredly not whether it helps you save your soul. Government is not meant for saving souls, but for protecting life and property, and assuring the conditions for physical prosperity. Its responsibility is the here, not the hereafter, and the needs of the two sometimes diverge. It may well be, for example, that a governmental system which keeps its citizens in relative poverty will produce more saints. The rich, as Christ said, have a harder time getting to heaven. But that would be a bad government, nonetheless. This recognition of the separate spheres of church and state is not just the teaching of the First Amendment to the United States Constitution; it is also, I think, the teaching of Jesus Christ, who spoke of rendering to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and who is not regarded as having indicated any preference about government, except one: He did not want the people to make Him king.”
Bear in mind that in this discussion I am not arguing about whether socialism is good or bad as a system of government. If private charity does not suffice to meet the needs of the poor, or if we do not want the poor to have to regard themselves as the object of charity, or if we even wish to go beyond merely assisting the poor, and want to redistribute the wealth of the rich to the middle class, socialism may be a better way to meet those particular worldly needs. But that can be decided on the economic and secular merits of the matter. The question I am asking is whether Christian faith must incline us towards that system. And the answer, I think, is no. Christ did not preach a chicken in every pot, or the elimination of poverty in our time. Those are worldly governmental goals. If they were His objectives, He certainly devoted little of His time and talent to achieving them, feeding the hungry multitudes only a couple of times, as I recall, and running away from the crowds who wanted to put Him on the throne, where He would have had an opportunity to engage in some real redistribution of wealth. His message was not the need to eliminate hunger, or misery, or misfortune, but rather, the need for each individual to love and help the hungry, the miserable, and the unfortunate. To the extent the state takes upon itself one of the corporal works of mercy that could and would have been taken on privately, it deprives individuals of an opportunity for sanctification, and deprives the Body of Christ of an occasion for the interchange of love among its members.”
The burden of my remarks is not that a government of the Right is more Christ-like; only that there is no reason to believe that a government of the Left is. To tell you the truth, I do not think Jesus Christ cares very much what sort of economic or political system we live under. He certainly displayed little interest in that subject during His life among us—as did His apostles. Accordingly, we should select our economic and political systems on the basis of what seems to produce the greatest material good for the society as a whole, or if you wish, for the most needy segment of society, and leave theology out of it. Raising the minimum wage, for example, which is a perennial political proposal in Washington, is a good or a bad idea, depending upon whether it is likely to produce good or bad economic consequences. It has nothing to do with the kingdom of God.”
To be certain (as a careful listen to Justice Scalia’s speech in its entirety will make clear), he is not arguing in favor of neutrality on the part of individual Christians with regard to economics and politics. He is a fiscal conservative, and he firmly believes that is the wisest option, whether one is a Christian or not. If anything, he is showing how being faithful to one’s Christian convictions does not demand at the same time an allegiance to leftist or socialist views.
But his argument cuts both ways. The kingdom of God is not food and drink (nor, I believe, by extension, a matter of political platforms, economic systems, or influence in the public square) but righteousness, peace, and joy in the Holy Spirit. In other words, it is possible to be a bona fide disciple of Jesus Christ and at the same time a fiscal liberal. And it is possible to be a bona fide disciple of Jesus Christ and at the same time a fiscal conservative.
The problem, as I understand it, when we tend to identify one economic/political position with faithfulness to Christ and another with lack of faithfulness to Christ, is that we therefore artificially divide the Body of Christ over matters other than gospel essentials. Politics, by its very nature, has a tendency to demand total allegiance. Just as in the Body of Christ we are stronger when we are more united, a political party is able to accomplish more when its constituency is united. From the a purely political perspective, it doesn’t matter what you believe on this theological issue or that one, just as long as you vote “our way,” and use your influence to get others to do the same. But from a truly Christian perspective, one’s political views cannot take precedence over one’s allegiance to Christ and to His Body—and theological issues really do matter.
It is at this point that I am wrestling with the well-known dictum of Abraham Kuyper: “There is not a square inch in the whole domain of our human existence over which Christ, who is Sovereign over all, does not cry, ‘Mine!’” No doubt, there is a great deal of truth in what Kuyper says. Indeed, our allegiance to Christ must be supreme, and this allegiance extends to every aspect of our lives. But if this is taken to mean that since the sovereignty of Christ extends to the public economic and political realm, there is consequently a more Christian approach to these issues and a less Christian approach to them, and that if you do not share my views on which approach is more authentically Christian, your Christian commitment is thereby suspect, I have my doubts as to what degree this statement is helpful.
Yes, the sovereignty of Christ extends to economics and politics. But, as Justice Scalia reminds us (if I am not misinterpreting him here), it extends to our choice of toothpaste as well—and (I would add) to our loyalty to our favorite sports team, etc. But certainly we should not divide the church over preferences in toothpaste or loyalty to sports teams!
In other words, though the sovereignty of Christ extends to every aspect of our lives, there are certain areas in which the choices He gives us are more open-ended, and others in which they are not. And if you want to use the mind, abilities, and influence God has given you to advocate a certain approach to economics and politics, or a preference of toothpaste, or a loyalty to a certain sports team, as far as I am concerned, have at it! I will attempt to listen to what you have to say with an open mind. And you may well convince me. But if you do not, please do not say that I am any less faithful of a Christian because of it.
*See also some related thoughts of mine here: