Is Shutting Down the Government Unbiblical?


According to Jim Wallis, shutting down the United States government is “unbiblical.” In other words, he argues that the current crisis in Washington DC is not merely a political problem; it is a theological problem. Furthermore, he lays the blame squarely on “extremists” whom, he says, “don’t believe in government per se” and are therefore “against the poor.”

Some conservative evangelicals might dismiss Wallis out of hand as a Democratic partisan and left-wing activist. Such an automatic dismissal is ad hominem and untoward. Yes, Wallis’s politics trend Left, and while he often makes common cause with Democrats, I have no idea what his party affiliation is. And anyway, regardless of party or political leaning, perhaps Wallis is right on this particular issue.

So, let’s take his argument seriously.

First, let’s agree that the Bible does not teach anarchy, nor is it against government per se. This is a point that evangelical Christians across the political spectrum can agree on. As Romans 13 teaches, God has ordained government to accomplish certain purposes.

Second, more controversially, let’s agree that the Bible teaches that government plays some role in alleviating poverty. Obviously, the Right and the Left will disagree on what that role is. The Right may emphasize that government helps the poor by protecting them against force and fraud. The Left may emphasize that government helps the poor by redistributing income to them, among other things. Regardless, evangelicals across the spectrum agree that government plays some role in alleviating poverty. The disagreement concerns the precise nature of that role.

So far, so good, right? Wallis has a point…at least a sufficiently high level of abstraction. Christians aren’t anarchists and they agree government plays some role in alleviating poverty.

The problem with Wallis’s argument is how he applies these broad principles to the specific case. He accuses “extremists”–specifically mentioning the “House” [of Representatives]–of not “believing in government per se” and therefore of being “against the poor.” Here, we need to conclude that Wallis is simply wrong, and his wrongness is easy to prove:

First, the government has not shut down. Parts of the government have, but not all of it. So-called “essential” operations remain in place, and these include those relating to national security, entitlements, and many aspect of welfare. The Armed Forces and federal law enforcement agencies are still at work. Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid checks are still being sent. While Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF) funding is affected, the States have sufficient funds to carry the poor through a short shutdown. Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) will not be affected, but Women Infants Children (WIC) will be. Mark Trumbull summarizes things this way: “Many of the most widely used benefit programs can continue, at least for a time, unaffected by the shutdown.”

Second, the “extremists” are not against government per se. Indeed, as of this morning, the House has passed three continuing resolutions to fund government. The Senate has rejected all of them, refusing even to conference with the House on compromise legislation. Obviously, people who are passing legislation to continue funding for the government are not against government “per se.” And if both the partial government shutdown and the continuing resolutions, including funding for welfare programs, they are not “against the poor” either.

I get the temptation to play the Bible card when it comes to politics. I’ve succumbed to that temptation too. I also realize that people of good faith can disagree on who’s to blame for the current shutdown. But when we begin to make manifestly untrue statements about people we disagree with, then we’re just using the Bible as cover for partisanship.

So, for the record: The House Republicans are not against government per se, and their actions do not necessarily indicate that they are “against the poor.”

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