In my latest reading of Blinded by Might: Why the Religious Right Can't Save America, by Cal Thomas and Ed Dobson, Dobson points to the ineffectiveness of Prohibition as an example of the limits of laws in making the United States a moral country. Dobson then tells the story of an alcoholic named Bob who received Jesus Christ, got sober, made amends to people he harmed, and attended church and AA. For Dobson (and, I presume, Thomas), the Gospel of Jesus Christ can transform people, whereas laws are limited, and so Christians should prioritize the Gospel over political activity in seeking to change America.
There is a part of me that sympathizes with this sort of argument, and there is a part of me that recoils from it. Where
I sympathize is that I believe that people can only change if they want
to do so. If they don't want to change, then laws may not make that
much of a difference. Dobson cites the example of Prohibition,
which a lot of people disobeyed because they wanted their booze. But,
as Dobson (or perhaps it was Thomas) also contends, laws against
abortion will not solve the problem of abortion because people will try
to get around them. What's needed is for people's minds and hearts to
Where I recoil from the argument is that it has often
been used to promote a position that says that the government should not
do anything to solve problems. (UPDATE: I should make clear, though, that Thomas in the book favors legal restrictions on abortion.) My high school history teacher quoted a
statement by President Dwight Eisenhower that said that you cannot
change people's minds and hearts with laws, and Ike was supposedly
saying that in reference to civil rights legislation. Granted, Ike's
civil rights policy was not exactly total inactivity, for there were
times when he took on Southern racism as President. And, granted, laws
by themselves were not enough to stop segregation, for the South held
out for years against integrating their public schools. But laws were
necessary in that case----to establish that segregation was morally
offensive, and also so that the federal government could have more
authority to prosecute racial discrimination.
In addition, I've
heard Christian conservatives say that Christians should not look to
government to ameliorate poverty, for charity is the responsibility of
the church, and, if the church wins more people to Christ through the
Gospel, the poor would be helped. I'm sorry, but I'm not that
optimistic. For one, it would be an extremely heavy task for
the church to assume the responsibilities that the federal government
assumes when it comes to the poor or the vulnerable----Medicaid and
Medicare, low-income housing, low-income heating assistance, food
stamps, etc. I do not think that the church has the resources for that
sort of task, and, what's more, I don't believe that it would have the
will for it. That brings me to my next point. In my opinion, it's not
necessarily the case that society would be better off if everyone became
an evangelical Christian. There are evangelicals who are jerks.
Some will then tell me that these evangelicals are not true
Christians. Well, let me tell you something: I'm not going to support
putting federal programs for the poor on the shelf until conservative
Christians finally get their acts together.
I'm not saying that Thomas and Dobson in this book are for the government doing nothing on civil rights or the poor.
Thomas questions that federal welfare programs have been successful in
eliminating poverty, but, as far as I could see, he says nothing about
abolishing them. But Thomas and Dobson, at least in this book, seem to
be overly optimistic about the U.S. becoming a better place if more
people became evangelical Christians. I tend to be skeptical, even
though, like Thomas and Dobson, I believe that a change in mind and
heart for the better (including within myself) is important.
Dobson leads me to ask a tough question, though: When should the government intervene?
Prohibition was trying to address a serious problem: people's lives
being ruined through the abuse of alcohol. Did this necessitate a
governmental solution? If my answer is that it did not, then why would I
say that the government should have intervened to solve the ill of
racial segregation and discrimination? All I really can do is look at
things on a case-by-case basis. In the case of alcohol, the government
banning it would not work, but the government could step in and seek to
ameliorate some of the problems associated with it: ordering people into
treatment if they drink and drive, abuse others while drunk, or neglect
their work responsibilities. Even here, government is not enough, for
the person has to want to recover, and there need to be people
around him (i.e., church, fellow recoverers) who are willing to assist
him on the path to recovery. In the case of racial discrimination,
however, the government should prohibit that and exact clear penalties,
which would be stringently enforced. Granted, hearts and minds need to
be changed, but we should not have waited for the hearts and minds to be
changed before the government could step in and act.
abortion? Here, I struggle. I believe that the unborn child is a life,
and that life should be protected. But there are times when people
have an unexpected pregnancy, and they may not be able to take care of a
baby. And then there are careless people who have sex, a pregnancy
results, and they're not the sorts of people who would make good
parents. Laws against abortion will not make these issues go away. But
the government can work with parents and help them to have the
resources for their child's well-being. Adoption can be reformed.
Contraception can be encouraged. Do I support banning abortion,
though? Well, I guess that I'm open to some restrictions, as long as a
support system is in place once the child is born. Unfortunately,
the way that the U.S. political system is set up, the party that is
pro-life on abortion tends to be the party that wants to chip away at
the social safety net.
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