Love Your Neighbor, Save Government Programs

The problem with Christians using billboard-ish bombast to win.

Advertising often employs simplification. A recent printer ad claimed that you would save money on ink by switching to their product. The audio fine print hurriedly explained, “Cost savings calculated for competitor cartridges in single quantities at manufacturer suggested retail prices.” These specifics don’t mean the ad is wrong per se. It could still be cheaper to switch. But if you bought your ink in bulk or used third party cartridges, perhaps the savings wouldn’t be worth it. “Our printer saves you money” is a good sales line, but it isn’t the whole story.

When it comes to advertising, this phenomenon actually doesn’t bother me. Most people understand that this simplification is happening. Even our sound bitten political process doesn’t get my dander up. Distinguishing between the role of the stump speech and the footnoted sub-committee report is pretty intuitive. It is when Christian political advocates use similar evocative marketing techniques that I get grouchy.

Earlier this year, a new Christian advocacy group, the Circle of Protection, was formed. This group and other similar organizations call on people to care about the poor while implying that government programs are the best way to do so.

These organizations’ email blasts, websites, and speeches often talk a lot about “Biblical mandates” to do this or that. While it is certainly true that the Bible includes many mandates, they rarely come with specific policy recommendations. Nevertheless, Christian political advocacy invokes the Bible as the authority. A hypothetical example, “In the Bible we see that Jesus loved the little children, so therefore we need to preserve the Head Start program.” The statement appeals explicitly to the Bible’s authority while quietly depending on the authority of the person who supports Head Start. The reader is left with the impression, “Jesus would have supported Head Start and I should too.”

The better statement would be something like, “Head Start is a good program that helps kids and should be saved.” That kind of rhetoric focuses on the authority of the messenger, not the Biblical mandate. When you hear that statement, you can evaluate it based upon how much you trust the messenger or how persuasively they articulate why Head Start is so great. Too many Christian political advocates borrow the Bible’s authority to persuade, when their policy recommendations should stand on their own merits. Invoking the Bible without taking me through the other logical steps you take to land on a policy position is at best, intellectual laziness, and at worst, cheap hucksterism.

Christian political advocates should not use God’s authority to pump urgency and ethos into their policy agendas. Reasonable people, including Christians, should be able to share the same values and still disagree about the right way to represent those values in policy. Unfortunately this kind of nuance is bad for advocacy. For the same reason moderates struggle in primaries, nuanced and balanced political messaging does not lay a lot of golden eggs.

When Christians use these marketing tactics, it hinders robust and charitable discussion about important policy problems. The worst effect is the attempt to bind the conscience of fellow believers and prematurely end debate. If you start a conversation by saying, “Jesus said to love your neighbor and would therefore support Medicaid,” are you still open to someone saying they want to love their neighbor too but have practical concerns about Medicaid?

This happens all the time in traditional politics when people accuse each other of not caring about a problem if someone doesn’t also agree with their policy approach to that problem. We might all agree that poverty is bad, but we might disagree about what the government, or any actor, can or even should do about poverty. Often the real difference is the degree of confidence in government’s ability as a planner and executor, not how much someone cares about a particular problem. Christian political advocates should not try to move public opinion by contributing to that confusion. It is rhetorical bullying to fellow Christians and does nothing to win the support of non-Christians.

As I said before, I don’t mind this when it comes to regular commercial or political advertising. It is expected and people typically adjust for it when they hear it. However, when it comes to Christian political advocacy, I think evocative simplification is like a dangerous steroid: at first it appears to be working wonders, but in the end it erodes and destroys.

2 Comments

  • Avatar
    December 10, 2011

    Mark

    Good article Adam. Recently there was an article that used the “forgive us our debts” line in the Lord’s Prayer as a suggestion that government bailout programs are good things for Christians to support. The primary reason that none of these postions hold from a Biblical perspective and are therefore dangerous for Christians to make, is that these mandates are #1 for followers of Christ and #2 for the Church. These are not general suggestions for nations or societies at large. If Chruch and Christians want to express real love, then use the Church as the foundation for these programs, not the government.

  • Adam D'Luzansky
    December 13, 2011

    Adam D'Luzansky

    Thanks Mark. You make a really good point about the mandates being for the Christians and for the Church, not for society at large.