What's a Christian to do?

October 18, 1994|By Warren Johnson

THE RELIGIOUS right, long in the forefront of opposition to President Clinton, has begun to draw blood with questions about his stature as a Christian, and even secular critics are joining in the feeding frenzy.

Bill Clinton's waffling behavior is seen as a manifestation of a lack of principles. His association with Jimmy Carter lately hasn't helped. Both men are seen as soft in the head, especially after reaching compromises with thugs in Haiti and dictators in North Korea. They are not seen as real men, as making Americans stand tall -- as President Reagan did.

This is ironic since both Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter are churchgoing Christians who try to act according to their faith. Ronald Reagan, in contrast, rarely went to church, was divorced and headed what was clearly a dysfunctional family, at least according to what his children have said about it. Yet the religious right loved him.

Is there something about being an avowed Christian that makes Mr. Clinton seem like a wimp in an age when strength is everything? Even George Bush's actions in Somalia, which saved hundreds of thousands of people from starvation, were ridiculed by those who saw nothing contradictory in demanding that the unborn be saved in this country while letting the living starve elsewhere. We had no national interest (read selfish interest) in Somalia. (Or in health care for poor Americans; we have too many of them anyway.)

I consider myself a Christian, but I fail to see anything Christian in the agenda of the religious right. All I see is fearful people who have allowed themselves to be used by right-wingers mainly interested in getting government off their backs.

Or maybe Bill Clinton and politicians in general are being made the scapegoats for a country going in directions that deeply trouble Americans of all political and religious persuasions.

The religious right charges that government programs have weakened the family. In fact, the government has tried -- unsuccessfully, to be sure -- to patch together the broken families that this country is producing in such abundance. Child protective services cannot heal the injuries children suffer at home, not any more than prayers in the schools could. Welfare may not do much to improve the lot of the poor, but putting them out on the streets to beg and steal was rejected long ago, along with child labor and debtors prison.

If the family has weakened, it is mainly because people have become so absorbed in making a living that they have little time or emotional energy left for their children. For people to live simple lives built around family and community is hardly an alternative these days, and children suffer for it. It is the economy that is ordering our lives today, and by comparison, the government is just as ineffective as conservatives charge.

What does the Bible say about economics? It is not some sort of capitalist manifesto, as the right tries to suggest. Just the opposite: In all but the oldest books, the quest for wealth is a sin. In two of the Gospels, Christ says "You cannot serve both God and money," for "where your treasure is, there your heart will be too." In Matthew, Christ says, "It is easier for a camel to get through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God." We are told to concern ourselves with only the simplest of needs. In Paul's words: "Having food and raiment, let us therefore be content."

In contrast, the free market has, in a real sense, become our religion, since what it brings forth is defined as good. In this view, government is a negative force, since it takes away from the incentive to create wealth. The free market demands a maximum of freedom to be most productive, and that appeals to a society that has come to see personal growth as life's purpose. The ties that held people together in the past -- community values, civic duty, family honor -- have collapsed under the weight of individual rights.

Our history books celebrate those who were most aggressive in taking advantage of the extraordinary opportunities created by the free market; under these movers and shakers, the economy became an awesome machine for the production of goods and services. The same market forces drive so much of what taints our society today: the violent films and music, pornography. Even crack dealers are classic entrepreneurs, except that their market niche is illegal -- the only reason it remains available to them.

The market has also brought forth spectacular new technologies, but they also destroyed old freedoms, such as the freedom to be a small farmer or an independent craftsman or shopkeeper.

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