Can The Church Or The Government Build A Better Society?

This could be a political question, a theological question, or both. Because it is not just a straightforward political issue, but has ramifications for theology, it qualifies to appear on this blog. The issue at stake is for differing views for Christians about how much of the personal impacts of their faith can be expressed through an individualist focus, and how much should be handed over to government to be expressed through a collectivistic focus. Broadly speaking, individualism is roughly comparable to a capitalist society, whilst collectivism is comparable to a socialist society. The question is thus whether Christians who want to see society become a force of good in the world, should advocate for this to happen through the church, or through Government. The issue has interesting political and theological aspects to it for Christians to consider.

Most of the controversy over this subject originates in the United States of America, because of that nation’s libertarian origins. This has made the US virtually unique worldwide in that there are strong anti-statist beliefs entrenched throughout society. Hence, a view like this is right at home in the US amongst those whose general beliefs about government as a whole are firmly rooted in the founding principles of the nation. This article on the “Breaking Ground” website, A Tale Of Two Evangelicalisms, highlights this dichotomy very well. In the US, revolutionary wars cemented the establishment of freedom from oppressing powers; in most other countries, particularly in Europe, non-violent protest action achieved similar results. These differences are key to understanding why evangelicals outside the US support the idea that the government, aided by the electoral support of evangelical churches, can help bring about a better society, rather than the church independently of government.

The situation in New Zealand is broadly similar to that of Sweden (the comparative in the above mentioned article) due to its historical inheritance from a similar process of evolved political power in England. This was put to good effect by the First Labour Government elected in 1935, which remained in office until 1949, when it enacted a broad programme of social justice-focused reform of NZ society. A political consensus between the two major parties in the NZ parliament saw the general social justice principles, the essential underpinning of an egalitarian society, remain largely unchanged for half a century. The election of the Fourth Labour Government of 1984, however, brought about the implementation of libertarian-focused economic policies supposedly in the name of creating a more productive economy, but of which the most practical outcome was massive increase in economic inequality in society as a whole. The economic rationalism of this government was further cemented by the following National Party government and the changes in society along with the subsequent implementation of the MMP political system has made it difficult for parties to consider reversing the economic trend.

The fact is that the views of this subject vary widely across different elements of the church. Historically, churches which have been associated with the right wing of politics, which itself prioritises an individualistic focus in governmentalism, have been those which have called for moral authority in society to be mainly vested in the church. Thus the predominant viewpoint expressed by these churches is that the government should be small and impose as few restrictions on churches and people as possible, and therefore leave the moral good of society to be . This is the type of view expressed recently in New Zealand by the New Conservatives political party, which called for a significant level of tax cuts, less government regulation, and for governmental powers to pass laws to be checked by public referenda. There generally is, however, one important way in which churches pushing this viewpoint deviate significantly from it, and that is in their common expectation that the Government must pass moral laws for the good of society. Generally, their viewpoint of what these laws should be are focused around a narrow set of issues which traditionally have included abortion, prostitution, euthanasia, gay rights, same sex marriage, etc. Hence this form of belief is not truly libertarian and is generally grouped under the description of social conservatism. However it is undeniable that there is a clear synergy in a number of respects between social conservatives and libertarians in calling for a small government with reduced spending.

Part of the claim being made by social conservatives is that the Church can step in and fill the gap in social provision that is currently taken by the government, for example in the areas of health, education and welfare. This is especially inspired by the same type of call being pushed by conservative churches in the US and is particularly culturally relevant to their society. Political parties and churches in the US, however, are strongly divided on this issue with those on the left of politics favouring income redistributive measures much more than those on the right. The government is obviously well placed to help ensure this and therefore the claim is misleading.

But the key issue for New Zealand is that the Government provides or funds so much core infrastructure of society such as our schools and hospitals, major highways, telecommunication network backbones, power lines and what have you. Whilst a case could be made for private funding of at least some of these, we believe that saying the role of the Government could essentially be dispensed with, is not really sensible. Whilst what is being claimed is somewhat different, that the Government does not have the ability to change society, that only the church could, in reality the government wields huge power and can easily bring about improvements from different policies. We therefore conclude that the role of Government is important in shaping society and does have considerable relevance for Christians who prefer to vote for parties that are towards the left of politics.