This is going to be a tough one, and some may object very strongly. I can only offer this introduction. I am not opposed to religion. I have an unshakeable faith in the existence of God. And I am not opposed to government. As the child of immigrants, I hold steadfast allegiance to the Constitution, the government and the nation founded thereupon. This piece I’m writing here addresses a small sliver of the interface between religion and government, as expressed from pulpits all around the nation on so many Sundays.
My wife is devout, one of the many things I love and respect and adore about her. I’m not devout, I was raised by Theist parents and the closest I have to a “my church” is the Unitarian Church. Years ago, I went to a service at the local Unitarian Church and I don’t ever recall associating with a more interesting group, so I’ve never gone back. If you are Unitarian and you belong to a wonderful congregation, I am very glad for you, no insult intended.
But I went to church with my wife today because it was a special day for her in the sense of recognition for her work. As always, there was a sermon. The preacher is new and temporary, I hadn’t heard him speak before, so it was with some interest that I anticipated his sermon. He chose the parable of the worker’s in the vineyard from Matthew, always a good start.
You probably know the story. The guy hires some workers in the morning, then late in the afternoon hires some more workers, and at the end of the day pays them all the same. When the workers who labored all day complain that it’s unfair to be paid the same, the guy tells them that they’re getting what they agreed to, what matter is it to them of others get the same, and “Is it not lawful for me to do what I will with mine own?”.
If he’d stopped there, it would have been the same questionable reference to work and pay. The parable actually has nothing to do with work and pay, it’s a parable! The real message is that whether a person accepts Jesus early in life, or at the last moment, they receive the same treatment in Heaven. But the preacher didn’t stop there, he segued into a mini-thesis on social justice and the evils of the American socio-economic system, complete with a gratuitous reference to “rugged individualism”.
So let me return to the closing line of the parable, this time with emphasis added where the real message lies: “Is it not lawful for me to do what I will with mine own?” In terms of the parable, the sermon, and the message, the answer is “Yes”, it is each individual’s choice to do as they will with their own.
Where this breaks down is when the government gets involved, for the simple and undeniable reason that the government has the authority and the power to coerce compliance. The government can, will, and does use force against citizens who do not comply with taxation laws. At the point that coercive force looms in threat, there is no more “mine own” or individual decisions or freedom of choice. A government that uses that authority for coercive force to the benefit of some at the expense of others is establishing the foundation for grievous problems in the future.
Yes, the government has an obligation to act in the best interest of the general welfare, and that may include direct disbursements to indigent citizens. That’s a matter of public policy, to be debated as public policy, and voted upon. It is not a matter for religious instruction or direction. Religion is voluntary, and religion needs to stay out of the business of preaching to their congregation about what the government ought to use its coercive force to accomplish.
Which brings me sort of full-circle on this topic, which is back to my lessons from my parents, and religion. We grew up in abject poverty. We kids weren’t that aware of things at the time, because so many people in town were poor. We were really poor in the way that only those from prosperous backgrounds can be utterly unprepared to deal with poverty. We were poor, and we weren’t very good at it.
One of the lessons from our parents was basically, don’t do this with your lives. Learn a trade, get a job, be frugal but have a generous heart. Toward the very end of their lives, our parents achieved some small comfort. We kids, each in our own way, have followed that teaching, and we have done a slight bit more.
We have (my brothers more so than I), to a small extent, paid forward the obligation that accrues to those who accept help from society. We have paid that debt forward by joining trades, working, paying taxes, contributing to the community in our own ways. In essence, one generation on government assistance, followed by a debt paid forward by the next generation which provides more to others than they receive back.
Finally, the preacher’s disparaging reference to “rugged individualism” only recalled all the unpleasantness of politics at the pulpit. That phrase has acquired some nasty connotations. Part of that is deserved, anyone who looks down on others who are in need actually may truly lack a soul. Part of it is undeserved, the self-righteous and authoritarian creating an code-word for an object of ridicule. The reality is that individual freedom comes with a price, which is self-reliance. It’s called “freedom and independence” for a reason. Independence means, literally, “not dependent”. And there is no freedom like what Americans expect, demand, and enjoy without that independence.
Thank you for reading. I should re-write this and get it down to about half the words. But this is what I can do this Sunday morning, so there we are. Have a great day.
And my God continue to bless America!