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 be changed.
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.
What about 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.