I want to highlight one final item from Rick Warren's appearance on "Larry King Live" (transcript here). Warren is a megachurch pastor and author of the best-selling self-help book "The Purpose Driven Life."
Time magazine recently featured him as the most-influential of it's 25 Most Influential Evangelicals, noting that "on the eve of the presidential Inauguration, Warren… delivered the Invocation at the gala celebration."
If I had the chance to deliver such a sermon, to preach to the president on the eve of his inauguration, I might take as my text the Psalm that Warren cited on "Larry King Live." Since we waded into a discussion of Romans 13 last week, a closer look at Psalm 72 — another classic text on the role of government — might be appropriate.
Here's some of what Psalm 72 says:
Give the king your justice, O God,
and your righteousness to a king's son.
May he judge your people with righteousness,
and your poor with justice.
May the mountains yield prosperity for the people,
and the hills, in righteousness.
May he defend the cause of the poor of the people,
give deliverance to the needy,
and crush the oppressor. …
For he delivers the needy when they call,
the poor and those who have no helper.
He has pity on the weak and the needy,
and saves the lives of the needy. …
Warren cites the text as it applies to himself — reading "king" as "pastor." This reflects the individualistic focus of Ocean County evangelicalism, with its emphasis on "Jesus Christ as your personal savior."
(Evangelicals used to talk about accepting Jesus as your privatized savior, but changed the language when we found that didn't poll as well. That's a joke, of course, but the truth is that "Jesus Christ is my privatized savior" really is a more accurate statement of American-style Christianity.)
Warren's personal application of the passage isn't wrong, mind you, just incomplete. It is enormously to Warren's credit that a passage like this guides his personal sense of responsibility for handling the wealth and influence that have come his way. His book is making scads of money and he's giving most of it away. Some of that money is going to help AIDS orphans in Africa, an attempt to "give deliverance to the needy."
But Psalm 72 isn't primarily about the responsibility of wealthy individuals. It is about the responsibility of "the king," i.e., the state. It outlines clear criteria for a good king. It's promises of divine blessing and legitimacy are presented as conditional — which is also how I, as a child of Jefferson, would read Romans 13.
The good king, according to Psalm 72, "defends the cause of the poor of the people, gives deliverance to the needy … the poor and those who have no helper." The king, or government, that fails to defend and help "the poor of the people" is not a good king, not a good government.
It is difficult to reconcile this vision of government as advocate, helper and defender of the poorest with the cramped, stunted vision of government advocated by people like Grover Norquist. It is impossible to reconcile Psalm 72 with the kind of government that would endorse something like the bankruptcy bill that is soon to become the law of the land.
If Rick Warren and the millions of evangelicals like him really want to take this passage seriously, they need to reconsider their uncritical political alliance with people like Norquist and the advocates of the bankruptcy bill. They need to insist that the government — and not just wealthy, private individuals — has a role and a responsibility to "defend the cause of the poor of the people, give deliverance to the needy … the poor and those who have no helper."