Stewardship and State Coercion

Rick Santorum set off a media firestorm when he referred to President Obama's political agenda as deriving from "a phony theology, not a theology based on the Bible." Many took him to task for framing the question as a theological issue. Others have argued forcefully that Santorum's view is simply wrong: the President's theological understanding is correct.

It is worth addressing both points. Santorum could probably have avoided invoking "theology" in a political context; indeed, calling Obama's views a "phony theology" was not just combative, it was fatally imprecise. It was quickly misunderstood by commentators who rebuked Santorum for "making his campaign about religious orthodoxy," as if the candidate had critiqued Obama on an exegesis of the gospels.

When Santorum answered questions later about his "phony theology" comment, it was clear that he was not taking the President to task over a theological interpretation of the Bible. Santorum was analogizing Obama's worldview—the set of views that governs his policies on energy and the economy—with a "theology." Such provocative analogies aren't particularly useful in campaign politics. Perhaps there are elements of a "theology" in the views of the political left, but in the context of electoral politics, there's nothing actionable about that kind of assertion. Politicians do better to stick to policy.

That said, some of Santorum's critics have argued that the President's worldview is a theologically justifiable interpretation of the scriptures. While we should avoid attributing any of their individual arguments to President Obama, there are Christians who agree with his policies on energy and the economy, and who believe that principles from the Bible justify those policies.

Brian McLaren made one such case in his aptly named "Naked Theology" column at Patheos last week. Citing Cal De Witt, he argued from Genesis 2:15 that men and women are supposed to take care of and conserve the earth. And I don't think anyone disagrees with that proposition. Measures prescribed in the Law of Moses, such as leaving the fields fallow on a periodic basis and caring compassionately for farm animals, make it clear that God wants us to be—in the time-honored expression—good stewards of the earth.

The questions that arise from that are twofold: first, what makes us good stewards of the earth; and second, where does the coercion of the state come in?

These are clearly "disputable matters," as Paul formulated the idea in Romans 14:1-12. And we tend to approach them loaded down with buried premises. One of the most important differences between the sides is how we propose to measure good stewardship. As Santorum implied in his "phony theology" passage, one side in the debate looks at how our policies affect people, in terms of their access to resources and opportunity:

Obama's policies are "not about you. It's not about your quality of life. It's not about your jobs. It's about some phony ideal. Some phony theology."

The other side looks at the condition of the natural world at a given time, and judges our stewardship by how much or in what ways it appears to be changing. What Santorum calls a "phony ideal" is in part the ideal of preserving certain desired conditions in the natural world, regardless of how that affects the opportunities available to humans—or even because it will limit them. The argument of this side is that limiting what people can do with the earth's resources, according to theories about their finiteness or about abuse of the earth, is a way of doing a good thing for humanity.

Such a proposition can only be enforced on a collective scale by the state. Individually, people tend to be frugal and take care of their property, but their measures of merit are relative and personal. A landholder may consider his land to be in good heart when there are oil wells on it and local animal species are being displaced, whereas an environmental advocate may see it differently. Likewise, a homeowner may prefer to keep her water use down because she wants her bill to be low, but an environmental advocate may still think she is using too much water, and that she must be induced or forced to use less.

We can all disagree honestly on the particulars here. But at the juncture where advocacy groups want to use the power of the state to intervene in them, a key question for Christians is this: can we find a justification in the Bible for imposing such measures on each other?