Stewardship and State Coercion

President Obama's policies raise this question, although it is important to note that he is merely taking to an extreme a policy trend implied in the actions of previous administrations going back to the 1970s. He has tailored his policies to sharply discourage the production of fossil-fuel energy—restricting domestic oil drilling, allowing the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to shut down coal plants—and has thus steepened the rise of energy prices, a rise which had been steady since the year 2000 following the implementation of restrictive EPA regulations in the late 1990s (see here and here as well).

Higher energy prices suppress economic activity: production, consumption, investment, jobs. These factors in the economy are how people make a living, but they're more than that: they are a way to use talents, a source of motivation, a basis for responsibility and dignity, a vehicle for innovation, service, and the cultivation of excellence. Shutting doors on this quiescent human mechanism closes off opportunities for people—first for the poor, and then for the middle class.

Secular theorists from various backgrounds have justified imposing on the people in this manner, but how do Christians do it, using the Bible and our idea of the nature of God (i.e., theology)? The proposition is that we humans must accept arbitrary limits imposed by others in the interest of theories about peril to the earth. The issue here is not really whether the theories are valid, because we cannot actually know that to a level of detail and certainty that would make the answer indisputable. Christians can take God's word for this human limitation, or we can consult the history of our species' constant need for recovery from ignorance and error.

The issue for Christians is, rather, how to justify using the power of the state to impose limits that will leave people poorer and with less comfort, convenience, and opportunity than they have today. Indeed, Christians also have to justify the ancillary step of surveying what other people have and judging it to be too much. Regardless of what context we do that in—theories about peril to the earth or any other kind of theory—judging what our neighbors have is what we're doing. The scriptures may be clear about our obligation to notice the suffering of the indigent and do something about it, but it's much harder to find a reason in scripture for viewing our neighbor's pick-up truck as a mark of excess.

I don't find a justification in the Bible for treating the human impact of our policies as an abstraction, or something of secondary importance. Indeed, much of the Old Testament is about God's care for His people when earthly rulers were callously laying burdens on them. In Luke 11:46, Jesus also spoke trenchantly on that topic to the religious authorities in Judea. We can believe that it does not please God for earthly authorities to stymie their peoples in the basic enterprises of life.

That doesn't mean, of course, that no one should exhort us on the topics of environmentalism and conservation. We need people who care about those things. But as Christians, we have to compare coercive state policies with God's instructions on dealing with our fellow men. The Bible is replete with examples of God's material provision, even when the conditions seemed inauspicious for it. Our assumptions about the material world may or may not bear out. But where there is a proposal to suppress the people's livelihoods and opportunities as an act of deliberate policy, we can be sure that God's eye is not on material factors, but on the motives of our hearts.

2/27/2012 5:00:00 AM