While the Christian Left tends to be skeptical of appeals to scripture, one Biblical author they do favor is James. The book of James is often used to justify appeals to social justice. But as David Nilsen realized, James wouldn’t necessarily support their position:
In the course of dialoging with my friend about federal welfare programs, I quoted from James, perhaps to establish my social justice cred, and also to preemptively rebut potential accusations that I don’t think Christians have a duty to care for the poor. When I looked up the passage I had in mind, to quote it accurately, I was a little surprised. James 1:27 reads,
Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world. (NRSV)
Now, I always hear about the orphans and widows, but rarely hear about remaining unstained by the world, to the point that I forgot it was even part of the verse. This prompted a thought. While I believe it is certainly possible for Christians to support social welfare programs that demand more and more tax revenue and ever increasing government power, what happens when James 1:27a butts heads with James 1:27b? In other words, what happens when our attempt at following the first half of James’ instruction ultimately forces us to compromise on the second half? When Christians place the necessary responsibility of caring for widows and orphans in the hands of an increasingly secular entity whose goals are frequently in opposition to other important Christian beliefs, this dilemma is sure to follow.
A perfect example would be the recent HHS mandate, part of Obamacare, that requires Catholic and Evangelical institutions to pay for the contraceptive coverage of their employees or students. This requirement runs directly counter to one of the most cherished (and assaulted) beliefs of Christianity, the value of the unborn child. In essence, the government has mandated that Christian employers and academic institutions must financially support a worldly stain on their employees and students, and accept that stain by implication. Thankfully, many of these institutions are fighting the mandate, but the fate of such legal cases is still far from certain.
If we ask, then, whether Christians ought to capitulate to the modern liberal ideal of the omni-competent state, the answer, I think, should be no. We cannot legitimately appeal to passages like James 1:27 to justify higher taxes and more welfare programs when the organization we have chosen to care for the widows and orphans is increasingly hostile to the other half of “pure and undefiled” religion.