taking the words of Jesus seriously

Is the size of government a faith issue? It is certainly a perennial political issue and the current discussions about the federal budget deficit and the “fiscal cliff” have pushed this matter to the forefront. But is there really a right answer about government size that Christians should promote? Some respond with an emphatic, “Yes!” I’m not altogether convinced. Surely, certain kinds of big government have been destructive, think the USSR. But certain kinds of small government have also been destructive, think Pinochet’s Chile.

While some seem to believe small government is intrinsically good, I suspect few if any believe big government is intrinsically good. Yet those who attack big government do so as if there were people who hold that the bigger the government the better. In fact, there are no such people. Instead there are only people who believe the government needs to be of a size necessary to deal with the problems the government should be used to address. The real disagreement centers around which problems are the appropriate ones to be tackled by the government.

On the surface it seems that the majority of Americans want a smaller government.  In a Post-ABC poll taken this past August respondents were asked, “Generally speaking, would you say you favor (smaller government with fewer services), or (larger government with more services)?” A solid majority (56%) expressed support for smaller government over larger government with more services (38%). But that is support for an abstract concept. When particular issues are named in the poll – Medicare, over-regulation of the market, the best way to create jobs, etc. – majority support for small government solutions disappears.

The real difference among Christians – and others – is not between those who want large government and those who want a small government. I know plenty of people all along the political spectrum who want smaller government. But people don’t agree what that means. It is not the size that is the most important consideration but the shape, shape determined by function. What really counts comes down to where in the government you want it to be smaller and where you want it to be large or larger.

Also by Craig: Presidential Politics, Big Military and Jesus

Some on the religious right claim that scripture allows for only a narrow range of functions. But in fact there is no “biblical case for limited government.” To try to squeeze such a case from little glimpses found in the Scriptures of the simple government of the much simpler times of ancient Israel is misguided. What we know of the structure of government in biblical Israel should no more be regarded as a precedent, than the fact that communication in the Bible was done face to face, through an emissary or in written form should be seen as disallowing the use of cell phones and computers. Surely, those who claim to find a precedent for limited government in the scriptures would be less inclined to limit business according to the confines of the primitive world of the Bible.

It is naïve to think the Bible provides some sort of blueprint for government. The idea that we can turn to the Scriptures to see “what God tells the civil government to do” is misguided. Passages like Romans 13:1-7 are not about the limits or design of the state. This text calls upon Christians to recognize that the government has a role in God’s plan to curtail evil. But this passage is not a comprehensive presentation of legitimate roles for the government. To claim that politicians and national leaders “need to be able to show us from the Bible how the task they have undertaken is legitimate” is a ludicrous notion of the appropriate function of scripture for Christians.

I, for one, am strongly in support of smaller government. I think that the U.S. government is too large in ways that work against the well-being of far too many people. I very much want the government to shrink in ways that I believe will be socially beneficial and more reflective of priorities appropriate for a people of faith. But unlike the “usual suspects” among the opponents of big government, I don’t think the problem lies with the welfare state. Rather the real danger is with the military-surveillance state and with programs that further empower the powerful. So when I hear talk about shrinking government, the following are some of the things that enter my mind.

First of all, I would like to see a smaller military. The current defense budget is nearly as large as that of the defense budgets of all the other nations of the world combined. This budget could be cut in half and it would still be three times the size of defense budget of the next largest nation, that of China. And the fact is that not all defense related expenditures are even contained in the defense budget. While defenders of the hyper-bloated military claim that deep cuts will jeopardize national security, in fact it would be certain kinds of jobs that would more likely be jeopardized. The Department of Defense is the biggest employer in the world. A portion of the funds taken from defense could be used to create even more jobs in education and healthcare for less money.

Second, I would like to see the prison system greatly reduced. The U.S. has by far the largest prison population of any nation in the world at 715 people serving sentences per every 100,000 people. Are citizens safer because of the high level of incarceration? Not likely. Many of those behind bars have been convicted of victimless crimes. There are also many who are in prison for non-violent crimes. Sending these violators to prison is usually not rehabilitative but detrimental, both to them and to society as a whole. The cost per year of keeping them in prison exceeds the amount needed to attend an Ivy League university. Being “tough on [non-violent] crime” ends up being very tough on the federal budget – and state budgets as well – and there is little positive to show for it.

Also by Craig: Robbing the Rich: Biblical Concern or Political Preoccupation?

Third, the far-reaching spying and surveillance apparatus needs to be curtailed. Domestic spying and warrantless wiretaps were loudly protested by liberals when George W. Bush was President. But they have been greatly expanded under President Obama. There is evidence that during the last several years incidences of spying on Americans’ electronic communications have skyrocketed. Security whistleblowers have been harassed and prosecuted more under President Obama than under any other President. Last year he signed the National Defense Authorization which grants the federal government the authority to imprison indefinitely citizens who have been accused of terrorism. The full scope and costs of intelligence operations are unclear because they remain undisclosed. But what is certainly known is that there has been extraordinary growth in this area during the past decade.

Fourth, I would like to reduce the size of government by deeply cutting corporate welfare. Over $92 billion, or five percent of the federal budget, goes to corporate welfare each year, in contrast to the less than $60 billion that is expended on traditional social welfare. Yet those who most often call for reducing the size of government largely ignore the former and focus their attention on the latter. The fossil fuel industry, big agriculture companies and large operations like Walmart suck up most of the corporate welfare. In contrast to social welfare, where funds are used to help those who are the most vulnerable, corporate welfare provides subsides that  increase the already considerable advantage the large, strong companies already have over smaller competing businesses. The powerful companies are well able to stand on their own without handouts from the state.

The government is vastly over-bloated in these areas. I see no support for these manifestations of big government arising from a biblical faith. It is, I believe, ridiculous to suggest that Health and Human Services or the Social Security Administration is where big government becomes a danger to the well-being of the population. If we are honest, we have to admit that when government becomes most clearly oppressive the source of the problem is the military and surveillance functions of the government. So if Christians are going to take on the issue of big government, it is important that they not misplace their focus by taking aim, not at the military-surveillance state but at programs that help people, particularly the most needy.


Craig M. Watts is the minister of Royal Palm Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in Coral Springs, Florida and Co-Moderator of Disciples Peace Fellowship. He authored the book Disciple of Peace: Alexander Campbell on Pacifism, Violence and the State (Doulos Christou Press: Indianapolis, 2005) and his essays have appeared in many journals such as Cross Currents, Encounter, the Otherside, DisciplesWorld and more. Craig blogs on the Disciples Peace Fellowship’s, “Shalom Vision.”

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