Published for www.commentarymagazine.com, May 3, 2012
William McGurn of the Wall Street Journal and George Weigel, my colleague at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, have intelligent columns (here and here) about Representative Paul Ryan’s address at Georgetown University last week. There are two elements to the speech worth drawing attention to.
The first is a commendable modesty in Ryan’s remarks. While Ryan, a committed Catholic, provided a robust defense of his budget, he readily admits there is plenty of room for differences over the prudential application of Christian principles to matters of public policy. Too often people on both the left and the right insist the New Testament and Hebrew Bible provide a governing blueprint. In fact, they say virtually nothing about what we would consider public policy. They simply do not offer detailed guidance on (to name just a handful of issues) trade; education; welfare, crime; health care; affirmative action, immigration; foreign aid; legal reform; climate change; and much else. And even on issues that many people believe the Bible does speak to, if sometimes indirectly – including poverty and wealth, abortion and same-sex marriage, capital punishment and euthanasia – nothing in the text speaks to the nature or extent of legislation or the kind of prudential steps that ought to be pursued.
One may believe we have a scriptural obligation to be good stewards of the earth, but that doesn’t necessarily determine where one will stand on cap-and-trade legislation. An individual can take to heart the admonition in Exodus not to “oppress a stranger” and still grapple with the issue of whether to grant a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants. A person of faith can embrace the words of Deuteronomy – “Therefore I command you to be openhanded toward your brothers and toward the poor and needy in your land” – and be on different sides of the welfare debate. Nor does the Bible tell us whether the 1991 Gulf War or the 2003 Iraq war was the right or wrong decision.