I’ve long contended that there is a fundamental difference between advocating biblical principles and advocating specific prudential means to enact those principles. It is possible for Christians on all points of the political spectrum to stand for a given ethical command, but where we go wrong is in confusing the command with the means to achieve it.

For example, a couple of years ago a resolution was proposed at the EPC General Assembly that would put the denomination on record as supporting an amendment to the federal Constitution outlawing same-sex marriage. I opposed that resolution, not because I oppose the ethical principle regarding homosexuality, and not because I support same-sex marriage. Rather, I argued that while it is perfectly legitimate for the EPC to take a stand on homosexual behavior and marriage, it was not our place as a denomination to say what specific legal means should be used to enact the principle. That’s a prudential question, and a Christian assembly does not have the competence to decide such questions. We should stand for the principle, I said, and allow those who have the necessary competence in law, government, and politics pick up the baton and run with it. Doing otherwise would be making the same mistake the mainline denominations have been making for decades.

Well, I lost that vote, but I will continue to make that argument, because I believe to do otherwise has the effect of frittering away our spiritual authority, trading it for a mess of political pottage that has little if anything to do with the church’s mission.

Anyway, I’ve thought about all that because there’s a textbook example of what I’m talking about to be found in a column today by Sheldon Good of Sojourners. He takes to task Kentucky Senate candidate Rand Paul (of whom I’m no fan, by the way) for his comments last week on the 1964 Civil Rights Act.

Good writes:

Rand Paul, who won the Republican Senatorial primary in Kentucky last week, gave us a newsworthy example of how racism is still alive today. Paul was recently asked about the 1964 Civil Rights Act…

Paul said “I overwhelmingly agree with the intent of the legislation, which was to stop discrimination in the public sphere and halt the abhorrent practice of segregation and Jim Crow laws.” He also said he’s “not in favor of any discrimination of any form.”

But wait. Paul then wouldn’t answer [MSNBC host Rachel] Maddow as she repeatedly asked him whether he supported using federal law to enforce non-discrimination in privately owned businesses. Paul responded, “Had I been around” in 1964, “I would have tried to modify that.”

So here’s the deal. Good quotes Paul as saying that he abhors segregation and thought Jim Crow should be abolished. He grants his sincerity in the next paragraph. But he starts off by saying that Paul’s comments “gave us a newsworthy example of how racism is still alive today.” How are Paul’s remarks racist?

This is the classic confusion of ends and means. Paul and Good agree on the end of wiping out segregation. But they disagree on the means (for the record, I think Good is right on those). But instead of recognizing that there’s a difference on a prudential question of how to achieve the agreed upon end, Good jumps to the conclusion that difference on means is an indication of racism (in the words, if not the person). On the basis of his ideology, Paul thinks the Civil Rights Act was flawed. On the basis of the biblical teaching that all of the works of humanity are tainted by sin, I can agree. But for Good, even suggesting that the Act was less than perfect, and perhaps should be revisited, is an indication that racism is still with us. He goes on to this absurd conclusion:

From one white male to another: Dr. Paul, stop furthering racial discrimination. It is our responsibility as people with inherited power and privilege to open up dialogue around points of difference. And Dr. Paul, you’re not helping the cause.

In fact, it is Good, with his charges of racism, that is trying to shut down “dialogue around points of difference.” For Good, the Civil Rights Act is apparently divinely revealed, and no dissent about its effectiveness or scope is permitted.

Sojourners, and its political allies in the mainline churches, make this mistake all the time. A wonderful example is the positions they take on economic legislation. Raising the minimum wage, increasing the capital gains tax, more regulation of financial institutions–these and many more are taken as examples of “justice,” and so opposing them is to oppose “justice.” Evidence, e.g., that raising taxes may hurt job growth, and thus the poor on whose side the angels are, is simply dismissed, because it doesn’t support the preferred political position, which is assumed to be God’s position, because He is on the side of “justice.” In fact, the evidence is irrelevant, because the ends and means have been confused, so to oppose the means of increased taxes on the wealthy is automatically to oppose the end of helping the poor.

Conservatives do this as well. For instance, the Southern Baptist Convention passed a resolution in 2007 supporting a federal marriage amendment to the Constitution and California’s Proposition 8. As a matter of prudential political judgment, I agree with the resolution, but I still would have opposed it as beyond the purview of a Christian assembly that inevitably contained thousands of people who had no particular understanding the legal issues, but who took a stand on the means because they wanted to stand for the proper ends. Confusion again.

Well, that’s “Theology and Politics 101” for today. If you disagree, try to change my mind.