09/30/2011 10:50 am ET | Updated Nov 30, 2011

Is The Bible A 'Small Government' Book?

The political season is upon us. The debates have begun and the primaries are approaching. As always, we hear a great deal about the religious beliefs of the candidates. Since the economy is at the center of everyone's concern, it would be wise to see what the Bible has to say about economic issues. And since those most outspoken about Biblical values tend to be conservatives, it would be interesting to consider whether or not the Bible is a "small government" book that supports conservative values.

In some ways, the answer is "yes." Those who see the Bible as a liberal handbook might consider the stinging critique of "big government" found in 1 Samuel 8. When approached by elders who ask that he appoint a king over Israel, Samuel, at God's insistence, responds with a warning: a king will take your crops and fields (that is, afflict you with taxes), impress your sons and daughters into his service (that is, grow the bureaucracy), and make you his servants (that is, limit your freedom). You ask for a king, Samuel says, but soon you will cry out in despair from the terrible burdens that the king will impose on you.

These words have a strikingly contemporary ring. The message is clear: leaders will always be inclined to appropriate property and expand the boundaries of government. For this reason, the rights of individuals to own and preserve property are an important safeguard against the overreach of kings -- and politicians of all kinds. And property rights are indeed affirmed in several Biblical passages, including Psalms 128:2: "When you enjoy the fruit of your labors, you shall be happy and you shall prosper."

But, of course, there are other strands of the Biblical narrative. The Bible warns about the dangers of government, but it warns just as emphatically about the dangers of creating a class of desperately poor, landless people. While it affirms property rights, these rights are not absolute -- and this for the simple reason that ultimately all things belong to God. (See Lev. 25:23).

The point is not that poverty can be abolished. In fact -- Democrats take note -- the opposite is true: "There will never cease to be needy ones in your land" (Deut. 15:11). But -- Republicans take note -- there are things that must be done to prevent economic processes that lead to exploitation and excessive concentration of power. This is the only way to understand the Biblical call to erase debts every seven years (Deut. 15:1-6) and return property to its original owners every fifty years (Lev. 25:10). These mandates are truly radical; they do not refer to loans improperly extended or to property fraudulently acquired, but to legal transactions that -- in a society where land is the only measure of wealth -- leave people permanently landless and thus humiliated and without hope. Those who claim that huge disparities of wealth are not a Biblical issue had best reconsider; what we have here is an explicit Biblical preference for an economy that preserves the fundamental dignity of all people and authorizes government action to restore the balance.

In short, the Bible is both a "small government" book and a "big government" book. It is not a partisan document that calls on us to become Republicans or Democrats. What it offers is not a political platform but an ethical framework to guide us in our political thinking.

And I do wish that politicians in both parties -- and all Americans -- would spend some time studying Biblical values on economic matters. I thought of this when I heard the tea party Republican debate in Florida on September 12. The moderator pressed a candidate about what should be done with a 30-year-old man who was desperately ill and without health insurance. "Are you saying that society should just let him die?" the moderator asked, and the audience responded with cheers of "yeah!" followed by laughter.

Deut. 15:7 states that "if there is a needy person among you..., do not harden your heart or shut your hand to your needy brother." I suspect that many of the laughing and cheering folks, if asked, would proclaim their allegiance to Biblical values, but in this case they were "hardening their hearts" and doing the very opposite of what the Bible instructs. It's time to go back and spend some time rereading the Biblical text.