Bohanon: Religious Witness and Public Policy

July 7, 2014

by Cecil Bohanon, Ph.D.

Long before anyone had heard of the “religious right,” there was a “religious left” using its resources, influence and prestige to lobby the public sector to promote so-called progressive public policies. And it continues to influence; I saw it in full force on a visit to Rhode Island last month when an ecumenical group joined forces with a national denomination’s conference to rally for an increase in the minimum wage.

As a free-market economist and a rather traditional Christian, I wish churches would stay out of politics. It gives me the willies when anyone tries to wrap their political position as God’s will — and make no mistake, a clerical collar under an activist banner sends that impression. At a substantive level, few public-policy issues are simple “morality plays” in which the forces of good are pitted against the forces of evil.

Advocates of an increased minimum wage, for example, argue that it is a moral issue. They cite a Congressional Budget Office (CBO) study indicating that increasing the wage from $7.25 an hour to $10.10 an hour “would lift 900,000 people out of poverty.”

What they fail to note is the same CBO study indicates that such an increase would reduce employment by roughly 500,000 workers, which would lead to “decreases in earnings for workers who would be jobless because of the minimum-wage increase.”

Economists have known for generations that the minimum wage has consequences that go beyond the simplistic rhetoric of a “living wage.” Raising the minimum wage helps some people and hurts others. The workers who keep their jobs note that their lot is improved, but those whose income goes to zero are surely worse off. I’m skeptical that there is definitive metric, Christian or secular, to properly weigh the benefits of lifting some from poverty while driving others deeper into poverty.

Another issue that is dear to the heart of the religious left: U.S. immigration policy. “Progressive” Christians aid immigrants — both legal and illegal — and call for less-restrictive immigration policies. Classical liberals (aka libertarians like me) are sympathetic to calls for more-open borders. But please let us be clear about the trade-offs: Some domestic residents will be made worse off.

There are millions of folks currently living outside the United States who would jump at the chance to work in our country at minimum-wage or sub-minimum-wage jobs. Many currently take incredible risks to come to our country, and many more would surely arrive if we adopted an open-border policy. Open immigration, however, would increase the supply of less-skilled workers, which puts downward pressure on the wages of less-skilled U.S. natives. Indeed, the only way both new immigrants and less-skilled natives could all have a shot at working is if the existing minimum-wage were lowered or abolished.

Open immigration coupled with an increased minimum wage is hardly a recipe for ushering in a messianic reign of social justice. Quite the opposite: The number of unemployed would skyrocket, and the shadowy underground labor market would grow. While some low-income households would benefit, many of our poorest citizens would be harmed.

Faith, by definition, is not scientific or systematic. It is as the apostle says “the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things unseen.” We are all vulnerable to letting our faith in God, Jesus, Allah or the Spirit mingle uncritically with our political prejudices and passions. We make our political positions “little gods” — impervious to evidence, discussion or modification. I confess my guilt in that regard.

People of faith quite naturally look to their faith to inform their perspective on public policy. May we all, left or right, Republican or Democrat, conservative, libertarian or progressive, approach our religious witness in the public sphere with humility and charity. Let us not make a false idol out of our politics.

Cecil Bohanon, Ph.D., an adjunct scholar with the Indiana Policy Review Foundation, is a professor of economics at Ball State University.



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