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A Review of Turn Neither to the Right Nor to the Left

Eric Schansberg’s book Turn Neither to the Right Nor to the Left is an attempt to take Christians beyond the usual concepts of “moral” government policy as an avenue of social change.

  • Timothy D. Terrell
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Politics and the Christian

Eric Schansberg’s book Turn Neither to the Right Nor to the Left is an attempt to take Christians beyond the usual concepts of “moral” government policy as an avenue of social change. Too many Christians view reformation of the civil government as the primary means of bringing about the redemption of the world. And Christian ideas for government often mean merely a “baptized” version of Republican or Democratic political platforms.

Schansberg’s book, then, is taking on a critical issue. What is the role of political action in the Christian social agenda? Should civil laws be used to keep people away from gambling, drunkenness, or homosexuality? Should the state use its coercive power to force a wealth transfer from the rich to the needy?

These are worthy questions, and Schansberg moves in the general direction of some helpful responses. Unfortunately, the book is a mixed bag. On some things Schansberg is right on target, but in other areas there are disappointing inconsistencies and surprising omissions.

Schansberg’s message is that Christians should avoid using the civil government’s power of coercion to accomplish their ends. Christianity is about the heart, he says, not about forcing people to conform to the external requirements of the law. For several chapters Schansberg argues that the state should not “legislate morality,” meaning that the civil magistrate should not legislate against personal vices that do not directly harm others. It is permissible, Schansberg says, for the government to “legislate justice” or use coercion to deal with sins like murder. But “one cannot develop a positive case [for legislating morality] from the Bible.”1 For Schansberg, sins between consenting adults would be out-of-bounds for the civil magistrate.2 For many of the actual examples Schansberg mentions, I would agree. Yes, let’s legalize drugs. But his principle carries him too far. If Schansberg is to be consistent, even Kevorkian’s “assisted suicide” would have to be decriminalized.

Schansberg acknowledges that “everything we do or don’t do affects other people,”3 but maintains that a useful dividing line between legislating morality and legislating justice can be found where the costs imposed on others become “significant enough.”4 Perhaps Schansberg is correct here. Maybe there is a practicable boundary between legislating against vices and legislating against those activities that hurt others directly. But Schansberg has not convinced me that this is also the line demarking state intervention. As he says, the condition of the heart is more important than external behavior, and forcing someone to act like a moral person does not make him spiritually clean. However, it is clear from the Bible that there is room for civil government to require people to conform to certain external behavioral standards. For example, much of the moral law given to Moses deals with these civil requirements. Some of these laws clearly fall into the category of “legislating morality.”

Schansberg tries to evade this problem by claiming that “the Israelites were to enforce the dictates of the Law — but only within their community.”5 It is fairly clear, from the rest of the book, that Schansberg wants to see the code of morality encouraged by church teaching and discipleship, without reference to the civil magistrate. But if he here intends to say that the Israelite “community” was like the modern church, without any civil authority over unbelievers, he has a serious problem. The Israelite “community” had the power of the sword to punish criminal offenses, the power to rally armies and build defensive fortresses — in short, it had an active civil government as well as ecclesiastical and familial governments. Whether believers or not, those who lived in that community were expected to follow the Israelite civil laws. Certainly not all immorality fell under the purview of the state — a comparative minority of sins were also crimes — but some actions of “consenting adults” apparently did.

Here one of Schansberg’s surprising omissions crops up. Much of this ground has been covered before, as in the long debate among Christians about the modern-day applicability of the Mosaic law. One would think that a Reformed economist writing on the topic of Christianity and the civil government would take advantage of the stupendous amount of work on this issue by people like R.J. Rushdoony, Greg Bahnsen, Gary North, and Gary DeMar. Or, if he disagrees with the position of these “Christian Reconstructionists,” he might be expected to at least acknowledge and briefly address their position. Now, David Chilton might be said to fall into this camp, and I did observe four quotations of Chilton’s excellent response to Ron Sider’s Productive Christians in an Age of Guilt Manipulators . There was one citation of an article by Gary North from a well-known libertarian magazine. But in a book with 305 pages of text (and 113 additional pages containing 911 endnotes) Schansberg has omitted any other reference to these authors. Their omission is so conspicuous that it amounts to snubbing.

Because of the emphasis of many Christian activists on bringing public prayer and moral teaching into government schools, Schansberg devotes quite a bit of space to the education issue. His treatment of the prayer-in-schools issue is excellent. But Schansberg has a glaring shortcoming in the education area — his advocacy of government education vouchers. The first problem is his assumption that the government has some moral responsibility to provide for the education of children. I, for one, am not persuaded by his personal conviction on this point. Schansberg then argues that vouchers are just as innocuous as food stamps (the government doesn’t operate the grocery stores, he observes), and proceeds to ignore all his earlier arguments about how terrible welfare can be. Ironically, his most substantive discussion of vouchers occurs immediately after a section complaining about government subsidies of higher education.

Education vouchers, Schansberg says, will release low-income families from “bondage to pathetic schools.” Bondage? The use of this loaded word implies that there is some unjust limitation being placed on low-income families who cannot afford certain options that are open to others. Exactly what is the nature of the injustice here? Is it that some people have (through productivity or inheritance) more wealth than others, and thus can afford better-quality education? Does the Bible support the idea that wealth inequality, as such, is injustice?6 Schansberg argues otherwise in another part of his book. What is the difference between a poor family being “in bondage” to low-quality (government) schools and a poor family being “in bondage” to low-quality housing, cars, clothing, food, or any other necessity available on the market? Whether he realizes it or not, Schansberg has opened up the entire market to charges of injustice. Using “bondage” language to describe the market is to borrow the same argument that opponents of markets have been using to bring civil government to bear on every aspect of life. The real bondage, or coercion, in education is found in the laws requiring parents to put their children into schools that meet with government approval, and requiring other people to pay for it. These laws imply that the civil magistrate, not the family, is really in charge when it comes to education.

Later in the book, Schansberg considers whether or not so-called faith-based organizations “should accept funds that have been coercively taken from taxpayers.”7 He concludes that the “best” solution is that they should not; instead, we should “take most or all of the coercive element out of the exchange of funds between taxpayers and service providers. This can be accomplished through tax credits for charitable donations.”8 (Wonderful! But somehow, he misses the fact that education vouchers also require this “coercive element.”) Schansberg also argues that government funding might induce some faith-based organizations to “compromise their principles,” that they may become dependent upon government funding, and that “some degree of government regulation may follow government money in a way that would harm the ability of an FBO to provide services.”9 He notes that it is in fact “reasonable that some government oversight should be involved with taxpayer funding.” Somehow, Schansberg is able to conclude that while these “strings” would be a problem for faith-based organizations that take tax money and offer charity, they would not be a problem for faith-based schools that take voucher money and offer education.

I do not intend to give the impression, with my lengthy criticisms, that Schansberg’s book is worthless. There are excellent discussions of the problems with wealth transfer programs and the problems with government administration. Schansberg is on-target when he criticizes farm subsidies, manufacturer protectionism, occupational licensing, and the minimum wage. Most of his lengthy treatment of the abortion issue is both sound and thought-provoking — the two chapters are by no means the same old pro-life stuff. For a second edition, it would be nice to have a section on medical care, insurance, and related issues.

Even on welfare, though, Schansberg gives the state too much room to maneuver: “When lower-order organizations are unable or unwilling to assist, then [civil] government has an obligation to step forward and assist the needy.” Really? If my church elders stop administering the Lord’s Supper, would it be proper for my state senator to step in? Wasn’t Saul’s kingdom lost because he made a burnt offering at Gilgal in the absence of Samuel, the ecclesiastical authority (1 Sam. 13:5–14)?

The problems in Schansberg’s book are prevalent enough that I can give it no more than a lukewarm recommendation. However, at least Schansberg calls us to proper prioritizing in our efforts at social reform. A clear message comes through: we should not over-emphasize action through the civil government, as opposed to church activity, family faithfulness, and personal piety. With this I can wholeheartedly agree. Turn Neither to the Right Nor to the Left is available for a modest price at policyofliberty.net.

Notes

1. Schansberg, p. 132.

2. See e.g. Schansberg, p. 110.

3. Schansberg, p. 58.

4. Schansberg, p. 59.

5. Schansberg, p. 65.

6. See e.g., Schansberg’s excellent criticism of Ron Sider, p. 140ff.

7. Schansberg, p. 250.

8. Schansberg, p. 251.

9. Schansberg, pp. 252–253.


  • Timothy D. Terrell

Timothy Terrell is associate professor of economics at Wofford College in Spartanburg, South Carolina. He is assistant editor of the Quarterly Journal of Austrian Economics and is an Associated Scholar with the Mises Institute.

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