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Civil governments, by their very nature, are better at telling people what not to do than what they should do. That’s why affirmative action, as a function of civil government, fails so miserably.
I noted in this column some years ago that the Bible refers to two functions of government—both suggesting a sort of “enforcer” role. The book of Romans speaks of government as the agency that “bears the sword.” It also talks about government’s role as a collector of taxes. Neither assignment brings immediately to mind a spirit of volunteerism. Instead, government carries with it a “do it or else” image. I think God designed it that way.
Teaching moral goodness is always difficult. It takes a deft teacher, as any parent knows, to encourage someone to do something from the heart rather than merely to avoid bad results.
Government can’t normally be that deft. If it were, we wouldn’t need troopers to keep us driving at safe speeds. The IRS could send out fundraising appeals instead of audit threats. Libraries could forget overdue notices, trusting all their patrons to return books in timely fashion.
Affirmative action gets off the track when it is mandated and enforced by the civil government.
Somewhere, though, troopers, tax collectors, and librarians have discovered that teaching good behavior is not their main calling. They can offer a few carrots here and there, but mostly it’s the threat of a stick that keeps people honest.
Affirmative action, as it has come to be known in our generation, is about forcing people—using the government’s power—to do the right thing even if it isn’t totally evenhanded and fair. Affirmative action assumes that people won’t be good-spirited enough on their own to hire minorities in the workplace or to admit more women to medical school, for example.
Affirmative action is different from the civil rights laws of the 1960s that made it illegal to cut people out of specified privileges, benefits, and opportunities. Those laws, expanded and still in effect today, applied to all citizens, and said quite simply that if you didn’t treat everyone by the same standard, you could get in big trouble. You might even argue that most affirmative action laws directly violate the spirit of the best civil rights laws. We’ve been watching a subtle shift that has switched government’s task from enforcing evenhanded justice to teaching specific values. In doing so, we’ve demonstrated pretty conclusively that assigning such a role to government doesn’t work very well.
The problem isn’t primarily with the basic concept of affirmative action, which by itself is a totally Biblical concept. God Himself is perhaps the ultimate implementer of affirmative action. In His own language, He “set His love” on the nation of Israel for reasons suitable to Himself. And Jesus told the memorable story of the manager who hired people at different times of the day and, for reasons satisfactory to himself, chose to pay them wildly disparate wages for their work. The people hired late in the afternoon benefited inordinately from that man’s affirmative action—with full approval from Jesus.
And all of us, both personally and institutionally, exercise affirmative action—and, dare I say, discrimination—on every front in our everyday lives. We do our charitable giving in selected sectors. We send our missionaries to selected countries. Against the hordes of hungry and needy people, we pick a few to help. From all the orphans in the world, we pick one to adopt. There’s a certain arbitrariness to it, of course—but because we intend good, no one objects that our selection is somehow “unfair.”
By itself, affirmative action is a wholesome, natural, and totally defensible kind of human behavior. Christians, of all people, need to understand that.
Affirmative action gets off the track when it is mandated and enforced by the civil government. It’s like pushing a string when a string was intended to pull. The agency that was intended to be the enforcer of justice is not a good agency to require demonstrations of love and goodness.
So the next time you’re inclined to bellyache about affirmative action, keep in mind that there’s an important place for it. It’s a function individual Christians should exercise with generous abandon—but one that civil government is perpetually likely to get all messed up.