FLYING HOME after the Democratic National Convention in August, former Democratic Party chairman Don Fowler was caught on video chortling over Hurricane Gustav, which was expected to make landfall just as the Republican National Convention would be getting underway.
"The hurricane's going to hit New Orleans about the time they start," Fowler said with relish. "That just demonstrates that God's on our side."
A week earlier, it was an equally jovial Republican hoping for God's meteorological intervention in the political scene. In a video for Focus on the Family, a prominent evangelical organization, Stuart Shepard urged Christians to pray for a downpour during Senator Barack Obama's outdoor speech accepting the Democratic presidential nomination.
"Not just rain," Shepard advised. "Abundant rain. Torrential rain. Urban-and-small-stream flood-advisory rain. I'm talking umbrellas-ain't-gonna-help-you rain."
As it turned out, Obama addressed 84,000 cheering supporters under clear skies. Gustav caused far less damage than had been feared and didn't keep the GOP from holding a highly successful convention. So just whose side was God on last month—the Democrats' or the Republicans'?
Needless to say, the Almighty is not a member of either party. But the temptation to see Him in partisan terms is an old one. "In great contests each party claims to act in accordance with the will of God," Abraham Lincoln wrote in September 1862. "Both may be—and one must be—wrong. God cannot be for and against the same thing at the same time."
That doesn't mean, however, that voters who take God's word seriously have no way to choose intelligently among different political alternatives. True, the Creator is neither Republican nor Democrat, and no political movement perfectly reflects His wishes. And true, there are decent and well-intentioned people—including religious believers—on both sides of the political divide.
But on the whole, the wisdom of the Bible is conservative wisdom, and the values it elevates are conservative values. On issue after issue, those who look for political guidance in the moral code stretching back to Sinai will find themselves steered to the right.
Sometimes God's viewpoint is unmistakable. Capital punishment for murder is prescribed in each of the Five Books of Moses—not much ambiguity there. Not much ambiguity on same-sex marriage, either: The Bible flatly prohibits male homosexual intercourse, which it labels "an abomination." And when it comes to support for Israel and the Jewish nation's right to its homeland—support that runs far stronger on the right than on the left—there is surely little doubt how God would "vote."
But consider a more philosophical issue: What is the proper role of the state?
To principled conservatives, that government is best that governs least; they want state power strictly limited, with individuals and local communities given maximum freedom to make their own decisions. Conservatives share Lord Acton's fear that "power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely." Liberals, on the other hand, tend to favor government solutions; when a problem arises, they assume that the government can solve it with a new law or program or bureaucracy, even if that means private citizens end up losing some of their autonomy.
Does the Bible have a view on this issue? Absolutely, and it is powerfully expressed in I Samuel 8, when the people of Israel demand a king and God warns them of the dangers of centralized government. Appoint a king, God commands Samuel to tell the people, and he will seize your sons and daughters, your fields and vineyards. "He will take a tenth of your flocks, and you yourselves will become his servants. Then you will cry out in that day because of your king whom you have chosen, but the Lord will not answer you in that day."
A closely related subject is the never-ending clash over taxes. Liberals push for higher taxes in order to fund the bigger government they support, and as a vehicle for redistributing wealth. Conservatives typically call for tax cuts, preferring to let individuals keep more of their own earnings.
What is God's opinion? As David Klinghoffer observes in his provocative and illuminating new book, How Would God Vote?, a "recurring motif" in the Bible is its prejudice against high taxes. The rebuke quoted above from Samuel, for example, pretty plainly equates a 10 percent tax rate with servitude, while in Genesis 47, when Joseph compels the Egyptians to turn over a fifth of their earnings to Pharaoh, a 20 percent tax is deemed "bondage." Both compare favorably with the average total tax burden of 30-plus percent borne by modern-day Americans.
The danger of excessive taxation is illustrated most vividly in Scripture by an episode that occurs after the death of King Solomon, when the people implore his son and successor Rehoboam to lighten their tax load. The new king imperiously spurns them. "My father made your yoke heavy; I will make it even heavier," he sneers (I Kings 12:14). The result is a rebellion, which begins with the stoning of Rehoboam's chief tax collector. "The kingdom split in two, a disastrous event in biblical history," Klinghoffer writes, and all "over the issue of excessively high taxes."
The rhetoric of class warfare is standard fare in liberal politics. Democratic politicians often denounce tax cuts "for the rich," and exploit class envy in talking about wealth. Condemning "moral deficits" in a speech on Martin Luther King Day, Senator Obama declared: "We have a deficit when CEOs are making more in 10 minutes than some workers make in 10 months."
But the idea that the wealthy should be resented, or their incomes taxed steeply to benefit those who make less, is not part of the biblical tradition. While the Bible repeatedly and emphatically commands us to help the needy, it clearly makes that a personal obligation, not a governmental one. Far from endorsing class warfare, Exodus firmly warns judges— and by extension, government officials generally—not to bend the rules to help the underprivileged: "Do not glorify a destitute person in his grievance" (23:3).
Even more insistent in its opposition to the politics of envy is the Tenth Commandment: "You shall not covet your fellow's house. You shall not covet ... his manservant, his maidservant, his ox, his donkey, nor anything that belongs to your fellow" (Exodus 20:14). Indeed, while God says nothing about a progressive tax code, He insists over and over that private property be respected. Not only outright theft is forbidden. So is letting your livestock graze in someone else's field. Or moving the boundary marker separating your land from your neighbor's. Or failing to return someone else's lost property. Or using dishonest weights and measures.
The Robin Hood ethos of confiscating from the rich to give to the poor may be celebrated on the left, but the Bible rejects it. God doesn't command us to assist the unfortunate through vast government programs or a federal "war on poverty." He commands us to show compassion as individuals, to aid those who need help by digging into our own pockets, not by relying on the government to extract money from our neighbors' pockets. All too often, liberals and Democrats speak of "compassion" as a euphemism for tax-and-spend welfare programs. But there is nothing compassionate about doling out someone else's money.
This is doubtless why conservatives are more apt than liberals to give charity. As public-policy scholar Arthur Brooks convincingly demonstrates in "Who Really Cares" (2006), "people who favor government income redistribution are significantly less likely to behave charitably than those who do not … People who value economic freedom, and thus bridle against forced income redistribution, are far more charitable."
Not every issue, of course, lends itself to a What-Would-God-Say analysis. There is presumably no biblical position on whether the Electoral College should be abolished, or whether nuclear power should be expanded. On other controversial topics—affirmative action, say, or immigration reform—both conservatives and liberals can find support for their views in the wisdom of the Bible.
In a democratic nation whose motto is "In God We Trust," surely there should be more debate and discussion about what God expects of our society and us. But in recent decades, the left has pressed hard to keep God and religion from being mentioned, let alone taken seriously, in the public square. The separation of church and state is an important value, and a bulwark of American tolerance and democracy. Yet too many liberals want not just a secular government but a secular society: an America in which religion is kept behind closed doors, in which the Ten Commandments are never seen in a public-school classroom, in which the words "under God" are deleted from the Pledge of Allegiance.
Of all the issues that divide left and right today, this may ultimately be the most consequential. The founders of the American republic believed in liberty with faith, a secular state nourished by a religious society. That was the formula that gave rise to this blessed nation of freedom, diversity, and goodness. Those who would strip God and religion from our public culture today—and they are mostly on the left—are jeopardizing so much of what is best in American life. Conservatives oppose what they are trying to do.
And so, I believe, does God.
(Jeff Jacoby is a syndicated columnist for The Boston Globe.)