A Christian’s Response to the President’s Remarks: “You Didn’t Build That”

Many are saying that (what they call) the President’s attack on small business owners betrays his real feelings and thinking and beliefs about the role of business and the role of government in our lives. I’ve noted previously that we are not a majority and never will be, so we’re a voting block that the President can afford to alienate. Here are the President’s remarks, in context:

“But you know what, I’m not going to see us gut the investments that grow our economy to give tax breaks to me or Mr. Romney or folks who don’t need them. So I’m going to reduce the deficit in a balanced way. We’ve already made a trillion dollars’ worth of cuts. We can make another trillion or trillion-two, and what we then do is ask for the wealthy to pay a little bit more. And, by the way, we’ve tried that before — a guy named Bill Clinton did it. We created 23 million new jobs, turned a deficit into a surplus, and rich people did just fine. We created a lot of millionaires.

There are a lot of wealthy, successful Americans who agree with me — because they want to give something back. They know they didn’t — look, if you’ve been s it seems that the conservatives simply want to ensure that rugged individualism is the reason that businesses are built uccessful, you didn’t get there on your own. You didn’t get there on your own. I’m always struck by people who think, well, it must be because I was just so smart. There are a lot of smart people out there. It must be because I worked harder than everybody else. Let me tell you something — there are a whole bunch of hardworking people out there.

If you were successful, somebody along the line gave you some help. There was a great teacher somewhere in your life. Somebody helped to create this unbelievable American system that we have that allowed you to thrive. Somebody invested in roads and bridges. If you’ve got a business — you didn’t build that. Somebody else made that happen. The Internet didn’t get invented on its own. Government research created the Internet so that all the companies could make money off the Internet.

The point is, is that when we succeed, we succeed because of our individual initiative, but also because we do things together. There are some things, just like fighting fires, we don’t do on our own. I mean, imagine if everybody had their own fire service. That would be a hard way to organize fighting fires.

So we say to ourselves, ever since the founding of this country, you know what, there are some things we do better together. That’s how we funded the GI Bill. That’s how we created the middle class. That’s how we built the Golden Gate Bridge or the Hoover Dam. That’s how we invented the Internet. That’s how we sent a man to the moon. We rise or fall together as one nation and as one people, and that’s the reason I’m running for President — because I still believe in that idea. You’re not on your own, we’re in this together.”

The conservative’s response to his comments has not been encouraging to me. From what I can tell, conservatives have simply responded by saying that rugged individualism is what built this country. They believe that business owners built their small businesses on their own, not recognizing that business owners have always had help in creating their businesses.

The president confuses equality of opportunity with the quality of results. The fact that the government built the roads does not mean that government is the source or the main responsible party for businesses succeeding. His “socializing” of business and government in his comments is disconcerting. In addition, if one were to take this line of reasoning to its logical conclusion, then one could also reason that government is responsible for the many business failures because apparently, the roads didn’t bring the right people to the businesses or didn’t come close enough to the businesses to make them successful. If we’re all responsible for each other’s success, we’re also all responsible for each other’s failures.

What is missing in this entire discussion is the truth of the Christian faith. The liberals are wrong in believing the government plays a core, vital role in the creation and success of business. While it is true the government provides an ambient, contextual environment in which business can succeed (equality of opportunity), it is also abundantly clear that government is not responsible for the success of business in America, nor can it be without also shouldering the responsibility for the failure of many more businesses. By the same token, conservatives are wrong when they assert that it is rugged individualism which built a small business. I too, am a business owner, and yet I fully recognize that without the dedication, hard work and loyalty of my employees, by business would not exist and whatever wealth I have would not exist either. On both sides there exists arrogance. The liberals are arrogant in their assertion of the goodness of government, and conservatives are arrogant in their assertion of rugged individualism. Neither side recognizes that God is both sovereign and generous in his intercourse with humans in their daily lives.

So what does the Bible have the say about the president’s remarks? Let me outline some key, foundational truths from the Scriptures that demonstrate that there is a third view to success in business-it is a Christian view.

While I am not a full Calvinist in my theology, I believe the foundation for all theology is God’s sovereignty. The Scriptures make it abundantly clear that God owns everything. For example, in Deuteronomy 10:14, Moses wrote to the Lord your God belong the heavens, even the highest heavens, the earth and everything in it.” In Psalms 24:1, David wrote quote the earth is the Lord’s, and everything in it, the world, and all who live in it”. In Psalm 50:12, we read quote if I were hungry I would not tell you, for the world is mine, and all that is in it.” In fact God lays claim to owning quite literally everything on the face of this earth. For example in the Old Testament laws, land was never sold permanently because it belongs to the Lord: “the land must not be sold permanently because the land is mine.” (Leviticus 25:23). God also lays claim to the foundation of economic activity by declaring that “the silver is mine and the gold is mine”. (Haggai 2:8)

When it comes to economics and running a business the second foundational passage for me anyways, is Deuteronomy chapter 8. I would like to quote at length from Deuteronomy chapter 8 because I believe that this passage drives to the core of our discussion in this post.

“Remember how the Lord your God led you all the way in the desert these 40 years, to humble you and to test you in order to know what was in your heart, whether or not you would keep his commands… When you have eaten and are satisfied, praise the Lord your God for the good land he has given you. Be careful that you do not forget the Lord your God, failing to observe his commands, his flaws and his decrees that I am giving you this day. Otherwise, when you eat and are satisfied, when you build fine houses and settle down, and when your herds and flocks grow large in your silver and gold increase and all you have is multiplied, then your heart will become proud and you will forget the Lord your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery… But remember the Lord your God, for it is he who gives you the ability to produce wealth, and so confirms his covenant, which he swore to your forefathers, as it is today.”

What both sides are missing in this debate is the absolute truth of God’s sovereignty over the affairs of man. It is God who gives us the ability to produce wealth and it is he who gives us our wealth. The President is right – we didn’t build the businesses on our own. But the president is also wrong – it is not the government or society that gave us our businesses and our success. It is God who gave us these things. Now I believe, that a market-based economy, sometimes known as capitalism, is the most biblically-based economic system that we have on this earth. Capitalism is rooted in the idea of private property and personal liberty. The Scriptures hold to these things very clearly, starting with the 10 Commandments, and holding to these truths through the end of Revelation. Socialism, on the other hand, is first off, a godless system because it denies that God even exists and subsequently denies the individual private property and personal liberty. Government supplants God, I think, because man cannot live without God.

The capitalism can be easily corrupted. Sin has affected and depraved market-based economies in our world. One of the evidences of a depraved, market-based economy, is this notion that once I’ve made my wealth, I have little, if any responsibility to my fellow man. I can do with my wealth as I please because I made it, I own it, it’s mine, and I’ll damn well do what I want to do. This is not a Christian view of wealth. The Christian view, is that since God gave me the ability to create wealth, I have an inherent responsibility to use that wealth to further God’s kingdom. Part of the furthering of his kingdom means giving my wealth away and not hoarding it. Why? Because the wealth belongs to God in the first place and secondly, in a market-based system, it is a renewable resource. In addition, my wealth doesn’t belong to me. I am merely a steward of that which he has given to me. Therefore, since my wealth doesn’t belong to me, and since I am a steward of that which belongs to God, it is my responsibility to seek his face, to understand what he wants, and then to do as he commands.

The fact the Bible warns very clearly that those who have wealth live with significant danger. For example loving wealth is seen as a significant danger in the Scriptures: though your riches increase, do not set your heart on them.”(Psalm 62:10) Prosperity often leads to pride and we know that God cannot abide with someone who is proud: “because you think you are… as wise as God, I am going to bring foreigners against you, the most ruthless of nations.´(Ezekiel 28:6-7) We also read in 1 Titus 6:17: “command those who are rich in this present world not to be arrogant nor to put their hope in wealth: which is so uncertain.” In James 1:10, we read “the one who is rich should take pride in his low position, because he will pass away like a wildflower”. The wealthy also live with the danger of kidnapping: “a man’s riches may ransom his life.” (Proverbs 13:8) We also read in Ecclesiastes 5:12, “the abundance of a rich man permits and no sleep.” The Bible also reminds us that wealth is fleeting and leaves us as fast as it comes to us. Thinking that possession of wealth brings one security is to believe a deception – a lie.

So what are Christians to do with their wealth? The short answer is this: whatever God commands us to do with it. But the Bible is very clear that we are not to let the poor languish in pain. It is also clear as Matthew pointed out in chapter 5, that we are to “give to him who asks of you and do not turn away from him who wants to borrow from you.” Stewards have certain responsibilities. For example, we recognize the Lord as the owner of our possessions, we recognize that we are to be faithful to the Lord first, and that we are to trust in the Lord not in ourselves or our possessions. We are also held accountable for our stewardship (Luke 16:2).

The Bible is clear that when we give our wealth away, there are significant advantages or benefits of this giving. For example, in Acts 20:35, we read “it is more blessed to give than to receive.” We will also experience increased intimacy with the Lord: “for where your treasure is there your heart will be also.” (Matthew 6:21) by being faithful and archiving we are told that this will enable the Lord to bless us: “bring all the ties… So that the Lord your God may bless you.” (Deuteronomy 14:28-29) Proverbs 11:25 says “a generous man will prosper” and Proverbs 3:9-10 says “honor the Lord with your wealth… Then your barns will be filled to overflowing.”

Giving to the poor is commanded in the Scriptures and is seen as tantamount to giving to the Lord. For example in Proverbs 19:17 we read “he who is kind to the poor lends to the Lord.” And in Proverbs 1431 we read “whoever is kind to the needy honors God.” In Deuteronomy 15:11 we read, “be open handed toward your brothers and toward the poor and needy in your land” and in Ezekiel 16:49 we read, “this was the sin…they did not help the poor and needy.”

It seems to me that Jonathan Sacks in his book, “the dignity of difference”, has hit the nail on the head when he argues in chapter 5 of this book a moral case for the market economy and follows that in chapter 6 talking about compassion: the idea tzedakah, which is essentially the Jewish word for concepts: charity and justice. Quoting from page 114 in his book:

In two verses in the book of Genesis God specifies the mission with which Abraham and his descendents are to be charged: “shall I hide from Abraham I’m about to do? Abraham will surely become a great and powerful nation, and on nations of the earth will be blessed through him. For I have chosen him so that he will direct his children and his household after him keep the way of the Lord by doing what is right (tzedakah) and just (mishpot), so that the Lord will bring about for Abraham what he has promised him.” (Genesis 18:17-19).

It is difficult to translate tzedakah because it combines in a single word to notions normally opposed to one another mainly charity and justice. Suppose, for example, that I gave someone $100. Unity is entitled to it, or he is not. If he has, then my act is a form of justice. If he is not, it is an act of charity. In English, a gesture of charity cannot be an act of justice, nor can an act of justice be described as charity. Tzedakah therefore is an unusual term, because it means both.

It arises from the theology of Judaism, which insists on the difference between possession and ownership. Ultimately, all things are owned by God, Creator of the world. What we possess, we do not own-we merely hold it in trust for God.… If there were absolute ownership, there will be a difference between justice (what we are bound to get to others) and charity (what we give others out of generosity). The former would be a legally enforceable duty, the latter, at most, a moral obligation, the prompting of benevolence or sympathy. In Judaism, however, because we are not owners of our property but merely guardians on God’s behalf, we are bound by the conditions of trusteeship, one of which is that we share part of what we have with others in need. What would be regarded as charity in other legal systems is, in Judaism, a strict requirement of the law and can, if necessary, be enforced by the courts.

What said tzedakah signifies, therefore, is what is often called “social justice”, meaning that no one should be without the basic requirements of existence, and that those who have more than they need my share some of that surplus with those who have less. This is absolutely fundamental to the kind of society the Israelites were charged with creating, namely one in which everyone has a basic right to a dignified life and to be equal citizens in the covenantal community under the sovereignty of God.”

In the Old Testament life the religious and the governmental were wrapped up in the same institution. In the United States these two institutions are highly separate. I think this is the genesis of many of our political and religious debates in our country. For example, is it the government’s responsibility to take care of the poor or that of the church? Because we live in a religiously pluralistic society where many different beliefs about God abound, I believe it is the responsibility of both the church and the government to take care of the poor and to ensure a basic dignity of life by ensuring that they have the basics of what they need for a dignified existence. I also believe that most who have earned their wealth through hard work and industry, recognize the help that they have received along the way and are willing to give to those who are less fortunate.

The core thesis of what I’m trying to say is this: all that government does create is (or should be) under the direction of the Lord – the context and culture in which business can thrive and wealth can be created. It is up to the individual initiative for the wealth to be created and once created, the individual has a stewardship responsibility before the Lord to steward that wealth as the Lord directs.

I think both the Conservatives and the Liberals are off base on their thinking about the role of government and society and how they impacts the creation of wealth. Neither side recognizes the sovereignty of God, or our inherent stewardship responsibilities for the Lord, which moderate and throttle our basic instincts toward selfishness and hoarding. The temptation of governments to oppress (and essentially replace God in society) in the name of fairness is also mitigated when those in government recognize that ultimately God is in control. It is the jettisoning of God from our society that it is causing most of our problems, in my opinion.

The only person who can really fix our problems is Jesus Christ. When I say that our country needs a revival, a turning back to the Lord in an earnest and sincere way, the repenting of our sins, crying out to God for forgiveness of our sins, I am merely taking thoughts in this post to their logical conclusion. 2 Chronicles 7:13-14 says as much: “when I closed up the heavens so that there is no rain, or command locus to devour the land or send a plague among my people, if my people, who are called by my name, will humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then will I hear from heaven and will forgive their sin and will heal their land. Now my eyes will be open and my ears attentive to the prayers offered in this place.”

The next time you hear a liberal talk about the essential goodness and nearly unlimited abilities of the government to fix problems and create fairness in our society remember that there are curses for disobeying God and that ultimately God is in charge. The next time you hear conservative talk about rugged individualism in near isolationistic terms, remember that it is God who is giving that person the ability to create wealth, that each of us on this earth, regardless of the amount of wealth we have, have a stewardship responsibility before the Lord to steward what he has given to us effectively and in the manner that he directs.

I believe our public policies, both fiscal and monetary, would be so much better if both Democrats and Republicans, and in fact everyone in our nation, recognize the sovereignty of God and our stewardship responsibilities before him.

Bill English, CEO