Joel Belz – Who invented affirmative action?


MEGAN BASHAM, HOST: Today is Wednesday, January 8th. Good morning! This is The World and Everything in It from listener-supported WORLD Radio. I’m Megan Basham.

MARY REICHARD, HOST: And I’m Mary Reichard. WORLD founder Joel Belz now on the limits of government mandates.

JOEL BELZ, FOUNDER: Some years ago I noted in my WORLD Magazine column that the Bible refers to two functions of government—both suggesting a sort of “enforcer” role. 

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 sort of “do-it-or-else” image. I think God designed it that way.

Teaching moral good is always difficult. As any parent knows, it takes a deft teacher to encourage action from the heart, rather than because there’s a threat of punishment. 

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 fund-raising appeals instead of audit threats. And libraries could forget overdue notices.

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 is about forcing people—using the government’s power—to do the right thing, even if it isn’t totally evenhanded. 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 today is different from the civil rights laws of the 1960s. Those made it illegal to cut people out of specific privileges, benefits, and opportunities. They applied to all citizens and said if you didn’t treat everyone by the same standard, you could get in big trouble. 

But the government has gone from enforcing even-handed justice to teaching specific values. And we’ve seen it doesn’t work very well.

The problem isn’t primarily with the basic concept of affirmative action, which is a totally Biblical concept. God himself is perhaps the ultimate implementer of affirmative action. 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 during the day and chose to pay them wildly disparate wages. 

And all of us exercise affirmative action—and, dare I say, discrimination—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. 

Christians should recognize affirmative action is a wholesome, natural, and totally defensible kind of human behavior. 

It just gets off the track when civil government tries to mandate it. An entity intended to be the enforcer of justice is not good at requiring demonstrations of love and goodness.

For WORLD Radio, I’m Joel Belz.


(Andrew Lichtenstein/Corbis via Getty Images) A demonstration against the removal of standardized tests to determine admissions to New York City’s elite public high schools.

WORLD Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of WORLD Radio programming is the audio record.

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