The Olympic Games got off to a solemn start last Saturday after a member of the U.S. men’s volleyball team lost a relative who was fatally stabbed while  touring Beijing. Compounding the tragedy, the U.S. team had to scramble to obtain official Chinese permission to bring an English-fluent chaplain to Olympic Village to console athletes in their grief.

In Athens in 2004, more than 100 religious leaders speaking several dozen languages were stationed in Olympic Village. But China’s authoritarian government sees any cause that could compete with its authority, including organized religion, as a threat. It has banned foreign chaplains from residing with the athletes. This episode should weigh heavily on the minds of all Americans as Barack Obama and John McCain make back-to-back appearances at Pastor Rick Warren’s Saddleback Church this Saturday.

“I never endorse, nor campaign for, political candidates,” Warren insists, but the parade of world leaders streaming through the evangelical leader’s church in California’s Orange County shows he intends to have an impact on public policy. Warren has called for mobilization of 1 billion Christians to attack what he calls “five global giants”: spiritual emptiness, corrupt leadership, poverty, disease and illiteracy.

Elements of his goals are rooted firmly in evangelical Christians’ commitment to social justice — and their commitment has a long history in the United States, including fighting to abolish slavery, reform prisons and found hospitals and schools. But Warren’s activism also poses a serious question for evangelicals and all Americans: What is the proper role of government in addressing social justice?

The contrast between the conservative and leftist approaches to this question could not be more stark. Ronald Reagan understood: “Government ,” he said, “must step in when one’s liberties impinge on one’s neighbor’s. Government must protect constitutional rights, deal with other governments, protect citizens from aggressors, assure equal opportunity, and be compassionate in caring for those citizens who are unable to care for themselves.”

But Reagan also said: “Americans, often acting through voluntary organizations, should have the opportunity to solve many of the social problems of their communities. This spirit of freely helping others is uniquely American and should be encouraged in every way by government.”

Barack Obama, on the other hand, believes Christians should be mobilizing “against budget cuts to social programs.” And his wife, Michelle, has promised: “Barack Obama will require you to work. He is going to demand that you shed your cynicism. That you put down your divisions. That you come out of your isolation, that you move out of your comfort zone. … Barack will never allow you to go back to your lives as usual — uninvolved, uninformed.”

Heritage fellow Ryan Messmore explains why the conservative vision of government and its relationship with faith is by far the better protector of liberty:

It is dangerous to view government as the single institution responsible for actually bringing about just relationships or fulfilling our moral obligations. Those tasks lie with us all. Rather, a well-ordered government publicly expresses society’s understanding of justice and judges actions that harm or threaten it. …

In America, we should promote “justice for all” without reducing that idea to what individuals receive from government. We should also promote justice as a calling and responsibility for all institutions that make up the fabric of American life, each in their own appropriate way — justice from all, you might say.

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