Message from the Executive Director: Noah Was No Bureaucrat

Message from the Executive Director: Noah Was No Bureaucrat

February 29, 1996

Bringing religious concerns into public life is as old as politics itself. People do not cease having religious convictions when they vote, run for office, oppose or support legislation, and it is silly to demand of believers that they leave God out of their hearts and minds when acting as citizens or officeholders. Indeed, in a nation founded on the proposition that "all men are... endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights," the faithful need make no apology for participating in politics.

By the same token, however, when people of faith enter the public arena, they have a responsibility to respect the institutions that secure their own freedom as citizens and believers. In particular, they have an obligation to respect property rights.

Private property is the institutional foundation of civil and religious liberty. If your home is your castle, then your home can also be your sanctuary (or your political meeting hall). Where property rights to land and other assets are protected, believers can build churches, endow seminaries, establish religious schools -- and nobody else may lawfully interfere.

In contrast, where property rights are insecure or nonexistent, the exercise of religion is hostage to the whims of politicians, bureaucrats, or mobs. As the history of the former Soviet Union makes clear, when government owns the printing presses, paper mills, and book stores, just obtaining a Bible can be difficult and dangerous.

What prompts these reflections are efforts by Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt and a group called the Evangelical Environmental Network to mount a theological defense of the Endangered Species Act. Recalling that Noah was commanded to save every kind of living creature, Babbitt claims the ESA serves a divine purpose: "to protect the whole of creation." Babbitt suggests that only a complete philistine, blind to the reflections of divinity in the works of nature, could possibly oppose the ESA.

What such sermonizing overlooks is that the ESA is unjust and inhumane. The ESA empowers bureaucrats to regulate, and thus effectively "take," private property deemed to be endangered species habitat. Under the ESA, federal agents can prohibit you from farming, building a home, or even clearing fire breaks on your own land; fine you up to $100,000 and/or put you in jail for engaging in the aforesaid activities; and pay you no compensation for the lost value of your land. This violates the Bill of Rights ("nor shall private property be taken for public use without just compensation") and the Ten Commandments ("Thou Shalt Not Steal").

God in His infinite goodness can bring good even out of evil, said St. Augustine; but when mere mortals use bad means, they usually get bad results. By turning wildlife assets into economic liabilities, the ESA encourages landowners to destroy habitat, even to "shoot, shovel, and shut up." The ESA harms the very species it is supposed to protect.

Babbitt cites Noah as his inspiration, but Noah was no bureaucrat. Noah did not seize anyone's property to build the ark, nor did he tax anyone to finance the operation. The supreme irony is that if Noah were alive today, he would be put in jail under the ESA for capturing and transporting endangered species without government permission.

Religious fervor is no excuse for forgetting the Golden Rule of democratic politics: As you would have your rights be respected, so respect those of others. Wittingly or otherwise, ESA apologists presume that their secular or religious concerns trump the equal rights of other citizens. Such presumption is the opposite of the respect required to maintain civil and religious liberty. Invoking the Bible to defend an unjust and inhumane law should be seen for what it is -- a pious fraud.

--Marlo Lewis