“Au Contraire Mr. Fugelsang!” – Three Legitimate Reasons Christians Oppose Welfare (and Why they are Wrong)

If you don’t want tax dollars helping the sick and poor, then it’s time to stop saying you want a government based on Christian values.

539326_167519193396548_1691013125_nI shared this picture on Facebook the other day because I agree with the sentiment, but I disagree with its simplicity. John Fugelsang correctly identified hypocrisy in the Christian Right, but he applied his diagnosis too broadly.

There are three legitimate reasons why a conservative Christian might want the government to get out of the welfare business:

  1. Government welfare makes the church less effective – When people have to give their limited resources to the government, they have fewer resources to give to the church. Therefore the church has fewer resources to give to the poor.
  2. Government welfare is less efficient than the church – Bureaucracy is inefficient because is beholden to policy, not individual need. The church is less bureaucratic than the state, more local, and can therefore give more focused and holistic aid.
  3. Government welfare makes people dependent Because the church works more locally, it can place conditions on its giving, help people learn personal responsibility, and leverage its vast social capital to help the poor attain degrees, jobs, and financial independence.

Like I said, those are all legitimate reasons to oppose our tax dollars going to government assistance of the poor. Legitimate, but completely wrong!

According to Dean Merrill, except for a brief spike right after WWII, rates of attendance and giving to the church have been pretty consistent. Giving will go down when the middle class are out of work, but this has nothing to do with taxes and welfare. If anything, it means that when people most need charity, the church is least able to give it.

The church is not all that efficient, either. Anyone who has ever worked in ministry knows that there is plenty of bureaucracy to go around. Even St. John Chrysostom admitted that the money the church receives is not always well spent. Pastors are people, and people will make stupid decisions (such as building sprawling facilities, replete with indoor basketball courts and the latest worship software)! Pastors are also sinners. Corruption in the church can be even harder to identify when people in charge can hide beneath a veneer of holiness.

The idea that government welfare makes people dependent is a myth. Though for millennia, when it came to charity, the church was the only game in town, there is no evidence that the church was very good at combating systemic poverty. Some churches are very good at providing innovative and effective programs to help the poor, but just as many churches are very, very bad at charity! At the local level, a lot of money people give to the church goes to random folks who call asking for help paying bills, buying food, or making rent. Contact with the poor is sporadic and need-dependent. Government-run health, nutrition, and education interventions are always more efficient than a hundred dollars, randomly distributed.

So what’s my beef with Fugelsang’s statement? Let me first say that I have never heard of John Fugelsang before I saw the above picture, and I still know almost nothing about him. His views on poverty are surely more complex than a single sentence captures, and I expect we actually have a lot in common. Nonetheless, the above quotation implies that Christians who do not agree with his politics do not care about the poor, which is to commit the original sin of the Christian Right, only backwards! It is just as easy to conflate one’s politics with a liberal political agenda as it is to think that Jesus votes Republican! We have to be a bit more conciliar if we are going to bear a more consistent witness to the kingdom of God made manifest in Jesus Christ.

In short, the more I talk to conservative Christians, the more I realize that very few regular church-goers are crass social Darwinists. Their policies might amount to social Darwinism, but most committed believers do care about the poor, irrespective of their politics! In fact, many Christians that I disagree with politically spend way more time actively serving the poor than me or Fugelsang combined! While Christians on the Right may misdiagnose the causes of systemic poverty, and thus advocate a faulty course of treatment, to be wrong is not the same as to be unloving, and to exercise bad judgment is not to possess bad motives.

13 thoughts on ““Au Contraire Mr. Fugelsang!” – Three Legitimate Reasons Christians Oppose Welfare (and Why they are Wrong)”

  1. Christ said, to the gathered nations, that whenever we help the poor (or not) we do it unto him.
    'Whenever' includes private and public, individual and communal, church and government modes of caring for those in need… WHENEVER.
    Any "legitimate reasons" to not do such are rationalizations to be unfaithful to WHENEVER/CHRIST.

    "Render unto Caesar" included social welfare programs of Rome.

    If one wants to consider the efficiency of church charity… grab an annual report of your church, then total up all costs (building, heat, pastor, staff, worship costs, etc.) and then see what portion DIRECTLY 'helping the poor' comprises. Then of the INDIRECT benevolent monies passed on to others (who in turn help the poor) do a similar analysis. Then make a case re: government efficiency.

  2. Christ said, to the gathered nations, that whenever we help the poor (or not) we do it unto him.
    'Whenever' includes private and public, individual and communal, church and government modes of caring for those in need… WHENEVER.
    Any "legitimate reasons" to not do such are rationalizations to be unfaithful to WHENEVER/CHRIST.

    "Render unto Caesar" included social welfare programs of Rome.

    If one wants to consider the efficiency of church charity… grab an annual report of your church, then total up all costs (building, heat, pastor, staff, worship costs, etc.) and then see what portion DIRECTLY 'helping the poor' comprises. Then of the INDIRECT benevolent monies passed on to others (who in turn help the poor) do a similar analysis. Then make a case re: government efficiency.

  3. Your missing the point the apostles even complained to Jesus that another group was persfirming baptisms and we're not among their group and Jdxus responded that a good tree produces good fruit.
    My objection to the government taking the lead is that it abdicates us of our own responsibility

  4. Your missing the point the apostles even complained to Jesus that another group was persfirming baptisms and we're not among their group and Jdxus responded that a good tree produces good fruit.
    My objection to the government taking the lead is that it abdicates us of our own responsibility

  5. My answer will be that I tithed at church, I volunteered to help with soup kitchens and I worked within the constraints of my democratic Government which did not exist in Jesus time to use some the combined wealth of this great nation to feed the needy. I fought to keep some of the money from being diverted to Wars and making more bombs and other wasteful things, in order to be more like my savior. There are many things Jesus did not address directly, but it is clear to me that if Jesus asks me this question about what I did, and I tell him what I did, he will know about the evil of politics and exactly why supposedly good christians in politics chose to help themselves and to promote war and to actually take food money away from the poor and unemployed. I see no way to look my savior in the eyes and say … well some of them would not work so I worked to cut them off. To actually preach that Jesus thinks that way is unthinkable to me.

  6. The question is not hypocrisy but scriptural teaching. In the many parables we find in the New Testament we see Christ exhorting us to help the poor. Not one time does he address Caesar or his government to do the same? They say unto him, Caesar's. Then saith he unto them, Render therefore unto Caesar the things which are Caesar's; and unto God the things that are God's.
    If taking care of the poor was to be done by Caesar “THE GOVERNMENT” then Christ would have centered his teaching to Caesar and the leaders in government, but he did not, he gave these things to each one of us. A man on the way to Jericho and found a man lying on the side of the road, he poured wine and oil on his wounds and put him up and said if the cost is any more I will pay on my way back, go and do likewise.
    When we come to the Kingdom and we are asked when I was hungry did you feed me or naked and your clothed me will you answer be “I voted for Ted Kennedy and he should have done it”.

  7. 4. Government welfare is coerced charity. “God loves the cheerful giver”, not the one forced to by threat of prison.

    Most Conservative Christians want a government based on its Constitution not Christian values. If this was the Byzantine Empire, you might have a point

    1. That’s also fair, Nick. I actually intend at some point to devote more time to #4. It actually makes the least sense to me since the idea of a constitutional republic depends upon Locke’s idea of implied consent, which means that insofar as the society is a functional democracy, there is not really any coercion, just lost elections.

  8. I agree with your critique of the three reasons, but I still don’t get how you see them as “legitimate.” They’re wrong, you explain why they’re wrong, and you have admirable sympathy with the people who hold these views and rightly point out that stereotyping and oversimplifying by the left is no better than the same by the right — but all that doesn’t make these mistaken positions legitimate. You seem to be trying to remind us that the people are legitimate and it’s okay for them to have concerns — but that doesn’t make the reasons legitimate. See what I mean? Not trying to be picky for the sake of being argumentative. Just wondering if I’m missing something, or if you could be more precise in your formulation here. Thanks.

    1. Hi Marcie,

      Thanks for your question and your conciliar tone. My understanding is that something “legitimate” is not a pure synonym for “correct.” It just means “reasonable.” One can have a reasonable opinion that is still wrong (otherwise, reasonable people could not actually disagree). Here is an example: It is reasonable to believe that there is life on other worlds because the universe is so vast. It is also reasonable to believe that there is not life on other worlds because we do not have any evidence for such a thing. Both claims are legitimate, but I still think the second one is wrong.

      Of course, I think you are right, that our difference may only be semantic. That said, maybe I am misunderstanding the subtle meaning of both words. I’ve used the wrong words before, even when my point was legitimate.

    2. Thank you. Yes, I realize that it seems to be just a semantic difference that doesn’t mean much unless you’re aiming for a certain technical precision of terms. I was just wondering if there were more to what you meant that I wasn’t getting. I suppose that “reasonable” does seem more accurate than “legitimate” for what you’re getting at, to my ear anyway. But it doesn’t matter. Your point is clear enough, especially after your explanation. Thanks again. Now, can you give me a magic formula to make me patient and kind with people who promote views that I believe are demonstrably false and harmful in practice? ;-) That’s always the killer, isn’t it?

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