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.
I 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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.