Christian Charity and the Welfare State
- Tuesday, April 19, 2011
I am well aware of the innumerable disagreements and disputes about the interpretation of Scripture (How else did we get so many denominations and splinter congregations?) and so, of course, some of you readers will disagree—perhaps quite vehemently—with my present understanding of the meaning of biblical verses. So be it. Let me simply state two facts here: First, I have read the Bible on a daily basis, with few exceptions, for over 35 years, so I am no mere dabbler or glib dilettante. Second, I have formed the opinions contained herein entirely on my own. My opinions about how Christian principles inform economic issues are not taught by any church that I know of; nor can I cite religious scholars as authority for my individual understanding of what the Scriptures say, since I base my arguments directly on biblical verses themselves, and not on what such-and-such a scholar says the Bible says. If I have misunderstood the words of my God and my Savior, then I’m sure that divine wisdom will find a way to correct me.
I invite you to explore the points I raise with an open mind and then decide for yourself if I have made a valid case.
There is near universal agreement among Christians of all political stripes that one of our great privileges and duties is to do charitable deeds. Where we disagree is on the question of whether the secular authority of the state should be an agent of Christian charity. To some, such an alliance seems logical; to others, it is a non sequitur to conclude that, because we are expected to perform acts of charity, we should enlist the state to help us.
This question surfaced in the August 2008 interview that Pastor Rick Warren conducted with the Democratic and Republican presidential candidates. When Warren asked Barack Obama to name our nation’s greatest moral failing, then-Senator Obama replied that it was insufficient support for the disadvantaged, including the poor. Obama then quoted the Lord Jesus’ statement, “Whatsoever you do for the least of my brothers, you do for me” as biblical justification for his plans to have the national government increase economic assistance to the poor.
As president, Obama has continued to cite biblical verses in support of his political agenda. For example, in August 2009, Obama invoked Scripture during an Internet phone call to several thousand clergy and religious leaders. Urging his listeners to support his goal of moving toward universal health care insurance, the president asserted that “a core ethical and moral obligation… [is] that I am my brother’s keeper.” Clearly, even in our relatively secular age, political leaders aren’t bashful about invoking Holy Scripture in support of their political agenda.
President Obama has raised an important question: Is a government welfare state consistent with Christian principles? If so, then perhaps Christians should support Obama’s domestic agenda of spreading the wealth around. On the other hand, if a government-mandated redistribution of wealth conflicts with or compromises Christian principles, then Christians may find that adherence to their religious principles will lead them to withhold their support from, and perhaps even actively oppose, such policies.
The belief that Christians should favor government programs for the poor has a long history. Ever since socialism emerged as a political doctrine in the 19th century, various professed Christians, attracted by the vision of a society with a more equal distribution of wealth, have made common cause with socialistic politics. Christian socialism, the social gospel, liberation theology—these are a few of the more famous intellectual movements that have sought to link, if not equate, Christianity with socialism. While most Christians have not embraced outright socialism, many accept the proposition that some government-directed redistribution of wealth to the poor is consistent with their Christian values and beliefs.
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