(Originally published on May 20, 2011)
There is a great deal of confusion today regarding what the Christian response to poverty should be.
The Apostle James makes our responsibility clear:
“Pure and undefiled religion before God and the Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their trouble, and to keep oneself unspotted from the world…What does it profit, my brethren, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can faith save him? If a brother or sister is naked and destitute of daily food, and one of you says to them, ‘Depart in peace, be warmed and filled,’ but you do not give them the things which are needed for the body, what does it profit? Thus also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead. But someone will say, ‘You have faith, and I have works.’ Show me your faith without your works, and I will show you my faith by my works.” (James 1:27; 2:14-18)
No one can read this passage (or hundreds of others like it) and not admit that a primary responsibility for Christians is to care for the poor among us.
But does that mean that the way to obey God’s commands is through government policies and programs?
How does one move from the admonition of the Gospel to care for the poor to promoting government welfare programs? The call to salvation is to individual persons (προσωπα) and to the Church (εκκλησια) not to states or governments. When Christ tells us to give to the poor He didn’t mean we should go to the polls and vote to tax my neighbor so he will be forced to help the poor.
Christ taught that as His followers, we are in the world, but not of it. He also enjoined, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” I take this to mean we have a civic responsibility in addition to our families, churches, and communities.
But it cannot be used to justify forcing others to follow Christ’s commands. The petition “Thy will be done on earth, as it is in heaven” is not a prescription for a theocracy.
It is my contention that historic Christianity is antithetically opposed to “progressive” politics and policiesregarding care for the poor.
How do we go about developing a “Christian” political philosophy (if such a thing is possible)?
Here’s how it is NOT to be done.
It is not to be done by lifting individual Bible verses out of their historical and theological context. The message of the Bible is soteriological (pertaining to salvation) not political. Trying to find a political philosophy by lifting Bible verses here and there is a fundamentalist error in interpreting the Scriptures.
A Christian political philosophy must be informed by Christian theology not individual Bible verses. We must root our political theories in our understanding of the nature of God and man as derived from the Scriptures and the Tradition of the Church just as the American founding fathers did.
We are made in the image of God (imago dei). Our free will is an essential aspect of our being in God’s image. Our relationship with God is predicated on His freely offered love for us and on our freedom to choose or reject that love.
Any Orthodox Christian political philosophy must take into account and be based upon this essential aspect of man’s nature. Because man is free to choose to follow God’s will for his or her life, it naturally follows that no form of coercion is allowed. In other words, even God does not force us to love Him.
Another essential characteristic of being in the image of God is love. God causes the sun to shine on both the just and the unjust. God calls us to help others. In fact, he commands it. There are more than 300 verses in the Bible concerning care for the poor and God’s identification with the poor.
We are called to reflect the same love of God for all people regardless of their circumstances or what caused them to be in their situation. God’s love compels us to care for the least among us. We are called to do this freely as individuals and within voluntary groups not by coercion. Again, even God does not coerce us into loving Him. He calls us to freely choose to follow Him and to do what’s right.
Progressivism, with its emphasis on promoting “the common good” by way of redistribution of wealth and social engineering is rooted in coercion – legislatively forcing people to care and provide for others. This is antithetical to Christian principles.
In addition, progressive policies are not only coercive and, therefore, run counter to the Gospel, but they are also impractical – they don’t work (see my post “What Would Jesus Cut”). This is not to say people are not helped to some extent for a period of time. But in the long run the costs for social programs far outweigh the good they do. They have become unsustainable entitlements that will eventually bankrupt our country. One needs only to listen to the debates concerning Social Security and Medicare to realize this. Prior to the welfare reforms under President Clinton, the welfare system had created a perpetual underclass locked into a dependency on the State that few were able to overcome.
For every dollar that goes into these federal and state entitlement programs a dollar is taken from the free market economy. What is spent along with massive waste in the government sector is lost from the productive private sector. When it comes to the trillions that have been sucked out of the market to fund these failed programs it is impossible to estimate what we have lost in terms of national productivity that could have gone to naturally raise hundreds of thousands out of poverty.
Rather than continuing on the course of increasing unsustainable, coercive progressive policies we must set an example of truly compassionate and innovative ways of helping the poor by free and voluntary means. We must give more, volunteer more, and invest more to create enterprise zones, charitable foundations, scholarships, internships, homeless shelters, food banks, prison re-entry programs, job counseling, and so on.
There are marvelous examples of people working in private enterprise to help those in poverty. There is the Coalition for Urban Renewal and Education (CURE) that is “Fighting poverty and restoring dignity through faith, freedom and personal responsibility.” CURE was started and is run by Star Parker, a former welfare mother who broke the cycle of poverty in her own life by breaking loose from dependency on government aid. She now works to help others do the same and was a Republican candidate for the House from California’s 37th District in 2010.
The Acumen Fund is a “non-profit global venture that uses entrepreneurial approaches to solve problems of global poverty.” Founder Jacqueline Novogratz tells her story micro-finance development in Africa and Pakistan in the riveting book The Blue Sweater.
There are hundreds of private foundations funded by wealthy business people who are giving away more than they have earned for themselves. There are hundreds of thousands of Christian churches not to mention non-Christian religious groups as well as numerous non-profit organizations that must be admonished and helped to develop more grass roots programs to come to the aid of those in need especially in our inner-cities.
This is the truly Orthodox Christian approach: To love God and to love one another through voluntary sacrifice and innovative free enterprise.
What do you think? What is the best approach for our society to care for the poor and needy?
(Originally published April 19, 2011)
Evangelical progressives, led by Jim Wallis of Sojourners ministry and the author of the “God’s Politics Blog”, want you to feel guilty about the budget cuts in the 2011 Federal Budget passed by the Congress and called “historic” by the mainstream media.
Leading up to the vote, Wallis rallied the troops with his “What Would Jesus Cut” campaign saying that the cuts “would be devastating for domestic programs…”
Originally, the Republicans wanted to cut $61B from the 2011 budget. Democrats wanted to cut $4.7B. The final vote that came on April 8 (near the midnight hour narrowly averting a government shutdown) settled on the compromise figure of $38.5 billion.
Wallis contends that the cuts are immoral because they would cut programs that “provide basic nutrition, health, and opportunity to poor children and international aid programs that save lives every day.”
In a further attempt to impute guilt to fiscal conservatives and presuming to know the mind of God on these votes, he then calls people of faith to be, “united in prayer and committed to action, need to speak out for vulnerable people… We believe that the God who can change the hearts of kings can change the hearts of Congress.”
His position is that all budgets are moral documents (a term lacking precision leading to confusion according to Timothy Dalrymple of Patheos) and that the cuts will hurt the poor, sick, and needy. Therefore, any cuts aimed at the poor are immoral.
Hence his question: “What would Jesus cut?”
What is so interesting to me is this question: Although, $38.5 billion is a huge amount of money by any standard, what percentage of the overall budget is it? $38.5 is a whopping 1% of the $3.8 trillion budget in 2011!
This, in a feeble and laughable attempt to getting a $14 trillion deficit under control!
By this standard, Jim Wallis and his ilk would call budget cuts of any size immoral!
I would suggest that “WWJC” is the wrong question. A better and more fruitful question to the purveyors of the politics of guilt and pity is the one asked by William Voegeli says in his recent book, Never Enough, “When it comes to federal programs to aid the poor and needy, how much is enough?”
Even if you adjust for inflation and population growth the size of government human services programs is 15 times larger than it was in 1940. Total spending by the federal government went up 79% from 1995 to 2005 even before Obama took office! In 1962 the combined spending of just two agencies – Health and Human Services and Housing and Urban Development – went from under $3 billion to $750 billion in 2008 and projected to be over $1 trillion by 2014. And that’s just for two agencies out of hundreds! (See Historical Tables of the U.S. Government, Fiscal Year 2010)
In Voegeli’s words, “Adjusted for inflation per capita federal welfare state spending was 77% higher in 2007 than it was when President Reagan took office.”
Despite the astronomical increase in spending and growth of government welfare programs, the rate of poverty remains about the same. In 1947 the percentage of Americans living in poverty was 33%. In 1959 it was down to 18.5%. By 1965, the year of President Johnson’s began his “war on poverty,” only 13.9% were classified as poor. This drop on the poverty rate covered all ages. The elderly poor had dropped from 57% in 1947 to 22.8% in 1965.
What happened when the Johnson “Great Society” social programs went into effect? The steady drop in the poverty rate came to a screeching halt! Since that time, despite spending trillions of dollars to fight poverty – you know, the way Jesus would do it according to the guilt manipulators – the poverty rate has remained steady or increased.
According to James Gwartney and Thomas S. McCaleb of the Cato Institute in their report, “Have Anti-Poverty Programs Increased Poverty?“:
“Just as government spending on various anti-poverty programs accelerated in the late 1960’s, progress against poverty came to a grinding halt. The official poverty rate reached a minimum in the late 1960’s. By 1980, the overall rate was 10.3%, virtually unchanged from the 10.0% rate of 1968.”
Even though the poverty rate continued to decrease among the elderly from 17.0% in 1970 to 9.1% in 1980,
“The rate for families headed by an individual aged 45-54 increased marginally, from 7.0 to 7.3%. In contrast, the poverty rate for the other age groups increased significantly. By 1980 the official poverty rate for families in the 15-24 age grouping had risen to 21.8%, up from 13.2% in 1968. Similarly, the incidence of poverty among families headed by persons 25-44 rose from 9.3 in 1968 to 11.8% in 1980.”
In addition, to the abysmal results of the “war on poverty”, ever since the mid-to-late 1970’s (right about the time the effects of Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society and the modern welfare state policies hit the economy) we have seen a dramatic rise in the number of homeless people – 300,000 to 600,000 at any given moment up to the present time. (Death By Liberalism – J.R. Dunn).
The point is this: In spite of the abysmal failure of the social programs intended to rescue the poor and needy, the Jim Wallis’s of the world continue to excoriate conservatives, tea party members, or anyone who calls for fiscal sanity by curtailing runaway government spending. Though these programs do not work, the guilt-mongers continue to berate our nation for not spending enough to supposedly help the poor. The fact is, for these political moralists, the federal government will never spend enough on the poor. Therefore, our budgets will always be immoral.
So how do we answer “what would Jesus cut”?
Perhaps we should bring a bit of realism to the table. Jesus himself said, “the poor you have with you always.” (Matthew 26:11) Far from expressing indifference to the needs of the poor, we are reminded here that there is no such thing as a utopian age when all the problems of the world are going to be solved.
And still, despite these facts, welfare state advocates say this is not enough. The rich should pay more and the poor should get more. When will it end? What is the tipping point? The answer is never. It is never enough. We will always be immorally unbalanced until everyone has exactly the same will never happen.
Here’s the question I want to ask. What is best for the poor and all our society? Is it to keep increasing taxes on the wealthy and give it to the poor?
The worst thing about the “never enough” mentality is that it is actually making us all poorer. If we continue with this attitude we will not only NOT be able to care for the needy among us but we will all be worse off.
Increased deficit spending, skyrocketing debt, profligate printing and infusion of dollars into the system, inevitable inflation, the debasing of the dollar – all tools to of the insatiable welfare state – will undermine our overall prosperity and rob us all of our financial future. It will leave no one able to help the poor because we’ll all be poor.
Instead of asking the rhetorically impossible question to answer “what would Jesus cut” from the welfare budget we need to ask what is the best strategy to help the poor not be poor anymore. That is the moral thing to ask.
So, what is the best strategy to help the poor not be poor anymore?
(Originally published January 20, 2011)
Apart from both of us breathing air and walking upright, I have very little in common with New York Times columnist Paul Krugman. Krugman is a radical progressive. A leftist among leftists. But as the proverbial broken clock is right twice a day – in Krugman’s case he might be right once a year – Krugman got something right last week.
There is a fundamental conflict of visions in American politics.
In his column following President Obama’s Tuscon Memorial speech, Krugman wrote:
“But the truth is that we are a deeply divided nation and are likely to remain one for a long time. By all means, let’s listen to each other more carefully; but what we’ll discover, I fear, is how far apart we are. For the great divide in our politics isn’t really about pragmatic issues, about which policies work best; it’s about differences in those very moral imaginations Mr. Obama urges us to expand, about divergent beliefs over what constitutes justice.”
One thing I can say about Krugman. He is an honest progressive. He doesn’t try to sugar-coat his views and disagreements with anyone even though he will disparage his opponents as he does in this article. Still he nails the key issue dividing the American political scene today. We have fundamental differences in our moral imaginations and divergent beliefs that constitute justice.
He goes on to say:
“Today’s G.O.P. sees much of what the modern federal government does as illegitimate; today’s Democratic Party does not. When people talk about partisan differences, they often seem to be implying that these differences are petty, matters that could be resolved with a bit of good will. But what we’re talking about here is a fundamental disagreement about the proper role of government.”
Though there are differences between the G.O.P. establishment and the tea party movement, I would extend what he says here to include the tea party. Many have tried to dismiss the tea party as a knee-jerk reaction to a bad economy. But it is deeper than that. It is what Krugman says here: “a fundamental disagreement about the proper role of government.”
This is the same point made by arguably the leading economist alive today, Dr. Thomas Sowell, Sr. Fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University, and author of A Conflict of Visions. In it he describes the difference between “big government” and “small government” advocates as a deep-seated conflict between two different visions of the human condition. In this respect the divide has been with us for centuries according to Sowell whereas Krugman thinks this is something new.
New or not, at least Krugman agrees it exists now.
Until we understand the fundamental divide in politics today we will continue to misunderstand and frustrate each other. Unless we are willing to go below the surface issues and rhetoric we will not be able to rationally wrestle with the foundations of our differing visions.
Krugman rightly puts a moral spin on the differences between left and right.
As you’d expect he seeks the moral high ground. It’s the Democrats, according to Krugman, who “consider[s] the modern welfare state — a private-enterprise economy, but one in which society’s winners are taxed to pay for a social safety net — morally superior to the capitalism red in tooth and claw we had before the New Deal. It’s only right, this side believes, for the affluent to help the less fortunate.” And Republicans are the other side which:
“believes that people have a right to keep what they earn, and that taxing them to support others, no matter how needy, amounts to theft. That’s what lies behind the modern right’s fondness for violent rhetoric: many activists on the right really do see taxes and regulation as tyrannical impositions on their liberty.” Democrats care for the poor and needy. Republicans don’t and are even willing to resort to violence to protect the rich.
Well, the difference between the two visions is moral. But Krugman cannot claim the moral high ground no matter how he tries to spin it. It is exactly this kind of “straw man” argument that continues to confuse and short-circuit rational dialogue.
It is my intention to outline the differences that divide the political world in future posts. I will do so from a decidedly Christian perspective. But to begin we must agree that these differences run along two fundamentally distinct visions of our human condition. I hope I can promote a rational discussion of these differences in a way that humbly challenges us all to be intellectually honest and morally responsible.
Do you think such rational discourse is possible given these two conflicting visions? Is it possible to achieve clarity if not agreement?
(Originally published January 19, 2011)
“Sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me.” So goes the childhood ditty.
In the wake of the Tucson attack there has been a rush to blame right-wing rhetoric for such violence. What is perplexing is how vehement and angry the charges have been. Just tune in to MSNBC any morning or night to see how rabid the left-wing pundits are against the right.
Following the shootings, Roger Ailes, President of Fox News Channel reportedly said, “I told all of our guys, shut up, tone it down, make your argument intellectually.”
Then President Obama had this to say at the memorial service in Tucson, “But what we can’t do is use this tragedy as one more occasion to turn on one another. As we discuss these issues, let each of us do so with a good dose of humility. Rather than pointing fingers or assigning blame, let us use this occasion to expand our moral imaginations, to listen to each other more carefully, to sharpen our instincts for empathy, and remind ourselves of all the ways our hopes and dreams are bound together.”
With hardly any acknowledgment of Ailes’ welcome statement, after the President’s call to humility, and even after admitting that there is no connection between the shootings and the violent rhetoric, the left continues to attack conservatives.
Now don’t misunderstand me. This is no apologetic for hot-headed conservative rhetoric. Hardly. I have been personally critical of conservative radio and cable talk shows and their vitriol for years. I not only find it distasteful and annoying but it’s also highly ineffective in convincing anyone who disagrees. But then, I don’t think that’s their goal.
There’s abundant evidence to prove there is plenty of blame for the violent rhetoric.
President Obama himself was quoted in a speech at a middle school in Wayne, PA, on June 14, 2007: “If they bring a knife to the fight, we bring a gun,” Obama said at a Philadelphia fundraiser Friday night. “Because from what I understand folks in Philly like a good brawl.”
Former PA Democrat Congressman Paul Kanjorski said, “That Scott down there that’s running for governor of Florida. Instead of running for governor of Florida, they ought to have him [sic] and shoot him. Put him against the wall and shoot him.”
And where was the outrage from the mainstream media when a film was made actually depicting the assassination of then sitting President George W. Bush?
What about the endlessly repeated foul and derogatory description of tea party members as “teabaggers”? Even during the week of attacks against conservatives for their hate-language, I actually heard Rep. James Clyburn (D-SC) use the term when he was charging the tea party with using angry rhetoric!
No, there is plenty of blame to go around for the violent rhetoric. But I don’t really think it’s our language that’s the problem. It’s our lack of love and respect for fellow men and women. Our public discourse is not intended to bring about any kind of understanding much less agreement. It is intended to incite the passions of our respective political camps and to demolish the credibility of the other side.
This is not only futile but leads only to further alienation of all sides. It is a symptom of an ever increasing coarsening of our culture in general. We have lost a fundamental respect for each other. It shouldn’t matter what you think politically – as a Christian and as an American – I should still love you. My love and respect is based on my love for God, my country, and myself. If I truly believe that my political views are worth applying to our current issues then I would want you to understand and, maybe, even agree with me. But that will never happen if you think I have no respect for you or your views. People don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.
Even if we stop using all violent or militaristic language in our political rhetoric today, the disrespect and hatred would continue. We would just get more clever about it. No, our words are just a symptom of a deeper attitude in our hearts.
St. Francis of Assisi said that it is better to understand than to be understood. Jesus said to love our enemies. The least we can do is let go of our destructive pride and start believing the best of each other.
Do you think we can engage in spirited debate without demonizing each other?