True Religion And The Welfare State

I recently had a conversation with a friend who I would consider part of the “Christian Left.”  As I’ve mentioned before, those on the Christian Left tend, generally speaking, to reject evangelical assumptions about Scripture, such as inerrancy or perspicuity.  Many, like my friend, are sympathetic to modern textual-critical scholarship and doubt the authenticity and authority of entire books of the Bible, especially those of Paul.  These folks are often referred to as the “red-letter Christians” since, in their view, the loving and tolerant teachings of Jesus trump anything else in Scripture.

One Biblical author who gets almost equal weight, though, is James, and it’s easy to see why.  James has little patience for playing at religion, and a lot to say about social justice.

In the course of dialoging with my friend about federal welfare programs, I quoted from James, perhaps to establish my social justice cred, and also to preemptively rebut potential accusations that I don’t think Christians have a duty to care for the poor.  When I looked up the passage I had in mind, to quote it accurately, I was a little surprised.  James 1:27 reads,

Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world. (NRSV)

Now, I always hear about the orphans and widows, but rarely hear about remaining unstained by the world, to the point that I forgot it was even part of the verse.  This prompted a thought.  While I believe it is certainly possible for Christians to support social welfare programs that demand more and more tax revenue and ever increasing government power, what happens when James 1:27a butts heads with James 1:27b?  In other words, what happens when our attempt at following the first half of James’ instruction ultimately forces us to compromise on the second half?  When Christians place the necessary responsibility of caring for widows and orphans in the hands of an increasingly secular entity whose goals are frequently in opposition to other important Christian beliefs, this dilemma is sure to follow.

A perfect example would be the recent HHS mandate, part of Obamacare, that requires Catholic and Evangelical institutions to pay for the contraceptive coverage of their employees or students.  This requirement runs directly counter to one of the most cherished (and assaulted) beliefs of Christianity, the value of the unborn child.  In essence, the government has mandated that Christian employers and academic institutions must financially support a worldly stain on their employees and students, and accept that stain by implication.  Thankfully, many of these institutions are fighting the mandate, but the fate of such legal cases is still far from certain.

If we ask, then, whether Christians ought to capitulate to the modern liberal ideal of the omni-competent state, the answer, I think, should be no. We cannot legitimately appeal to passages like James 1:27 to justify higher taxes and more welfare programs when the organization we have chosen to care for the widows and orphans is increasingly hostile to the other half of “pure and undefiled” religion.

An obvious objection is that we cannot refuse to aid the poor simply because the government is not as Christian as we would like.  But this turns on a false alternative.  We are not forced to choose between a totalizing welfare state or no welfare at all.  James is calling us as individual believers to live out this kind of selfless lifestyle daily and in the flesh.  In short, he is calling us to lives of charity.  Yet it should be obvious that allowing the government to tax you in order to theoretically spend some of that tax money on nameless, faceless people is not equivalent to a selfless life of charity.  James expects you to have more skin in the game.

You can give that same money to a mercy fund at your church, and not only will all of it go to actually helping the poor (since your Elders and Deacons are, or should be, unpaid volunteers), but you can actually put your boots on the ground and help to do the volunteer work yourself.  And it doesn’t have to be a church.  You can give your time and money to any small, volunteer-based group in your community.  The main point is that James is calling every Christian to personally engage in the work of charity, not to indirectly participate in the abstract idea of charity.  (I should add, this is especially true of those who fall into a low enough tax bracket that they do not end up paying any taxes, while eagerly voting to raise taxes on other, wealthier people).

Instead, I would argue that putting more money back in the hands of individuals enables them to do what James is calling them to do, without the potential excuse that paying taxes relieves them of responsibility.  Moreover, it takes that same money out of the hands of federal bureaucrats, who have a record of wasteful spending and mismanagement that helps no one, least of all the poor.

If we really want to live out the calling of James 1:27, we should work to rein in an out of control government and put the responsibility of helping the poor, widows and orphans back in the hands of our local churches and other community groups.

The flip side of that coin is that we must be willing to actually shoulder that responsibility.

Are we?

Published by

David Nilsen

David graduated from Biola University in 2008, with a B.A. in Philosophy. He studied Historical Theology for three years at Westminster Seminary in California (his essays on Theology, Church History and Eastern Orthodoxy can be found here). David has been blogging about Philosophy, Politics and Culture since 2004. He has contributed to The White Horse Inn and The Gospel Coalition. You can also follow him on Twitter.

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  • Michael Cook

    Before there was ever a safety net called ‘federal government’ – there were the 4 “F’s” of crisis management: Family, Faith, Friends, Fellowships…then, and only then, came the subsidiary role – the final straw so to speak of government. Is it any wonder why Government plays the savior today? Families are fractured, faith is mocked, friends are not real but cyber or avatar, and fellowships (benevolent societies) an archaic nicety from “old days”… is it any wonder why 49% of our country has EBT cards from an Uncle named Sam? My Polish ancestors – like most immigrants came to this country with nothing; but faith, family and friends. Their churches and their benevolent societies were the FIRST line of defense against hunger, want and need. Only as a last resort, and under dire shame would anyone seek to take money from government. Grandma and Grandpa again were right. Funny how that works out the older I get.

  • David Nilsen

    Michael, exactly right. If you listen to those on the Left, you would think that every poor person in American history died of starvation on the streets before FDR came along.

    You’ve hit on a very important point. The more tax money the government takes from individuals, the less they have for their own charitable giving. That means that as government grows, organizations like churches and local community groups, which are funded by the charity of normal people, must get smaller. Rotary clubs disappear, soup kitchens close, etc. Since local institutions are more likely to maximize charitable outcomes (i.e. they will know best how to use their resources for the greatest benefit to their community, they will have less waste and more accountability than the federal bureaucracy, etc), this is a bad thing.

  • Lindsay Stallones

    I agree that we need to be prepared to help each other individual to individual, as Scripture mandates. I’m wondering, however, what we do about situations in which people need help that individuals or the church cannot provide.

    If, for instance, a member of a congregation was diagnosed with cancer, is it realistic to expect the congregation to have the ability to bear the cost of that person’s care? I’m not sure the savings each individual would see from cutting social programs in the federal government would be even a drop in the bucket in one person’s care in your average sized church, much less a small parish. What would we then do?

    I think we vastly underestimate the financial cost of social services when we advocate shifting the entire financial burden of feeding the poor, job training, education, health care, care for the elderly, etc. to the church or the individual.

    But I agree, we MUST be more charitable. We can remove the burden from government by, for example, taking in ailing, aging parents. We can give more generously, found more charitable organizations to help the poor, for instance.

    But I wonder how practical it is to claim that we could adequately care for all those in need as individuals or churches. And if we can’t, what responsibility to we bear as charitable believers to find other ways to help people get the help they need? Do we say to the person with overwhelming hospital bills “be fed and warmed” and shrug, or do we use political power we have in this country to try and achieve the goals we cannot make out of our personal finances?

  • David Nilsen

    Lindsay, those are excellent questions. I think there’s a few different things going on here. First, I want to be clear that I’m not talking about abolishing government welfare. Second, on the question of practicality, I would simply ask how people survived before FDR. People certainly had fewer luxuries and less access to things like healthcare, but I challenge the notion that reducing the size and rate of spending of the current welfare state will leave millions to fend for themselves in cold, with cancer on top of it. And that’s really what I’m talking about, the size and spending of the CURRENT welfare state. If you can agree that it’s wasteful and often misguided, then surely you can agree it needs reform and accountability, not to mention a lot of trim around the edges. When we spend money on ad campaigns that encourage people to get food stamps, not of necessity, but merely to supplement their income and save some money on food, we’re courting a fiscal decline that helps no one, least of all the poor. When we have judges who award taxpayer money to prison inmates for sex change operations because it’s part of their right to “healthcare”, it’s clear that the elite class to whom we have chosen to abdicate our responsibility is going way beyond what was intended.

    That seems to be the thrust of your concern, namely, can’t a large institution with billions in tax dollars do what local communities cannot? And yet, we see again and again that big government is actually less efficient and more in need of strict oversight (that never happens) than state and local counterparts. And once you create a new federal bureaucracy and start pumping in millions in tax dollars, on the premise that there is no other way to care for that poor person with cancer, it doesn’t take long before said bureaucracy is burning through money like kindling and the problem it was started to solve is just as bad as before.

    And as to the specific point about a person in the congregation with cancer, again, I have no problem with some sort of government aid, if it’s truly necessary. Like I said in the post, I reject the false alternative between a total welfare state and zero welfare of any kind. I’m arguing that it is better, practically, economically and otherwise, when we locate the center of charity in the church and other small community, rather than a federal bureaucracy.

    And the bottom line of this post is much narrower than most of what I’ve just said. It is merely the point that, as Christians appealing to Scripture, we cannot legitimately use a verse like James 1:27 to justify voting for federal welfare programs when the federal welfare provider is increasingly hostile to James 1:27b (and doing a shoddy job of James 1:27a to boot).

    One last point (long comment, sorry!). You ask, “or do we use political power we have in this country to try and achieve the goals we cannot make out of our personal finances?” This is a particularly interesting question for me at the moment, and one that I’ve been trying to wrestle with. See, at least part of what you’re asking is, “do we, as Christians, use political power to force non-Christians (mainly the wealthy ones) into following Christian morality?” We run from this idea at full speed when it comes to gay marriage and abortion, so why is taxation and welfare different? Because we’re middle or lower class, so it doesn’t really hurt us (since we’re always voting to increase taxes on much wealthier people)? That’s not a criticism, just an honest question. I would have much more sympathy for pro-welfare legislation folks if they wanted to increase taxes on their own tax bracket as well as others’, and also if they wanted to “use the political power we have in this country” to defend marriage and the unborn child with equal fervor. That would at least be consistent, and I can respect it, despite reservations.