The ever-growing state continues to take over more and more areas of basic living. We have in fact the cradle to grave welfare state where pretty much everything is now in the hands of the state. The initial motivations for this may have been praise-worthy, but all we end up with is less and less freedom and more and more Big Brother government.
Thus getting the balance right between state responsibility and individual responsibility is important. For much of human history looking after people was the responsibility of individuals, of families, of communities, of neighbours, of churches and so on. Only recently has it been assumed that the state is to be involved in all these areas, often to the exclusion of all others.
Of real concern is how gullible and naive so many Christians seem to be about all this. They rightly talk about our obligations to the poor and needy and so on, but then for some strange reason go on to automatic default, believing this is the responsibility of governments. They especially seem to think the modern welfare state is somehow the epitome of Christian compassion.
While there certainly is a place for some government assistance, these believers really could do with a refresher course in church history. And they also could do with some basic reading in economics. They are right to say that Christians should have concern for the poor and less well off, but their solutions are often way off the mark.
Indeed, so often they will make a completely illogical and unbiblical move, thinking that somehow the state should be doing this. But since when does personal Christian compassion translate into state coercion and redistribution? Government redistribution helps no one – it simply makes everyone poorer. And it simply creates ever more dependency on the state.
But plenty of Christian thinkers have discussed this over the years. Let me offer some of their thoughts here. I wish to highlight one very important volume which appeared in 1994 entitled Welfare Reformed: A Compassionate Approach (P&R). There a number of Christians offered important critiques of the modern welfare state, and presented practical, Christian alternatives.
They show that welfarism often fails on its own terms, and can in fact be counterproductive, leading to more people impoverished and dependent on government largesse. They all argue that the key movers in the fight against poverty are strong families, private enterprise, and the church.
R.C. Sproul and R.C. Sproul Jr have a chapter on “Statism” which is well worth looking at. The article begins, “A number of years ago I shared a taxi with Francis Schaeffer in St. Louis. During our cab ride I asked Dr. Schaeffer: ‘What is your greatest concern for the future of America?’ Without hesitation or interval given to ponder the question, Schaeffer replied simply, ‘Statism’.”
They continue, “Statism involves a philosophy of government by which the state, or government, is viewed not only as the final ruling authority but the ultimate agency of redemption. In this sense the state does not simply coexist with the church. It supplants the church….
“Democratic statism lives by the myth of state redemption. The dream is that the state will provide all my needs. It will provide food for my table, education for my children…and a host of other benefits that will cover me from the cradle to the grave….
“Too many recipients of statism begin with appreciation for such provisions, move quickly to an expectation of these provisions, and then finally to a demand for these provisions. If the demand is not met, they take to the streets like children throwing temper tantrums.”
That’s for sure. We see this happening often nowadays, most recently on the streets of Athens. And as I discussed elsewhere, the recent US re-election of Obama is simply a very ugly manifestation of this entitlement mentality writ large: https://billmuehlenberg.com/2012/11/08/the-entitlement-mentality-and-national-suicide-or-why-we-are-a-nation-of-pigs/
In the same volume Michael Bauman examines the failings of the welfare state, arguing that it is not the intentions which must be judged, but the actual outcomes. He reminds us that the single most important factor in American poverty is family breakdown, and the welfare state simply exacerbates the problem:
“In our misguided efforts to be good Samaritans, to help those lying in the ditch of poverty, we forgot that whatever undermines traditional family values, roles, and ties, undermines society itself. To such moral and social degeneration no consistent Christian desires to subscribe….
“We forgot that giving good gifts is an exceedingly difficult endeavor and that poverty is not always itself the problem; it is often the symptom of another prior problem. That is, if poverty (the lack of money) really were what ails the poor, supplying vast amounts of money surely would alleviate it. After thirty years of Great Society-like welfare programs, however, programs that have transferred countless billions – yes billions – of dollars to the poor, poverty is still winning the war we wage against it.
“We forgot that of the many reasons why people are poor, only a few lie outside their own control. . . . We also forgot to tie our charity more securely to the sincere efforts of the recipient. We mistakenly decided to give aid to all the poor rather than to the deserving and industrious poor, that is, to those who are poor through no fault of their own, or whose escape from poverty can never be accomplished by their own efforts. In doing so, we ignore St. Paul’s prudent scriptural principle: If a man will not work, he shall not eat (2 Thess. 3:10). We should have remembered that Christian love does not squander either its resources or itself in reckless disregard of individual character and actions. By obliterating the distinction between the deserving and the undeserving poor, we ran contrary to the will and practice of God, who treats the undeserving poor as objects not of mercy but of wrath.
“In other words, we forget that real love helps those who cannot help themselves, and that it refuses to subsidize sluggardliness or indolence by doing for others what they can and ought to do on their own. Christian love operates upon the premise that the defeat of poverty is a joint effort, or common endeavor, between the haves and the have nots, not a unilateral thrust by the haves only. The recipients of Christian charity ought to be either diligent workers or else unable. The undeserving poor must get nothing from their Christian neighbors but exhortation. To give something else is to do them moral injury, something Christian love does not do.
“As long as we fail to distinguish between the deserving and the undeserving poor, we teach others that poverty is an entitlement, a credential, and that the blessings of life and labor are yours for the asking or for the demanding, regardless of our contribution.”
Yes, that and other clear biblical teachings should be guiding us as we think about how we can best help the poor and needy. Yet so often believers will not even countenance these biblical principles, and will just slavishly go along with whatever the secular culture and government of the day is doing and thinking.
If we are to offer genuine models and examples of Christian compassion, we cannot simply mimic and accommodate to the surrounding secular ideologies and nostrums. We must implement genuine biblical principles in ways which will result in tangible and positive outcomes. But more of that can be found in Part Two of this article: https://billmuehlenberg.com/2013/01/09/christian-social-responsibility-welfare-and-the-state-part-two/