Bill Muehlenberg's commentary on issues of the day...

Christian Social Responsibility, Welfare, and the State, Part Two

Jan 9, 2013

Historically it has always been the church and other mediating agencies which have mainly helped the poor. Only recently have expanding states significantly usurped that role. For centuries it was not the main responsibility of the state to show compassion and implement Christian virtues: that was the job of Christians and Christian institutions.

Yet many believers today have abandoned all that and now look ever so reliantly to the State for implementing their faith-based concerns. They strangely think that the secular state can do just as good a job as the churches have over the years.

Whatever gave them that idea is beyond me. And why in the world do believers think some government bureaucrat sitting in an office in Canberra or Washington is better placed to help the poor and needy than a local church, or neighbour, or community group?

Let me offer some further thoughts on such issues from other Christian thinkers. Quite recently a Catholic public policy expert, Father Robert Sirico, penned an important volume entitled Defending the Free Market: The Moral Case For a Free Economy (Regnery, 2012). In it he warned of “desiccated compassion” and “desiccated Christianity”.

He said this: “The charitable institutions we take for granted all come out of the Judeo-Christian tradition’s profound respect for the individual human person who is invested with an innate dignity. The tragedy is that today the welfare state in the West is only a secularized, materialistic, and desiccated form of a richer, more personal, and more effective form of compassion. That human solidarity was rooted in a love so potent that it inspired armies of men and women to abandon the familiarity of home and family to seek out and save (in both the material and spiritual sense) those who were lost.

“The modern welfare state, in contrast, hardly inspires anyone – whether the recipient or the provider – to do anything. Instead of neighbor acting on behalf of neighbour in need, we have clients of unwilling benefactors – on the one hand, people who are the receptacles of services, on the other hand, taxpayers coerced into supporting those services. And neither the ‘donors’ nor the beneficiaries have probably ever even met each other. In place of generous souls animated by love of neighbour, we see a soulless bureaucracy run by distant bureaucrats and funded by politicians seeking out constituents by promising benefits – a system that, in the words of Pope Benedict XVI, ‘ultimately become[s] a mere bureaucracy incapable of guaranteeing the very thing which the suffering person – every person – needs: namely, loving personal concern’.”

He notes how the growing welfare state in fact poses very real threats to the church. Here are two of these threats: “The burgeoning welfare state hinders the church from fulfilling an essential part of its mission as servant to the world, relegating the church to the role of lobbyist and making it vulnerable to pressure from secularists in the political arena….

“When the church becomes dependent on secular governments that are increasingly hostile to religion, many of the agencies operated by religiously affiliated institutions lose their moral rudder and cease to have a moral impact that can ameliorate the underlying moral and spiritual causes of economic poverty.”

Quite so. Yet so many believers seem oblivious to all this. They almost seem happy to have the secular state supplant the compassionate church. Indeed, some even foolishly argue that the church and community groups cannot meet all the needs, so we must just handball all this over to the state.

As Siroco says, “When people realize that they can rely on the state to meet human needs, a society’s moral core is eroded as even Christians’ incentive to personally help others diminishes and they cease to see themselves as personal, moral actors on behalf of those in need.”

That is indeed another big problem here with the welfare state mentality. Christians think that because they are paying their taxes or have voted for a certain party or policy, they have done their bit to help the indigent. They have utterly swept away their own responsibilities and obligations, and have mistakenly felt the state is now their saviour, letting them off the hook.

They are certainly not thinking like biblical Christians here. They have simply capitulated to the surrounding culture and its unwarranted belief that the state is the source of redemption and all that is good. They have abandoned their responsibilities and turned the secular state into an idol.

At the end of the day I prefer the biblical worldview here to the secular humanist one. And I prefer policies which have been proven to actually help the poor, not just offer rhetoric, good intentions, and good feelings. But I have written about all this elsewhere. For those interested, see here for starters:

To conclude, let me offer a story which comes from Dr Nancy Pearcey in her valuable book Total Truth (Crossway, 2004). She too takes to task those Christians who have abandoned the biblical worldview and have forgotten their own heritage and responsibilities as believers.

She looks at several believers who have put feet to their biblical worldview and made a real impact in their world. She introduces three such individuals with these words: “The best way to drive out a bad worldview is by offering a good one, and Christians need to move beyond criticizing culture to creating culture. That is the task God originally created humans to do, and in the process of sanctification we are meant to recover that task. Whether we work with our brains or with our hands, whether we are analytical or artistic, whether we work with people or with things, in every calling we are culture-creators, offering up our work as a service to God.”

Here then is one such example she offers, one which is very relevant to the discussion at hand:

“A final example is Marvin Olasky, who unexpectedly and decisively trans-formed the welfare debate. A slim, bespectacled former Marxist from a Russian Jewish background, Olasky is a journalism professor and editor of World magazine. But in the early 1990s he received a grant to write a book, so he holed up in a small office at the Heritage Foundation in Washington, D.C., just two blocks from where I was living at the time. When I walked over for a visit, he told me about the project that would catapult him to fame a few years later.

“American welfare policy had come to an impasse: Though welfare had done some good for those who needed only a temporary boost to get back on their feet, it had also created a permanent underclass – the chronically poor, whose poverty was related to social pathologies such as alcohol addiction, drug abuse, fatherless homes, and crime. Everyone on both sides of the political aisle agreed that welfare needed to be reformed, but no one knew how to do it.

“It was Olasky who discovered the answer, and he did it by analyzing the traditional Christian approach to charity. In researching the vast proliferation of Christian charities in the nineteenth century, often dubbed the Benevolent Empire, Olasky found that the churches specialized in personal assistance that fulfilled the literal meaning of compassion – ‘suffering with’ others. They didn’t just hand out money; they helped people change their lives, focusing on job training and education. They required that the poor do some useful work, giving them a chance to rebuild their dignity by making a worthwhile contribution to society. They helped outcasts to build a social network–to reconnect with family and church for ongoing support and accountability. Most of all, they addressed the moral and spiritual needs that lie at the heart of dysfunctional behavior.

“Clearly, this goes beyond what any government can do. In fact, government aid can actually make things worse. By handing out welfare checks impersonally to all who qualify, without addressing the underlying behavioral problems, the government in essence ‘rewards’ antisocial and dysfunctional patterns. And any behavior the government rewards will generally tend to increase. As one perceptive nineteenth-century critic noted, government assistance is a ‘mighty solvent to sunder the ties of kinship, to quench the affections of family, to suppress in the poor themselves the instinct of self-reliance and self-respect – to convert them into paupers.’

“The churches’ successful approach is described in Olasky’s book The Tragedy of American Compassion, where he coined the term compassionate conservatism. The book was picked up by former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich, who liked it so much that he distributed it to all incoming freshmen in Congress. Overnight, Olasky began to be feted as the guru who had discovered a way out of the welfare impasse. He became an advisor to George W. Bush, who campaigned for the presidency on the slogan of ‘compassionate conservatism,’ promising to create a special office to support faith-based initiatives. Though policy analysts continue to debate the details, Olasky has brought about a decisive paradigm shift in America’s approach to welfare.

“The successes of people like Plantinga, Larson, and Olasky can inspire all of us to take our theistic beliefs out of hiding and into the public sphere. If Christianity really is true, then it will yield a better approach in every discipline.

“Why do many Christians still compartmentalize their faith in the private sphere? Why do they accept the secular/sacred split that limits the revolutionary impact of God’s Word? The only way to break free from this confining grid is to trace it back to its roots – to diagnose where it came from, how it grew over time, and how it came to shape the way most Christians think today. In the next chapter, we will sleuth our own history for clues to why we think the way we do. How can we recover the conviction that Christianity is not only religious truth but total truth?”

Quite so. Instead of simply abandoning our biblical worldview, in part by placing all our faith in secular statism, we need to recover our biblical worldview, in all areas of life. And that certainly includes the important area of helping the poor and needy. Christians of all people need to go back to their roots here, think biblically, and learn the lessons of church history.

Simply soaking up the secular wisdom of the surrounding culture on this issue or any other is just not good enough. We are called to represent Christ in all areas of life, and that means using biblical principles and truths to confront the pressing issues of the day – not just giving up, and thinking the state will solve all our problems and do everything for us.

Part One of this article can be found here:

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8 Responses to Christian Social Responsibility, Welfare, and the State, Part Two

  • Awesome!!!
    Tobi Martins

  • It seems to be a consistent principle that money and gifts are no substitute for love and involvement. You only have to look at the very-rich to note how corrupt, degenerate and miserable many become. In our busy, hurried lives the easy option is to tick a box, donate some cash and get on. The State can make money available to people who have fallen on hard times with the intention of alleviating their circumstances. This is good but it needs the additional element of the intervention of caring people to mentor, formulate plans, and encourage with practical help and positive visions to aspire to. We can really only do these positive things if we all slow down a bit! This way, maybe we can give strength and support “from the ground floor up” which is where the church normally comes into its own.

    Unfortunately Local Governments who make up the State are awarding themselves very high salaries which gives them inordinate powers. That’s when we need to guard against their good intentions hardening into intrusive directives and intimidation. All of which shows that money on its own is not the answer.

    Rachel Smith, UK

  • Brilliant, brilliant, brilliant.

    Servaas Hofmeyr

  • I guess it would be fair to say, this all goes hand in hand with bigger and bigger government too. While the Christians relax into this… letting Gov take care of every thing. Almost perpetual motion?
    Last Sunday our minister announced the New Year will be different. He said he had a 4 part plan to implement. He said he wants to get serious about reaching our local community.
    This is the sort of talk I like, but I’m sure some don’t.
    Daniel Kempton

  • Facelessness is a huge contributor for getting welfare wrong.
    If we were to reconstruct what we have lost in the area of authentic christian compassion, we must be prepared for a long haul. Welfarism has been around for decades and the fibre of family and faithful friendships have not been broken over night. Neither will they repair over night even though right teaching and knowledge of who is responsible for what could be taught over night. And of course welfarism has created its own raft of needs which would not be present or at least not to such a degree in a fully functioning community.

    We have had the privilege in the last few years to support a blind school in India through people who personally know the school and its staff and therefore the situation. The children are all taught to knit and produce garments the quality of which has to be competitive to that of the open market. I think, these people have a lot to teach us of how to trust God and do things biblically.
    I would like to go there in person one day and be part of the day to day running and the prayerful expectancy of and the deliverance of the provision of the Living Lord.
    Many blessings
    Ursula Bennett

  • To add to my last comment I would like to say that in the disability sector it is already common practice to reckon the disability pension as part of wages when people are working in sheltered workshops or whatever they are called these days.
    I know there is the extra consideration of reduced productivity, but these places are also heavily government subsidised.
    If those, who we would consider the deserving poor have their government payments considered part of their wages when they work, why are those with full potential to work not happy to contribute their labour in exchange for part of their payments?
    Many blessings
    Ursula Bennett

  • Something could potentially be done to reduce the amount of welfare that gets spent on non-essentials. I think you (Bill) have previously mentioned a voucher system of some sort that would hopefully prevent welfare being spent on paytv, slot machines, cigarettes, pornography, alcohol, drugs, strippers etc. Money that isn’t earned is so much easier to throw away without thought.

    Mario Del Giudice

  • Mario, part of the NT Intervention is Income Management, whereby a portion of welfare payments can only be spent on essential items under a Basics Card presentation. This was designed to prohibit the full amount being spent on alcohol, so that food and children’s needs are protected.

    Russell Guy

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