3 Ways Christians Can Disagree About What to Do About Poverty Politically

Disclaimer: Just to clarify, I’m not going to try and put forward any solution, any “true” answer, or definitive position on what Christians ought to be doing about poverty other than working to alleviate it. I’m not arguing for a particular political policy or party, or against a particular policy or party, despite what this may look like. I’m just trying to facilitate calmer, more empathetic, and Christ-like discussions within the Christian community by pointing a few things out.

Christians Should Care About Poverty
povertyLet’s start with the obvious. I don’t know that I really have to argue for this–I hope I don’t–but the Bible is idiot-proof clear that God’s people ought to care for the poor, work to relieve their suffering, help, etc. Depending on who you read, there’s anywhere from 300 to 2000 verses on the poor and justice. I’ll give three from the Torah, the Psalms, and the Gospels:

Deut. 15:7. If there is a poor man among you, one of your brothers, in any of the towns of the land which the LORD your God is giving you, you shall not harden your heart, nor close your hand to your poor brother; but you shall freely open your hand to him, and generously lend him sufficient for his need in whatever he lacks.

Ps. 140:12. I know that the LORD will maintain the cause of the afflicted, and justice for the poor.

Luke 4:16-21. And He came to Nazareth, where He had been brought up; and as was His custom, He entered the synagogue on the Sabbath, and stood up to read… “The Spirit of the LORD is upon Me, because He appointed Me to preach the gospel to the poor. He has sent Me to proclaim release to the captives, and recovery of sight to the blind, to set free those who are downtrodden, to proclaim the favorable year of the LORD… Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”

Clearly Jesus wants us to help the poor and he even sees his own mission having to do with that. Christians should want to help the poor–actually, not just want it, think nice thoughts about it, but actually do it. (Jas 2:14-17) The question becomes, “How?”

Typically the least controversial approach is through personal generosity, independent charity groups, and the direct involvement of the church in the fight against poverty. Even minimal historical digging and contemporary research will show that for 2,000 years the church has, for the most part, been known for its charity and benevolence to the most vulnerable in society. In fact, the name “charity” has its origin in the practice of Christian benevolence in connection with the Christian virtue of caritas. I don’t think anybody will argue that the local and global Church shouldn’t be directly helping the poor.

votingTo many Christians (we’ll call them “Group A”) one equally obvious answer is to vote politicians into office who will act legislatively to create programs aimed at helping the poor through various redistribution and assistance programs. It really seems to be the obvious solution. That’s the quickest way to leverage goods and services on behalf of the poor at the national scale. So, when election time rolls around, they look, they read, and think about which party or politician seems most committed towards that end and they do their Christian duty and vote for her/him.

At the same time, there is a significant chunk of Christians (we’ll call them “Group B”) who apparently don’t buy that answer. This actually seems to be a significant chunk of the American church and probably a majority of American Evangelicals. They tend to vote against politicians who favor those sorts of long-term assistance and poverty-related legislation and generally are opposed the large-scale, governmental efforts in this regard–often-times quite passionately. Now, unsurprisingly this sort of voting behavior on the part of Group B leaves Group A scratching its collective head. “I thought Christians were supposed to care about the poor? How could you possibly be opposed to Politician X, or policy Y?”

Three Reasons
What I’d like to do is just quickly point out three reasons (and there could easily be more) why a sane Christian, who has read all those verses about the poor, cares passionately about them, wants to relieve their suffering, and work for justice on their behalf, might still fall into Group B. I’m not necessarily endorsing these views, just trying to explain some of the thought process and logic of it so that Group A doesn’t immediately have to assume bad faith, or a hardness of heart against the poor on the part of Group B. So, here goes:

  1. Church Not Government- The first reason is that they might simply think that poverty-relief is not the job of the government, but rather that of the church. They read the Scriptures, see all of those injunctions to God’s people to care for the poor, and conclude that they are, in general, only for God’s people. The church should be taking care of the poor, working in the inner-cities, creating communities in which sharing is the rule and poverty-alleviating generosity is second nature. The government on the other hand is there to bear the sword, maintain legal justice, ensure the rule of law, and other such functions. In essence, it’s a difference in political theology, in their understanding of the role that God has ordained for the government and for the church. Some Group B Christians think that voting in extended-duration welfare-style legislation is a sort of unwarranted outsourcing, and maybe even an excuse for negligence on the part of the church in their call to serve the poor. The point is not to ignore the poor, but help them in the way they think God has called them.
  2. Government Okay But Ineffective- Another line of thinking might not make that sharp distinction between the church’s job and the state’s job, but might simply find the government ineffective at doing that job. This one shouldn’t be too hard to understand. Basically, the logic is that it’d be fine if the government helped out, but by and large it isn’t very good at doing that. In fact, often-times when you compare the effectiveness of government-run programs and that of church or independent non-profits, they just don’t line up well. Group B might cite cycles of dependence, the destruction of social structures, and various other side effects that are said to accompany government intervention. Now, this isn’t necessarily a specifically Christian way of thinking, but rather a pragmatic one that a Christian might be persuaded of. Again, the issue here is not whether Group B cares about the poor, but what they think will actually help the poor.
  3. Government But Not that Policy- This third reason is really kind of a special version of the second. You might find Christians who actually think that the government has a role to play in combating poverty, a strong one in fact, but still think that certain policies currently touted as main planks of a poverty-combating platform to be faulty and harmful. The recent big one I can think of is the Affordable Care Act. Now, correct or not, I know people who generally think the government should be involved in this sort of thing, actually want health care reform, but simply thought the Act was/is a bad way to go about it–that it might actually be detrimental in some respects. They want the poor to get health care, good health care, but they think this Act doesn’t do it in a sustainable or helpful fashion and so their opposition to it is, in fact, motivated precisely because of their concern for the poor. There are probably other examples, but this was the obvious one.

I fully acknowledge at this point that there are likely many Christians in Group B who don’t vote the way they do for these reasons, but rather for very selfish reasons unconnected to any principled theological concerns. (Actually, I’m planning on writing a post about reasons Christians should never use for opposing poverty legislation soon.) Still, these are three possible, plausible, non-poor-hating reasons for being a Group B Christian.

Now at this point you might be thinking this was one big apology for Christians voting conservative and Republican and really just a stealth argument against Democrats. You’re free to go ahead and think that. I mean, that’s not what I’m doing, but I have no control over your mental habits. Once again, in order to compensate for my incompetence as a communicator or the sheer perversity of some readers, I’m just trying to point out that there are processes of thought by which someone might arrive at a Group B voting pattern, while still having read all those verses about poverty with an aim to obey them.

Of course, it may be that all three of those stances are flawed whether in their approach to the scriptures, their understanding of the pragmatic situation, or their judgment about particular pieces of legislation. Who knows? Maybe the Affordable Care Act really is a great plan. (Please don’t argue either for or against in the comments. It’s not that I don’t care, but I kinda don’t for the purposes of this blog.) All I’m trying to do is ensure that Christians in Group A don’t immediately assume or accuse Christians in Group B of not caring about the poor. Instead, you should work to engage them theologically about the role of the government, or informationally about real effects about various programs or policies.

And really, it’s not even just this issue. Generally-speaking, assuming bad faith motives like “they just hate the poor”, as the only possible reason someone might disagree with you politically, or in any other area, is generally not a winning strategy, either for understanding or communicating. I guess what I’m trying to foster, in my own inadequate way, is the intellectual empathy Matthew Lee Anderson’s been talking about lately. If we’re going to have a real conversation about any of this, especially in the body of Christ, we need to be able to at least try to understand where the other person is coming from, even if you still end up thinking they’re wrong.

Well, this blog’s too long already and I don’t know how to end it so there.

Soli Deo Gloria

19 thoughts on “3 Ways Christians Can Disagree About What to Do About Poverty Politically

  1. Pingback: PowerLinks - 01.21.13 | Acton PowerBlog
  2. Very nicely done! I and a group B Christian and appreciate your attempting to understand before criticizing. However, I would like to add two more reasons to your list for being a group B Christian: 1) state redistribution can hurt the poor by making them dependent on state aid and 2) a freer market does more to help the poor than all of the charity combined.
    On #2, we have witnessed a huge decrease in poverty in the world, the rate cut in half, according to the World Bank. Almost all of that improvement took place in India and China through freer markets, not through charity or state redistribution of wealth (which both countries tried for many decades).
    In fact, the rise of the West from regular periods of starvation to incredible levels of wealth happened through freer markets and respect for private property, not through charity.

    • Thanks for stopping by, Roger. That’s very helpful commentary. On the cycles of dependence, that’s been one of the things that has most troubled me simply because of the dehumanizing, and disempowering aspects of it. Actually, in the article I linked an interesting piece by, I think, Nicholas Kristof, no conservative, who actually went into the problem with dependence cycles and currently-instituted welfare programs.

    • “state redistribution can hurt the poor by making them dependent on state aid”

      I am still trying to fully understand this line of reasoning. Doesn’t it assume that without welfare, people would be self-reliant? And doesn’t the fact that so many people are poor prove that they are not, in fact, self-reliant?

      The dependency argument (regardless of where the aid comes from) seems to conclude with the idea that removing assistance for the poor would eliminate poverty–regardless of the fact that there are more people than jobs (at least in America) and there are considerable inequities in the concentration of wealth/resources.

      I know some cite that more local distribution of welfare, namely through the church, can be more effective than big government programs, and there is probably some truth to that–in theory. But if the rate of giving among Christians (2.5% per capita) is so far below the 10% the Bible instructs, why should anyone take the “church-should-do-welfare” argument seriously?

      If someone has a good read that explains the dependency argument, please share.

      • J. Palmer,

        You assume too much from my brief post. You assume that I follow the unrealistic thinking of the straw man capitalist that socialists have created. No, I don’t assume that without welfare people will be self-reliant. But many people on welfare would become self-reliant if they did not have welfare as an excuse. I assume a Biblical view of human nature, that people are naturally sinful and lazy and many of those go on welfare. Welfare can encourage bad behavior that leads to individuals becoming poor.

        And no, the argument does not lead to the conclusion that “removing assistance for the poor would eliminate poverty.” No group of people in the history of mankind other than socialists have ever believed that humans can end poverty.

        There are more people than jobs because we live in an increasingly socialist society. The regulations and taxes to implement socialism destroys incentives to create new jobs. As for the “considerable inequities in the concentration of wealth/resources,” I agree, but I also know that it has happened because of increasingly socialist policies. I know it’s ironic, but the inequities and concentration of wealth in the old USSR and Communist China were far greater than in the more capitalist West. Socialism concentrates wealth/power in the hands of the politically well-connected and that is where you see the concentrations of wealth in the US for the most part, with a few exceptions.

        The church isn’t the solution. There aren’t enough regular church attenders in the country to make a difference. The solution lies in private charity from the wealthy. Wealthy people usually give much of their wealth to charities. Bill Gates and Warren Buffet have given most of theirs to charity. Unfortunately, most charity goes to college alma maters because the state has a monopoly on the poor. Of course, that giving does help poor students go to college. But take away state aid to the poor and encourage the wealthy to give to charities that help the poor and we would see less dependency fostered by people who could be self-reliant if motivated. There will always be poor people who need charity.

        Economic growth has done more for poor people in the past generation than all of the charity added up has done in the past century. China and India are prime examples. Together they have lifted over 500 million from starvation to middle class in their societies. But job creation requires free markets.

    • Freer market is a son of capitalistic slavery. No country has developed thanks to that system, except those who were likely to develop thanks to their already superior positions in society. And using World Bank’s statement to formulate an argument is the wrong way, for those who are on the receiving end of World Bank’s wicked schemes know that it is the modern day version of justified slavery clothed in do-goodism, as of old.

      • Roger,
        Thank you for the response. I was not purposefully making any assumptions about you–just the theoretical framework you mentioned.

        I agree that “many people on welfare would become self-reliant if they did not have welfare as an excuse.” The Kristof article linked in the original post above does a good job of making that point, but I still think that “many” is a minority of those receiving assistance. And even if it were a majority of poor people who were unnecessarily dependent on welfare, the answer seems to be that we should work toward removing perverse incentives, not removing welfare.

        Your argument seems inconsistent as on one hand, you claim that a socialist agenda is what perpetuates poverty in America by stifling growth–but on the other hand, you point to the economic growth that has done so much for the poor.

        My perspective would be that the economic growth helped the poor not solely through job creation, but by the progressive taxation of the new the revenue which is redistributed (in part at least) to the poor.

        You can claim that America’s economic growth has come in spite of the socialist agenda, but if you argue that America has become more socialist over the past 20 or 30 years, the huge gains in productivity would severely undermine that argument.

      • Yeah I assumed the assumptions you made were about capitalism and not me. I didn’t take it personally. But those assumptions are all wrong and fabricated by socialists.

        The only way to remove perverse incentives with charity is to make it personal; the giver must know the receiver. That’s why charity works well in families and even tribes, but fails miserably at the impersonal level of the state.

        My argument is not inconsistent if you understand economic history. Free market capitalism lifted the West out of poverty. Freer markets, though not full blown capitalism, has done the same for hundreds of millions in China and India. Those are indisputable historical facts. Even Karl Marx was honest enough to attribute to capitalism the enormous increase in wealth of the West in his time.

        However, since 1929 the US has become increasing socialistic. Median household income has stagnated since 1973. Inequality has increased since 1973 in spite of massive increases in welfare after Johnson’s Great Society legislation.

        I realize some Christians love to hate economics, but there is a lot of truth in the field. If you understood economics you would understand that it’s impossible to reduce poverty through progressive taxation. To the ignorant it would seem so, but progressive taxation reduces investment that creates jobs. You sacrifice jobs for charity. Economics has proven that the only way to reduce poverty long term is through more jobs and greater productivity. There is no other way.

        Those who praise progressive taxation are merely blind to the costs. They assume that it has no costs, only benefits. Every policy must be analyzed on a cost/benefit basis, not as if it has no costs. Progressive taxation costs jobs.

      • “…progressive taxation reduces investment that creates jobs.”

        Historically speaking, corporate taxes are far lower now than they were when America’s middle class was booming in the 1950′s and there is still plenty of wealth at the top that gets invested in offshore accounts and outsourced labor. The investments in foreign labor does nothing to help poverty in America, and based on the wages and living conditions in India, China, etc., I don’t think one could say it is doing much to improve the human condition in those countries either.

        So in order for the capitalist dream to be fully realized, I imagine you would argue something along the lines of eliminating the minimum wage to bring overseas jobs to America. Not a very convincing argument when today’s minimum wage results in poverty for many full time workers.

        The bottom line is that inequality costs jobs. When the rich (corporations or people) choose not to “invest” (if you want to call it that) in domestic job creation (which is one thing I think we do agree is not happening) their money grows anyway, and the wealth at the bottom in America continues to evaporate as other countries with fewer regulations exploit their own people as America’s proxy labor force.

  3. Pingback: 3 Cruddy Reasons No Christian Should Never Use to Deny Aid to the Poor « Reformedish
  4. Great stuff. Just to extend the thought, this is just as applicable to right-wingers if you just mentally replace “the poor” with “the unborn”

    • Thanks! And yes, at the point the argument becomes one about the role of government in protecting life, whether the unborn are people deserving of protection just like everybody else, etc. I agree. I mean, on that one, l clearly lean right, but yes, the tone of the argument should be one governed by the same considerations I outlined here with respect to poverty.

  5. Wow, really enjoyed this. I’m doing a paper on Democrats vs. Republicans and I liked the way this blog summed up a lot of the issues. I agree with you a hundred percent; it was refreshing to see my own silent opinions in writing for the first time.

  6. Another potential line of reasoning that some Christians take against redistribution of income to the poor posits that any redistribution of wealth is, fundamentally, stealing. And stealing is wrong. This is related to your first point–that is, that the church, not the government should be in the business of aiding the poor. When the church gives, it gives freely. When the government coerces giving, it is stealing. For a much fuller account of this argument, see Herbert Schlossberg, /Idols for Destruction: Christian Faith and its Confrontation with American Society/ (1983). [For all of those who wish to object, please I am not convinced that redistribution of income should be equated with stealing either, at least not in a democratic society. But I would not accuse Schlossberg of bad faith or of hating the poor.]

    • That’s an excellent point. Church scholars at the University of Salamanca, Spain, the leading university in the 16th century in Europe, argued that the state had the right to collect taxes to perform its primary role of protecting the life, liberty and property of the citizens. Any taxes it collect for other things was theft. Charity was solely a private matter. Wikipedia has a good intro to the school of Salamanca. Until the 20th century, Christian nations rejected progressive taxation as a violation of the rule of law under which the state must treat all citizens equally. Helping the poor in the Bible is a sign of one’s devotion to God and should not be forced by the power of the state.

  7. J. Palmer, Corporate taxes may be fairly low compared to the 1950’s, but you have to compare effective taxes. There may have been more deductions available to businesses then and that could make today’s effective rate higher. In addition, US corps don’t compete with the 1950’s. They compete with corps in other countries today and the US has the highest corp tax rate in the industrialized world. And businesses have much greater costs due to regulations and healthcare. So businesses and wealthy people are investing where they can make a decent profit and that’s the way it should be. If you want their investment you need to improve the investment climate in the US.

    Anyway, corps pass on the tax to the consumers. The only reason to favor corporate over personal taxes is to deceive voters into thinking the corp and not them pays.

    As for investment in India and China helping, you need to ask the 500 million + people who are no longer on the verge of starvation.

    No, I wouldn’t eliminate the minimum wage because it is usually about 50 cents below the market wage for entry level jobs. You have been fooled by politicians for decades. They always set the minimum below the market wage.

    No, inequality does not cost jobs. That is another socialist myth. Yes, competition with low paid foreign workers does hurt in some industries, but as economics has proven for over a century cheap imports create jobs in other sectors as consumers spend their savings on goods they couldn’t afford before they had cheap imports. Economics has proven for over a century that free trade creates far more jobs than it destroys, though it does destroy some.

    You have the socialist line down very well. Now you need to open your mind a tiny bit and learn some real economics, especially micro, which is the most sound side. You will be surprised what the truth really is like.

  8. Like many Christians I want to see poor people learn to work and take care of themselves, however I don’t agree with most of those posting here who think the way to achieve this is to stop welfare. This issue is much more complex, you are dealing with generational poverty and welfare reliance, substance abuse, child abuse. It is a shame to make this issue about capitalism and welfare reform. The way I see it is the government is going to take my tax dollars and spend it how they see fit. I would rather see the money spent on helping poor people gain insurance, food, housing etc. instead of having it spent in Iraq or some other country. It is not our place to judge another man or woman who is in financial trouble, however I do think it is my place as a Christian to try to help when I can.

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