Special Report

Christianity and the Welfare State

This is one area where the religious left insists on no separation between church and state -- perhaps it should heed FDR's warnings.

By 12.10.09

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The old Religious Left and the new Evangelical Left rapturously support Obamacare, though some hardliners are sourly upset that it does not include a direct, British-style "single payer" system. Mostly they accept that the public option is an important first step toward their dream of government-controlled health care.

Religious Leftists admit to almost no limits on the state's authority over the private economy, including health care, welfare and charity. Typically they cite a few Bible verses about "caring for the least of these," and assume the Scripture is an automatic mandate for government control. Whether or note the state is actually the providential agency for all welfare and charity, much less whether it is pragmatically the most effective, rarely troubles these liberal religionists.

A recent argument comes from Jim Wallis's Evangelical Left Sojourners, whose chief executive officer Chuck Gutenson decried resistance to endless statism as simply "selfishness." But at least he did try to describe the Deity's purpose for the state.

Gutenson admitted that "political conservatives" grant that Scripture requires concern for the poor but believe the obligation is upon individuals and not governments. A former theologian at Asbury Seminary in Kentucky, a Methodist school, Gutenson cited Colossians 1:16, which briefly describes "rulers and authorities" as having been, like all things, "created by him and for him," i.e. God.

"The obvious implication is that ruling authorities are intended to serve God's agenda," Gutenson surmised. "Now, it would be passing strange to think that God had created/ordained ruling authorities to serve his agenda, but then conclude that one of the most consistent themes of scripture (concern for those on the margins of our societies -- the poor, the widow, the orphan, etc.) is excluded from the purview of those ruling authorities."

Conservatives often insist that caring for the needy should be "voluntary," Gutenson noted. But he cited Old Testament civil laws that included debt cancellation and release of bondsmen that were not "options" but ruler-enforced considerations for the needy. Lest these commands be seen as limited to the ancient Hebrew theocracy only, Gutenson noted pagan Sodom was destroyed for having failed to "hear the cry of the needy." God destroyed the city-state for its welfare failures, evidently.

Relying on this evidence, Gutenson concluded that "selfishness, the need to be in control -- these are all reasons why we resist the fact that God ordains governments to have a role in caring for the least." He admitted that these Scriptural arguments for government welfarism were not the best ones. But finding biblical arguments for opposing "government having a role in caring for the needy" is "much harder," he insisted.

Separately on his blog, Gutenson asserted a "fundamental and irremedial tension between capitalism and Christian faith." After all, the Bible, calls for "interest of others and not self-interest." In contrast, "captalism elevates and sanctifies self-interest." He concluded: "Christians, who make libertarian freedom the summum bonum have, I suspect, become much more Lockean political liberals than Christian." 

Gutenson of course is right that Biblical religion does not sanctify "self-interest." But the biblical tradition asserts that humanity is sinful and innately motivated by it. Utopias that assume otherwise always fail. Free market systems often harness base passions and redirect them for the common good. Limited government similarly assumes that men are not angels and that no individual or group, no matter how noble, can be trusted with unrestricted control.

Liberal religionists like Gutenson with soaring collectivist dreams often deny, or at least struggle, with admitting humanity's fallen nature. They also tend to ignore providential roles for non-state institutions like the family, church, and private philanthropy. Unrestricted welfare states tend to displace and sometimes extinguish these other divinely ordained agencies.

Gutenson cited but did not dwell on Romans 13, in which St. Paul declared that God had armed the state with the "sword" to uphold justice. The Religious Left, overwhelmingly pacifist, never likes this Scripture. Oddly, liberal religionists never seem to realize that the Welfare State is itself coercive and ultimately enforced with the sword.Franklin Roosevelt, a lifelong active Episcopalian, is the secular patron saint of 20th century American liberalism. But even he cautioned against unrestricted federal welfarism. In his first year of office, he addressed the Hyde Park Methodist Church in his New York neighborhood. "Last spring, when I went to Washington, there were many people who came forward with the thought, verbally expressed, that the government should take over all the troubles of the country," he told the congregation. But he observed "that is not exactly the American way of doing things. Some countries in the world may find it more convenient to put all their burdens on one person, but we do not. So I took the position then, and I think the country has understood the reasons for it, that the Government of the Nation has a responsibility, yes, but a responsibility which should be exercised only if the smaller units of the country have done everything that they possibly could and if that everything has proved insufficient."

FDR told the Methodists that "before extending federal assistance to states or to communities, we ask the question: Have the people in this community done their share?" Communities can help the needy through their "taxing powers," he said. But "they can do an enormous amount of work for the relief of suffering humanity through their churches." The Federal Government should intervene to ensure that "nobody starves" only after local alternatives have failed, Roosevelt declared. "That has been the principle which we are trying to extend to all the work of our government, to see to it that every man and woman and, I might add, child has done his share toward the common good." He concluded that the "men and women and children who make up the congregations of the churches have shown a splendid spirit in these days." 

Some may argue that FDR did not always abide by his own principle of limited government intervention. But at least he admitted the principle. The Religious and Evangelical Left rarely do. 

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About the Author

Mark Tooley is president of the Institute on Religion and Democracy in Washington, D.C. and author of Methodism and Politics in the Twentieth CenturyYou can follow him on Twitter @markdtooley.