This is a somewhat political post but in light of a few conversations on “What Would Jesus Cut” (i.e. in the U.S. Federal budget, as if Jesus spent a lot of time writing policy papers on the proper role and scope of government in a free republic), I think it is appropriate to step back from the emotionalism and take a hard look at the topic of government spending and faith. While I am typically far more critical of my fellow conservative believers, I was inspired this morning to look at some of the statements made by Christians on the political left and what better place to look than the leading voice of that group, Jim Wallis of Sojourners.
Please let me be clear. I have no reasonable doubt that Jim Wallis is a believer. Certainly a believer that gets a lot of stuff wrong (as I do) but also one who appears to love Jesus and who is often correct in his criticisms of the political right. Where he often stumbles is when he moves away from critiquing the “Religious Right” and advocates replacing it with the “Religious Left”. This is from his February essay, Budget Cuts and Bad Faith :
I believe that vaccines that save children’s lives; bed nets that protect them from malaria; and food that keeps their families from starving are more important to Jesus than tax cuts for the rich; bigger subsidies for corporations; and more weapons in a world already filled with conflict. I also believe that tested and effective domestic programs that clearly help to lift people out of poverty are more reflective of the compassion of Christ than tax and spending policies that make the super-rich even richer. And I don’t believe, as the Republicans keep saying, that the best way to help everybody is to keep helping the super-rich. That’s not smart economics and, as we say in the evangelical community, it’s not biblical. So many of us in the faith community are ready to make a moral argument against the proposed budget cuts to our members of Congress, especially to those who claim to be people of faith.
Very eloquent and impassioned to be sure. I would agree in part and have said so. There seems to be an odd disconnect between evangelicals who claim to follow the Lamb who was slain, the Prince of Peace, and at the same time support military spending and the death penalty without question. I also am a big fan of vaccines for children, bed nets and food for the poor. Whether that is something that is properly the responsibility of the Federal government is a separate issue. Where I am questioning the whole line of Jim’s thinking is the reliance on the Federal government to facilitate the execution of justice as a Kingdom priority. There is a line that is crossed when we start to see the secular government being assigned as proxy for the church.
There are two problems with this theory of government as proxy for the church. One is theological. The Bible spends a great deal of time speaking about the poor and the responsibility of Christians to aid those in need, especially among fellow believers (see Acts 4:35 as well as the multiple places where we see Paul taking up a collection for the church in Jerusalem). The Bible is clear that we are called to care, sacrificially, willingly and joyfully, for the least of these, to be concerned about the poor, to not have Christians in need in the Body, to visit the widow and orphan in their affliction. The Bible says nothing about taking money away from people, believers and unbelievers alike, by confiscating that money through taxes and under the threat of imprisonment and giving it to other people as a means to alleviate poverty. It seems that the Biblical message is that poverty is one of the signs of a sinful world, something that is never going to be “conquered” but something that requires sacrifice on the part of Christians to help one another. Advocating taxing the “super-rich” to support the poor is an abdication of our responsibility and without Biblical support.
The other problem is practical. It doesn’t work. At all. In fact, it is pretty apparent to all but the most dense that the “War on Poverty”, i.e. transferring wealth from one person to another after filtering it through a bureaucracy and doing so under the threat of imprisonment, has been not only a failure but in many ways has made things worse for the poor.
Those on the political Left certainly have emotion on their side so we on the Right have to rely on old fashioned facts and reason. For example, this is from a great article this morning from the conservative Heritage Foundation, Morning Bell: How Many Trillions Must We Waste on the War on Poverty?:
Which American politician said the following? “The lessons of history, confirmed by the evidence immediately before me, show conclusively that continued dependence upon relief induces a spiritual and moral disintegration fundamentally destructive to the national fibre. To dole out relief in this way is to administer a narcotic, a subtle destroyer of the human spirit.” Had to be a mean-spirited Tea Party conservative, right? Wrong. President Franklin Roosevelt included these words in his 1935 State of the Union Address.
Twenty-nine years later, the American welfare state was still relatively small, consuming only 1.2 percent of U.S. gross domestic product (GDP). The American family was also still intact, with 93 percent of children born into stable families. But then President Lyndon B. Johnson’s War on Poverty happened. Forty-five years and $16 trillion later, thanks to big government, poverty is winning. Thanks to over $900 billion a year (over 5 percent of GDP) of spending on over 70 means-tested welfare programs spread over 13 government agencies, more than 40 million Americans currently receive food stamps, poverty is higher today than it was in the 1970s, and 40 percent of all children are born outside of marriage.
One of the cruel ironies of pie-in-the-sky thinking about the Federal government fixing poverty is that not only does it not help the poor but it actually promotes generational poverty. I read somewhere else this morning, from the delightfully named Mortimer Zuckerman, that some 50,000,000 Americans are receiving some sort of tax-payer funded program (food stamps, unemployment, etc.). That is 1 of every 6 Americans and that is the fruit of 45 years of trillions of dollars in a misguided and failed “War On Poverty”. Not only is the church not called to care for the poor through political means, those very means tend to make things worse!
Christians should and must do more to be selfless and care for the least of these. We need to stop seeing one another as competitors but rather as co-laborers. We really need to question our support for, not mere acceptance of, military spending and capital punishment. We really, really need to stop confusing the church and the state.