Tuesday, October 04, 2011

Will we step back up?

Back in the day most of the social welfare in this country was handled by the church. I work with a lot of hospitals and it is amazing how many of them are affiliated with a church organization, whether Roman Catholic, Jewish, Lutheran, Methodist, Baptist, etc. Before the modern welfare state the church was probably the single biggest source of social services. Over the last century, starting in the aftermath of the Great Depression, that role gradually has moved from the church to the government. First with the “New Deal” and later the “Great Society”, the American social contract changed from a private sector focus to a decidedly security based and government focused arrangement. As the social contract has changed, the church has quietly slid into the background and become more inward focused. Whether the church was pushed out or abdicated is a topic for another day but the end result is what I am concerned with.

The results of a century of social welfare spending are stark. The government is broke. There simply is no money and no political appetite for higher taxes. In Michigan the state has announced that cash welfare assistance will be capped at 48 months. For quite a few families this means that they have already exhausted their cash assistance and are being cut off immediately with more to follow each month. Michigan has been one of the hardest hit states and still finds itself in a pretty dire situation. This means that many families are going to be in trouble. Sure you can say they brought it on themselves and only have themselves to blame but will the church look the other way? The major Federal entitlement programs, especially Medicare and Medicaid, are eating up an ever larger portion of the Federal budget and are running toward financial ruin. As a result we find ourselves in a situation unique in my lifetime where there appears to be an appetite for real entitlement change and a potential dramatic reordering of the social contract in America. Political conservatives are giddy with the prospects of the 2012 election.

In 2011 we as the church find ourselves in an odd situation. The church, while still a source for social welfare services has largely been removed from the role of being a primary provider for the needy. Sure there are still lots of groups who have that as a primary mission (the Salvation Army for example) and a lot of organizations like Samaritans Purse focus on disaster relief, often overseas but for the most part mercy ministry is an add on or an afterthought or completely absent. Perhaps a church might sponsor a food pantry or a denomination may have a relief group like the Mennonite Central Committee but generally speaking among American churches the primary focus is not on social welfare but is on the internal operations of the church. More specifically on the Sunday morning service and all that goes with that and then also on the other programs of the church (Sunday school, VBS, small group/Bible studies, etc.). This has worked up until recently in our society because for all of the rancor and disdain directed at “the gubmint” the reality on the ground is that the social welfare system has made it much easier for the church to be inward focused and prioritize the sustaining of the local church instead of serving the needs of the poor. For example, in 2009 the Southern Baptist Convention reported total receipts of nearly $12,000,000,000 from its approximately 45,000 churches or about a quarter of a million per church on average (obviously a few really big churches skew that number!). The vast majority of that giving stays within the church. Christians bring their “tithe” to the “storehouse” and that is where the church “stores” those offerings, in salaries, in buildings and in bank accounts.

We have been comfortable with this set up for decades, even if we didn’t admit it. Much as we love to hate the government, we also love being able to spend money on ourselves. We comfort ourselves with verses like these:
For you always have the poor with you, and whenever you want, you can do good for them. But you will not always have me. (Mark 14:17)

For even when we were with you, we would give you this command: If anyone is not willing to work, let him not eat. (2 Thessalonians 3:10)
We provide ourselves theological cover and likewise view any sort of call to social justice as skirting the line between justification by faith alone and a “works righteousness”. We are told the church should be about the business of preaching (i.e. sermons to believers) and worship (i.e. singing songs on Sunday morning) and the occasional fellowship meal. Never mind that in the very earliest days of the church, when it faced the daunting combination of a brand new religion that was exploding in size and being persecuted, it was also taking the time to feed people in need (Acts 6:1-6) and ensure that Christians had their material needs met (Acts 2:44-45). Also never mind that Jesus placed an enormous emphasis on how we treat “the least of these’ (Matthew 25:40 and the converse Matthew 25:45). In spite of this the overwhelming majority of evangelical Christians are also the most energized and reliable conservative voting block. I am starting to wonder if we are prepared for the results of what many of us are working toward.

Defeat Obama in 2012! Cut Medicaid and Medicare! Overturn Roe v. Wade! Get rid of welfare! Victory for conservatives!

Um. Then what do we do?

Don’t misconstrue what I am saying. I think that the social welfare state in America is on its face an unconstitutional usurpation and a grotesque overstepping of the powers delegated to the Federal government. I likewise think that the secular social welfare system is dehumanizing, inefficient and has directly led to generational poverty especially among minorities. I have no tolerance for Christians who use the faith as cover for conservative economic policies, even though I support those self-same policies, but I have even less use for starry eyed utopian socialism dressed up in Christianese. I believe abortion to be legalized infanticide that should be outlawed just as we outlaw people shooting one another. My conservative credentials are above reproach. My question has to do with the aftermath. What happens if we “win” and we are faced with the question: “Now what?” Will the same conservative evangelical Christians who consistently vote Republican and rail against the Federal government be ready to step in if the social welfare state is dismantled? Will the poor needing assistance with heating bills, the hungry in need of food, the pregnant teen in need of support find it in the church? Or will the church be to busy playing church and putting on our religious theater to be bothered?

Will we be ready to step back up?

We better be.

1 comment:

Bean said...

The church we attend supports a soup kitchen, where they serve 3,000 meals/month, a day shelter for the homeless, they collect supplies for Haitian school children, they do a Christmas food box program,just to mention a few of the ministries that are supported by donations, and run by volunteers. The day shelter is run by an energetic 78 year old woman. When I volunteered to help with sign ups for the food box program I was shocked, we signed up over six hundred families in two hours! The people started lining up two hours before sign ups started. There are very many needy people in our community.
I like how our parish encourages everyone to get involved, every week they have requests in the bulletin for items needed, so at the very least you can donate some macaroni or beans each week for the soup kitchen. Volunteers are always needed in the soup kitchen as it is run 7 days/week. There are churches out there that make a difference, and truly take a servant attitude to help those less fortunate. St. Mary's is located in an inner city neighborhood and they offer many outreach programs for the poor and disadvantaged. Each year Christmas gifts are purchased by parishioners for needy children, and an Easter egg hunt and party are put on for the children in the neighborhood, all items are donated. There are not a lot of parishioners at St. Mary's, but it is a vibrant, generous community of believers who do the best they can to serve those who have fallen through the safety nets.
Hopefully one day we will have government that is not bought and paid for by lobbyists, and is for the best interest of the people. People should be encouraged to be self reliant, every child should have an opportunity for good education, people should have access to affordable basic medical/dental care, people need hope. We do have families who have been dependent upon the government for generations and seem to have lost the will to want to take care of themselves, and we will always have some in society who will never be able to function and will always need help. How do we make a society that works for the majority, how do we fix this? I DO NOT KNOW - it really is the $60,000 question.