Evangelicals and Poverty

Evangelicals for Social Action sent an open letter to the president demanding a global war on poverty. Reading the list of signers, I noticed a few “conservative” evangelicals, including Richard Land, President of the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission.

According to Time Magazine, Land is “God’s Lobbyist,” and one of the most influential evangelical leaders in America. Land has a huge rolodex filled with the names of Washington insiders, not to mention an educational pedigree that includes stops at Princeton and Oxford, but he has evidently not taken an economics class.

The letter begins by emphasizing the moral imperative to clothe the naked and feed the hungry:

We write as evangelical leaders to urge a strengthened, expanded emphasis on overcoming hunger and poverty both here and abroad in the next four years. Precisely the commitment to moral values (including the sanctity of human life) that shape all our political activity compels us to insist as a nation we must do more to end starvation and hunger and strengthen the capacity of poor people to create wealth and care for their families.

ESA goes on to urge a greater commitment to foreign aid programs:

In 2000, virtually every nation on the planet approved the Millennium Development Goals that included a commitment to halve global poverty by 2015. But adequate funds to meet these goals are not being given, and the U. S. ranks absolutely last (as a percentage of GNP) among all developed nations in its governmental assistance to overcome global poverty. Our nation has fallen far short of the increase in health and development assistance that you proposed. The richest nation in history can and must grasp the opportunity to lead.

The ESA is also concerned about poverty here at home, and while they laud the work of charities and churches, they say that faith-based social services are just not doing enough:

But our faith-based social service agencies cannot by themselves solve the problem of poverty of the wallet. As you have often said, government can and should help solve this problem. Tragically, millions of Americans today work full time and still fall below the poverty level. The moral values that shape our lives tell us this is wrong. We believe our rich nation should agree that everyone who works full time responsibly will be able to earn enough to rise above the poverty level and enjoy health insurance.

ESA urged the president to stare down austere members of congress (hee hee) who might want to take an axe to "effective" government anti-poverty programs:

We know there will be powerful pressures, from some places, as you and the Congress work to reduce deficit spending, to cut even effective programs for poor people. We pray that you will not allow this to happen. We pray that God will give you the strength to act like the righteous king in Ps. 72:12-13 and “deliver the needy who cry out, the afflicted who have no one to help, take pity on the weak and the needy, and save the needy from death.

Indeed, God's concern for the poor and helpless is manifested throughout the Bible. In fact, God's word has much to say about specific remedies for poverty.

But how is wealth created? The only way to achieve to broad-based wealth is by increasing productivity through capital investment. However, investment and capital accumulation don't spring from nowhere. To bear such fruit, a culture must first ingest principles of thrift and work based upon a future-orientation. In short, economic growth is a product of culture, and culture is a product of the religious presuppositions that under gird the culture. It is no accident that free-markets, capitalism and freedom constrained by law are largely confined to those parts of the world still borrowing off the spiritual capital accumulated by Christian ancestors.

Economist P. T. Bauer summarizes the ideology of pagan countries as:

lack of interest in material advance combined with resignation in the face of poverty; lack of initiative, self-reliance and of a sense of personal responsibility for the economic fortune of oneself and one's family; high leisure preference, together with a lassitude often found in tropical climates; relatively high prestige of passive or contemplative life compared to active life...belief in perpetual reincarnation which reduces the significance of effort in the course of the present life; recognized status of beggary, together with a lack of stigma in the acceptance of charity...

Bauer rightly concludes that these attitudes are "an integral part of the spiritual and emotional life" of millions, perhaps billions, of people. Moreover, irresponsible charity and foreign aid will only be reinforce these attitudes

Another assumption made in the ESA letter is that the state is the primary institution established by God to tackle poverty. But is that true? What are the legitimate functions of the state? According to the Bible, God established civil government for three primary reasons:

1) To protect human life that is made in the image of God: ““Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed; for in the image of God has God made man” (Gen. 9:6);

2) To defend the law-abiding from lawbreakers: “For rulers hold no terror for those who do right, but for those who do wrong. Do you want to be free from fear of the one in authority? Then do what is right and he will commend you. For he is God’s servant to do you good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword for nothing. He is God’s servant, an agent of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer” (Rom. 13:3-4);

3) To provide for a peaceful, orderly society: “I urge, then, first of all, that requests, prayers, intercession and thanksgiving be made for everyone-- for kings and all those in authority, that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness” (I Tim. 1:1-2).

Paul says that the civil authority is a servant of God (Rom. 13:4) who is responsible to enforce justice. The Biblical role for the state is limited to the administration of just laws to defend life and property, punish criminals, and defend the innocent. There is no implied right for the state to coercively take money from one party to give it to another in the name of social welfare.

Rather than dependence on the state, scripture commands responsibility on the part of individuals and families. Paul says, “If anyone does not provide for his relatives, and especially for his immediate family, he has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever.” The basic social institution is the family, not the state, and when we are quick to call on non-family agencies, we undermine the responsibility of families to care for their own.

While the church has a duty to care for indigent widows (I Tim. 5:3) who do not have family, even that charity is restricted. A widow is placed on a list and must be engaged in charitable service. She must be "well known for her good deeds, such as bringing up children, showing hospitality, washing the feet of the saints, helping those in trouble and devoting herself to all kinds of good deeds" (I Tim. 5:10). Here we see that principle that charity must not subsidize irresponsibility (II Thess. 3:10). The further that charity is removed from familial and local institutions, the more likely the principle is to be abused.

In conclusion, the Bible commands individuals, families and churches to provide charity to the poor in as direct a way as possible. Likewise, there are obligations imposed on the recipients of charity. Such a framework rejects the notion that "thou shalt not steal, except by majority vote," and reinforces the principle of loving our neighbor through real, concrete action. Basic to such change is the regenerative power of the Holy Spirit and propagation of the gospel rather than the "redemptive" power of the state.


David said…
Hi Darrell,

This is a very interesting post. I like particularly your comment:

"In short, economic growth is a product of culture, and culture is a product of the religious presuppositions that under gird the culture."

I agree completely. It also echos a major theme in T.S. Eliot's book "Christianity and Culture" in which he develops the idea that culture is not possible and is, in fact, derived from religion.

Warm Regards,
Anonymous said…
It's undeniably laudable to view "individuals, families and the Church" as the principal, and perhaps sole, vehicles for the dispensing of charity in society. This was the generally held vision of charity as recently as the early twentieth century, certainly. What was presupposed by such a vision, of course, was that these vehicles would be up to the requirements with which they were confronted, that their charitable undertakings always would be relations in Christ, and that a certain participation and growth in grace - at least for the individuals and families involved - would be enjoyed. But with the Great Depression came the end of such a vision. The simple truth was that private charitable resources, although mobilized at the time, were entirely inadequate to the task. Fully 25% of working age men were unemployed, most with families, many of them literally starving. Would it have been possible for St. Paul to have foreseen such a tragedy. I don't think so.

It seems to me that the great God who provides for us all cares less for principles and theology than for the fulfillment of His loving purposes. If the institutions of civil government are chosen as His mechanism, so be it. That is not to say, however, that all acts of government charity have their impetus in God, but some certainly can, and for that reason, we can be positive about them, generally.

Now I'm aware of the fact that in making the assertions I have above, that some may see me as making a false distinction, that between principles and the intentions of God. I would answer simply that life in Christ is never quite so extrinsic as to be reduced to the discernment and to the living out of principles, no matter what their origin. It is a living God with whom we relate.

Darrell said…
I think it was Henry van Til who said that culture is simply "relgion externalized." Human beings are intrinsically religious, and the culture, I think, is always a reflection of a their religious presuppositions, which are largely pre-theoretical and disprovable on some level.

John--You say, "It seems to me that the great God who provides for us all cares less for principles and theology than for the fulfillment of His loving purposes." That's fine, but doesn't God reveal His in Scripture? And if we go beyond His purposes for the institutions that He has created, is that not effectively lawlessness, i.e. sin?

Though I am not a libertarian, I have certainly been effected by various libertarians, particularly Murray Rothbard. Rothbard argues, I think successfully, that the Great Depression was on the whole created by government, specifically by the Federal Reserve. It amounts to what Robert Higgs calls the "ratchet effect," in that the state creates a mess, then has to intervene to clean up the mess--all the time growing more powerful, and usurping increasing amounts of power.

I expected, John, that as a Catholic you would take exception to this particuluar post. I am confused though. Aren't I essentially defedning something akin to the doctrine of "subsidiarity?"
Anonymous said…
Hello Darrell!

You query:

"John--You say, "It seems to me that the great God who provides for us all cares less for principles and theology than for the fulfillment of His loving purposes." That's fine, but doesn't God reveal His in Scripture? And if we go beyond His purposes for the institutions that He has created, is that not effectively lawlessness, i.e. sin?"

A question of no little importance in my view. I think what Holy Scripture reveals is God Himself, Darrell, not principles. It's the extrinsicism, frankly, the rationalism that is of concern to me in the instance we're discussing. It risks reducing the Christian faith to philosophy, to a body of propositions, and depriving it of it's context in the Trinitarian Life of God, the primary focus of Holy Scripture in any event. All of humanity - all of reality for that matter - is embedded in the being of the Son and in the inter-personal relations of the Godhead. It is here that we should begin the evaluation of any question it seems to me. Beginning from God and our place in Him, from the perspective of the vision of the Son as it were, very little seems to have importance other than the donation of self and the welfare of others. Therefore, to see the role of government as limited to the enforcement of law, the protection of life and the maintenance of order denudes it of it's full potential in Christ. It becomes insufficiently cruciform. Can we image any surpassing Christian purpose being served by a refusal of government to act charitably when individuals and Churches cannot? Can God be that penurious? The God I know can't.

The extent to which the principle of subsidiarity has meaning in the present case concerns solely its preferrence for private charity. It does not preclude that of government, per se. It is statism, the exclusion of the private element altogether, or a kind of encroachment, that is rejected.

Yours in Christ,

John Lowell
Anonymous said…
You're conclusion, like many other conservatives, does have merit but there is a serious defect in your reasoning. While family and the civil sector should be the primary care givers to those in poverty, where injustice is present as a part of the structure of society, only government has the capability to remedy those ills. For instance, poverty afflicts the African-American community to a much greater extent than it does white America. Why is that? If you would look back at 20th century history you would see that from the time that black Americans began moving to the great cities of the north they encountered racist policies that allowed whites to move to suburbs and prevented blacks from benefiting from the booming post-World War II economic boom. Whites were given generous housing opportunities in burgeoning suburbs while black neighborhoods were denied bank loans to improve their communities. Combine discrimination in housing markets with the vast movement of jobs away from inner cities and into the suburbs as well as the downfall of well paying manufacturing jobs and you have a recipe for social disaster. In this case the government and the "free market" worked together to insure that inner cities would be a prison of poverty, joblessness, and desperation for millions of African Americans. How does your political philosophy propose to eliminate the injustices of American society such as metropolitan segregation, the lack of jobs in inner city neighborhoods, and inadequate public transportation. All of which greatly contribute to the problem of poverty in America's inner cities. Letting the "free market" work its "magic" can just as often be damaging to society as beneficial. (Think Enron, WorldCom, Savings and Loan scandal). The free market in fact has had a hand in perpetuating the continuing racial inequalities that ESA is trying to rectify. Rather than clinging so tightly to the cult of the "free market" we ought to consider solutions that take into consideration both the role of culture AS WELL AS the role of structural injustice and discrimination in producing poverty in America.
God has laid out quite clearly in his word what he thinks about the duty of Christians and governments to promote justice and to be eternally vigilant in fighting oppression wherever it exists.
Unknown said…

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