Earlier this semester, I had the privilege of attending World Magazine editor Marvin Olasky’s interview with liberal Christian author and academic Ron Sider. Ron Sider, the author of Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger, has come to define liberal Christianity’s case for social welfare. Over the course of the conversation between Olasky and Sider, it became clear that they represented two incommensurable viewpoints – Sider’s liberal welfare state vs. Olasky’s compassionate conservatism. Both have a heart for the poor, and both wish to see the church stepping in to fill the gaps more than she is now. But they have radically different understandings of what that looks like.
The Chicken and the Egg, Extrapolated and Applied to Government Welfare
The major argument that Ron Sider used to defend his position was the claim that the church has largely abandoned, or at least slacked off on, charitable operations. Okay, we can grant him that thesis for the sake of the argument. But we also know that historically the church has, in fact, conducted large-scale charity efforts. Furthermore, we know that voluntary charity organization have currently been taking cues from government programs to determine where to spend their resources.
The major question, then, is whether the church slacking off or the government intervening came first. Liberal welfare advocates seems to think that it’s the first; the church slacked off, and the government had to come in and save the day. Conservative welfare critics, on the other hand, place culpability squarely on the government’s shoulders; government intervention has redefined the role of the church in American society, so the church has begun to slack on its charitable activities, which feeds a vicious cycle of expanded government action and diminishing voluntary charitable action.
The implications are significant. If the government intervened first, then the story is one of government action dealing a significant blow to charitable giving. If government changes incentives for charitable giving, then the worst thing we can do is continue to allocate power to the government for welfare. The proverbial definition of insanity is to continue doing the same thing while expecting different results. Human nature is not malleable – this Christians agree on – so attempting to go against an established principle of human nature is impossible. Rather, the solution is to seek to reverse a problematic course of action. The only way to truly progress in this kind of situation is to turn backwards from the wrong path, get on the right one, and proceed from there.
If, however, the Church’s slackening of charitable efforts occurred first, one may be tempted to turn to the government in desperation, saying, “well, someone has to do something!” But even here the liberal Christian is still not in the clear. In a representative democracy, such as America's, government is the institution whereby individuals make choices collectively, and if voluntary individual action has already failed, it is unlikely that government can accomplish the project more efficiently or effectively.
There is a deeper issue at play here, however. “The poor you will always have with you,” Christ reminds us, and in the depravity of the human condition, wherein the church herself has been prone to error, we must always seek Christ as savior. Too often, however, the impetus is to seek salvation from the government. The promise of salvation by government action, however, has consistently rung hollow. A cursory glance of the 20th century is enough to establish that. The desire for perfection is to be lauded by the Christian, as it points us to our final hope in God, but it ought never be taken as an excuse to attempt the construction of heaven on earth.
By Nick Barden