Acton Institute Powerblog

Secularism and Poverty

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A colleague recently mentioned that a wag had observed the church had failed to solve poverty, so why not let the federal government have a try?

I think it is interesting that anyone, such as the wag in question, could think that the federal government can effectively solve the problem of poverty. I don’t think it can because it resolutely refuses to confront the sources.

Really, truly, don’t we know the cause of a great deal of the poverty in our midst? Here’s a hint: Adam Smith thought the poor who gravitated to the fiery preachers were wise. Why? Because the hell and brimstoners alone preached the doctrines that might prevent the poor from the catastrophic consequences of things like losing their jobs and money on liquor and gambling.

I can recall having lunch with Micah Watson, a colleague who teaches at Union, and he was talking about the trouble Jackson, TN has with some of its public schools. He said something that stuck. He said, “Many families in our school district lack the cultural capital to succeed.”

And he is right. Anyone who looks at the research in a dispassionate way will discover that people who do just a few things will almost never live in poverty. Those few things are that they will graduate from high school, get married, and delay childbearing until after marriage. If you do that, you will probably not spend your life below the poverty line.

Going a little further you will also find that children who come from intact, two parent families are significantly more likely to do better in school, to have fewer behavioral problems, to commit fewer crimes, to stay out of jail, to avoid sexual and physical abuse, and to stay off of public assistance than are their peers from broken homes or from single parent homes. These things are true even if you control for race.

For some reason, and I would argue that it is partially because of our silly secular mindset that favors avoiding moralism, we are unwilling to embody some of this knowledge in our public policy. When President Bush suggested that maybe we just might consider trying to encourage marriage among the poor, protest erupted. It was the same old thing, theocracy, blah, blah, blah . . . For some reason the morality that extends welfare to poor people is perfectly fine while the morality that would gently urge them toward the things that help human beings flourish is threatening and terrible and ultra-religious.

Does the church do enough? It does not, but I would argue that in part we fail to combat the problem of poverty adequately in the church because we think the duty has been subcontracted out to the state. The larger the state becomes, the less air is left in the community space for everyone else, especially the church because we buy into the idea of a secular state. (This is a point I talk about, by the way, in The End of Secularism.) The state eats up both resources and social influence. The system does not realize it has a soul, or if it does it is busy trying to kill it.

Hunter Baker Hunter Baker, J.D., Ph.D. is an associate professor of political science at Union University and an Affiliate Scholar in Religion & Politics at the Acton Institute. He is the author of The End of Secularism and Political Thought: A Student's Guide.


  • Roger McKinney

    Good post! The UN standard for poverty is $2/day/person. By that standard, the US has eliminated poverty completely. We don’t recognize it because the American standard for poverty is always changing. Generally, poverty is considered to be the bottom quintile, but that definition alone guarantees that we will never get rid of poverty.

    We have had an interesting discussion ongoing in Tulsa about the issue of cultural capital. The north side is mostly black and hispanic and lacks any grocery stores or retail stores of any kind. Many residents have to travel close to 20 miles to shop. Of course, the left claims that racism prevents stores from opening in those neighborhoods, but as recently as 20 years ago there were quite a few stores in north Tulsa. Those stores failed because shop lifting was too high, robberies too frequent, and crime in general too pervasive.

  • Tracy

    Good article. I also wanted to add that our nation the government/ public are starting to become aware of families stress from the increase umemployment in today’ economy. Public schools and child care are seeing a number of students angry, depressed and also feel less wanted from parents/ single parents who are unemployed. I think in Today’s society the State has realized the need to go back to basic cultural capital.

  • MaryAnn

    The state has no interest in moving people out of poverty. The less people depend on the government, the less power the government has. That is why Obama and his administration are doing nothing to create jobs. They want people poor and dependent on government so they will be better able to control them. Look at the health care bills, the cap and trade bill, the auto company take-over and the bank take-overs. We are already dependent on the government. We will soon depend on it for permission to heat our homes and get medical care. The government has an interest in making it more difficult to impossible for any church to administer to the poor, as most churches try to move people out of poverty. The government- any government, once it realizes it has the opportunity- works to move people into poverty. It is the nature of government to grow and take control.