In this week’s commentary, which will appear tomorrow, I summarize and explore a bit more fully some of the discussion surrounding evangelical and religious engagement of the budget battles in Washington. One of my core concerns is that the approaches seem to assume too much ongoing and primary responsibility on the part of the federal government for providing direct material assistance to the poor. As “A Call for Intergenerational Justice” puts it, “To reduce our federal debt at the expense of our poorest fellow citizens would be a violation of the biblical teaching that God has a special concern for the poor.”
In one real sense this perspective lets Christians, individually and corporately, off the hook too easily. I highlight the following quote from Abraham Kuyper: “Never forget that all state relief for the poor is a blot on the honor of your Savior.”
My basic contention is that we can only move to address the secondary role of governments of various levels (local first, federal last!) providing relief when we have thoroughly grappled with Kuyper’s basic insight here. Lester DeKoster and Gerard Berghoef explore this dynamic in a bit more detail in their Deacons Handbook, in a section on “The Church and the Welfare State.” They take as their starting point the position that “Government has undertaken to do what conscience, tutored out of the Scriptures, demands but fails, through the Church, entirely to achieve.”
In this way their emphasis is on revitalizing the diaconate first. They recognize that in many ways the government has filled in the gaps, but in so doing has often eroded the foundations and space for other organizations to step back in and fulfill their own mandates. DeKoster and Berghoef, writing in 1980, anticipate something like the faith-based initiative as part of the move back for the church to meet its social responsibility.
I’m less sanguine about that proposed solution, but I do think that the tax credits for charitable giving are something that ought to be protected, or perhaps even enhanced (President Obama’s latest proposal would limit exemptions for wealthy citizens.). In this context it is also worth noting the conclusions of a recent NBER paper, which shows that government subsidy tends to “crowd out” the initiative of private institutions from seeking their own sources of funding (imagine that!).
Kuyper’s quote comes from his opening address to the First Christian Social Congress in Amsterdam, November 9, 1891, and is published in translation as “The Problem of Poverty.”
Update: Over at the CRC Network, Karl Westerhoff, who guides the “Deacons” topic, asks some pertinent questions:
But how is this a diaconal matter? Well, I’m wondering…. Does this national conversation have echoes in our churches? In our families? Should it? Are there implications for how we make OUR budgets? And what about our families? Is there an opportunity here for some fresh conversation about family spending patterns? Can we talk about the choices we make with our money, and the expectations we have for the money we spend on charity? Where has the church spent benevolent money that really had the result we hoped for? What can we learn from that? How are we shaping our family lives and our congregational lives in ways that address need in truly Christ-like ways?
These are precisely the kinds of questions we need to be asking. I think what we’ll find is that government has a far larger and more expansive role in some of these answers than many often think.