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A Great Reversal of the Church & the Welfare State

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Over at the IFWE blog, Elise Amyx takes a look at Brian Fikkert’s argument about the origins of the modern American welfare state:

According to Fikkert, the evangelical church’s retreat from poverty alleviation between 1900 and 1930 encouraged the welfare state to grow to its size today. Church historians refer to this era as the “Great Reversal” because the evangelical church’s shift away from the poor was so dramatic.

In Faithful in All God’s House: Stewardship and the Christian Life, Gerard Berghoef and Lester DeKoster make a similar case. They argue that “the church is largely responsible for the coming of the modern welfare community.” They also cast the hopeful vision that another reversal might occur: “The church could be largely responsible for purging welfare of its faults and problems if enough believers caught the vision.”

While Fikkert is largely drawing on the early twentieth century in America for his argument, Berghoef and DeKoster examine more broadly the Christian perspective on the relationship between faith and works of charity. This dynamic is, after all, is a perennial challenge for Christian social engagement, and the interaction between the Social Gospel and evangelicalism in America is just one example. Another is the reversal over the last century or so in the Netherlands, where there has been a move from Abraham Kuyper’s claim that “all state relief for the poor is a blot on the honor of your Savior” to the church’s plea “for social security that is not charity but a right that is fully guaranteed by government.”

Berghoef and DeKoster point to two basic ways in which the church has given birth to the modern welfare state. The first is by giving life to the idea of a welfare community in the first place:

…the Word that the church proclaims demands charity and justice for the poor. As this Word has permeated at least the Western world, an alerted public conscience has demanded public welfare. The church is the parent of the welfare community.

But, given that the church is made up of fallible humans, the church failed to actualize in full the demands of charity and justice that it espoused. In this way,

because the church did not, and perhaps in some respects could not, measure up to its own ideals not all the starving were fed, not all of the homeless were given shelter, and not all the oppressed and exploited were relieved. The cries of the needy ascended to heaven. The Lord answered with the welfare state.

Berghoef and DeKoster answer the question raised by Amyx, whether Christian withdrawal or government intervention came first. “The government undertakes to do what the church demands and then fails to achieve by itself,” write Berghoef and DeKoster: “Government has undertaken to do what conscience, tutored out of the Scriptures, demands but fails, through the church, entirely to achieve.” This judgment, broadly shared by Berghoef, DeKoster, and Fikkert, coheres with Kuyper’s own judgment in 1891. After stating that state aid is a “blot” on Christ’s honor, he allows that state action may be justified when the church fails in its obligations: “It is perfectly true that if no help is forthcoming from elsewhere the state must help. We may let no one starve from hunger as long as bread lies molding in so many cupboards. And when the state intervenes, it must do so quickly and sufficiently.”

As for the second part concerning the hopeful vision for the future, an attempt “to reverse the Great Reversal” as Amyx puts it, Berghoef and DeKoster outline real problems with the welfare state as it exists in the modern world, how the state does not intervene “quickly and sufficiently” in Kuyper’s words. But they also have some intriguing concrete suggestions about how to start to address its defects and its dominance.

They end by pointing to what the “separation of church and state” really means, and conclude: “The common good binds church and state together. What greater contribution, now, to the common good than setting the welfare system back on its feet? Try it, and see.”

Jordan J. Ballor Jordan J. Ballor (Dr. theol., University of Zurich; Ph.D., Calvin Theological Seminary) is a senior research fellow and director of publishing at the Acton Institute for the Study of Religion & Liberty. He is also a postdoctoral researcher in theology and economics at the VU University Amsterdam as part of the "What Good Markets Are Good For" project. He is author of Get Your Hands Dirty: Essays on Christian Social Thought (and Action) (Wipf & Stock, 2013), Covenant, Causality, and Law: A Study in the Theology of Wolfgang Musculus (Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2012) and Ecumenical Babel: Confusing Economic Ideology and the Church's Social Witness (Christian's Library Press, 2010), as well as editor of numerous works, including Abraham Kuyper Collected Works in Public Theology. Jordan is also associate director of the Junius Institute for Digital Reformation Research at Calvin Theological Seminary.


  • Susan Strum

    I’m not Catholic so maybe that disqualifies my opinion, but what seems
    to be missing here is the spiritual needs of the poor and oppressed.
    While the physical needs could possibly be meet by the state, the
    spiritual needs certainly never will. Christ did not just feed the poor
    and heal the sick, he met these people at a point of brokenness and
    asked that they reach to him as an act of faith. Does anyone really
    believe that lives are touched and hearts are changed by a check in the
    mail from the US Treasury? Is it not possible that these physical needs
    are avenues to the soul that will never be traveled when the faithful
    allow the state to take over? Simply put, by separating the physical
    from the spiritual we have made it harder for those is need to find
    Christ and we have left them more empty and broken in their dependence
    on a godless state.

    • Hi, Susan. I’m not sure why you would think that not being a Roman Catholic would disqualify you in any way, since neither I nor any of the writers discussed in this post are Roman Catholic. You do make an excellent point; welfare and poverty cannot simply be reduced to the level of material concern. This issue comes up in a variety of ways in Berghoef and DeKoster’s treatment, but here’s one noteworthy passage: “…welfare, now, is commonly impersonal. Instead of creating community, it tends to destroy it. The caseworker can rarely provide the personal touch that the love of Christ incites the Christian to radiate. How much more the welfare system, just as it is, could do for uniting the needy with the rest of society if the money and the assistance were given in the name of our common God and Father. Churches could see to that, if welfare were somehow administered with your help. Even if you only went along with the caseworker and stayed behind to round out what he or she does in the neutral name of government.” They are arguing for an approach that largely works within the welfare system to ameliorate its negative effects and unintended consequences; but they also realize that it is a worthy goal “to restore charity to the church, which alone is fully capable of administering genuine service,” by which they mean ministering to material as well as spiritual needs, not to the detriment or the exclusion of either.

      • Susan Strum

        Hi Jordan, thank you for the reply. I am sorry to imply that you would not be interested in my opinion, but I am always a bit hesitant to jump into religious conversations with Roman Catholics because I am not familiar with all the teachings specific to the Roman Catholic Church. Case in point, the following comment, addressing this very article, was posted on Facebook.

        “You are familiar with church teaching on the topic of Preferential Option
        for the Poor? This article seem to indicate you are either not aware or
        you are in opposition to Church teaching on this matter.” Philip Frady

        While I feel very strongly about the subject matter of this article and wished to comment, I was hoping not to step into a minefield of Church doctrine. I have just come to believe that most of the physical problems that people face, specifically in the US and not necessarily in other less developed countries, are primarily rooted in the spiritual and may in some ways be connected to the growth of the state. We must help people to understand that all that is true and good comes from God and provisions from the state, in my opinion, are a sorry substitute for that message.

      • RogerMcKinney

        I don’t see how the church can take care of all of the poor in the US. The US Church is simply too small. Anyway, I don’t think the Bible expects Christians to take care of the non-Christian poor. It doesn’t proscribe it, and compassion would inspire it, but the Bible seems to limit the requirement to those poor within the church.

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  • RogerMcKinney

    As an economic historian I think Fikkert and Moberg are full of nonsense and guilty of the post hoc fallacy. There was a lot more happening in politics and economics than the evangelic battle over the social gospel.

    Socialists had been trying to get the German welfare state into the US since the civil war. That intensified with the mass migrations to the US of socialists from Europe. In the late 19th century, German “liberal” theology had taken over most Protestant denominations. “Evangelical” or “fundamentalist” Christians were a minority. It would have been easy for the liberal churches to make up for the small loss in evangelical giving. But instead they demanded the state do it because they were all socialists at that point.

    Also, evangelicals never quit giving to the poor. It may not have been a major agenda of the denominations, but evangelicals have always given personally to the poor. In fact, surveys prove that most charitable giving in the US is done by evangelicals today.

    “Scholars” love to make Christians feel guilty about giving, but how much should we give to the poor? What is an objective measure? They don’t have one and the Bible doesn’t give one. So how do they know we didn’t give enough?

    The correct answer to why the US adopted the Welfare state is that the decline of traditional Christianity opened up gullible people to the nonsense of socialism. By the late 1920’s, most Americans believed that the USSR had a better economic system and had solved all of the problems that Americans thought the US suffered from. It had nothing to do with evangelicals.