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Jesus Loves… The Welfare State?

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Via Best of the Web Today, an interesting comment from Senator John Kerry:

Democratic Sen. John Kerry called the Republican budget approved by the U.S. Senate “immoral” and said it will hurt cities like Manchester.

“As a Christian, as a Catholic, I think hard about those responsibilities that are moral and how you translate them into public life,” the Massachusetts senator said at a rally Saturday in support of Democratic Mayor Bob Baines, who is running for re-election.

“There is not anywhere in the three-year ministry of Jesus Christ, anything that remotely suggests – not one miracle, not one parable, not one utterance – that says you ought to cut children’s health care or take money from the poorest people in our nation to give it to the wealthiest people in our nation,” he said.

Kerry criticized the Senate spending plan, which would cut an estimated $36 billion over five years, saying it would reduce funds for police, after-school programs and children’s health care.

In one sense, Kerry is correct: one would search in vain to find any point in the Gospels where the Lord does any direct issue advocacy on the modern welfare state (“verily I say unto you, blessed is the Congress that slashes federal low-income health care funding, for they shall have much loot to pass on to their fat-cat special interest contributors…”). But the implied assertion that those who support such cuts in federal spending are anti-poor, or even anti-Christian, deserves more careful scrutiny.

What comments such as these reveal is a philosophy that, as Rev. Gerald Zandstra has noted, lacks “any real discernment about the proper role of government with respect to the issues of poverty and charity.” When the government assumes the primary responsibility for the care of the poor, it does not enhance a society’s morality (as Kerry and others like him would argue); rather, it erodes the moral foundations of the society:

To assign the problem of poverty solely to the government radically short changes the person in need. The poor, in surrendering them to the care of the government, are increasingly estranged from the family, church, charity, or local community who would benefit greatly by becoming involved in the life of someone who requires real help. There is a mutual benefit in all of these relationships that form the firmest foundations of civil society. In these relationships, we can care for the poor and, more important, see the whole person and experience the dignity that is inherent in the human soul.

Such a placement of responsibility is not only corrosive to society, but also harmful to the church, as Rev. Robert A. Sirico notes:

The specific problem this confusion presents to the church is that it disintegrates charity into an entitlement and collapses love into justice. If all relations are based merely on state-enforced justice, what becomes of the virtue of love? Especially when viewed from a religious perspective, the disadvantages of an expansive welfare state are sadly apparent. Promoting the government as the resource of first resort lessens the incentive of people in the pews to become personally involved in needed projects and relegates the church to the role of lobbyist. To the extent that the church functions as a lobbyist, rather than itself clothing the naked, feeding the hungry and performing the other traditional acts of charity, the church loses a rich source of its own spiritual nourishment.

This has, in turn, led to a secularizing of the social assistance systems (schools, hospitals, orphanages, health clinics). This development minimizes the moral influence of religious mediating institutions which are so critical in helping to stabilize troubled families.

The moral of the story? People of faith should think twice before using religious language to defend the maintanance and expansion of the welfare state. What seems at first glance to be a sound moral choice may be self-defeating in the long run.

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Marc Vander Maas

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