Acton Institute Powerblog

Subsidiarity Isn’t Just Another Big Word

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My little home town of Seminole, Oklahoma, has been scorched by the wildfires sweeping through parts of Oklahoma and Texas. My mother’s beloved horse riding trails in the rural area around Seminole are either smoldering or threatened. I talked to an old high school friend about our response to the disaster. He said, “Karen, we paid attention after those hurricanes. We’re not looking to the government for help. The churches and people all around here have been helping since the fires started. People who had little to begin with, including insurance, have lost everything, even their kids’ Christmas.”

Why does it take such tragedies – fires, floods, hurricanes – to generate a wake up call for people to reach out to needy neighbors? The cultural shift toward “government professionals” taking primary care of society’s problems began 75 years ago, but surely this past year has made at least a figurative believer of the most adamant agnostic: Faith-based organizations meet even catastrophic needs more efficiently and effectively than government agencies or their bureaucratic charity look-alikes.

Subsidiarity – local people meeting individual and community needs in a manner that is direct, personal, and accountable – is more than just a “high falutin’ word” (as my mother often reminds me). Common sense by any other name is still common sense.

How many of us wait for a natural disaster before we’ll actively respond to need? If civil society truly is rooted in the belief that each person is created in God’s image and therefore has worth and dignity, then why is such a natural outreach to neighbors (across the fence and across town) not part of our daily lives?

In Oklahoma, churches that don’t normally house food banks and clothing stores have been collecting these things to help people who have been burned out. But local assistance, as with the Gulf hurricanes, needs to be broader. One group of churchgoers in Texas sat in folding chairs next to their burned out church for Sunday services, a reminder that that people are the church, not the building. The broader faith community is the most effective model of subsidiarity. And that’s a good high falutin’ word for a principle that is simple and true.

Karen Woods


  • As a fellow Oklahoman, I know exactly what you are writing about. The self-reliance of the people of this state is amazing! It is disappointing to many here that the Governor is already looking for a handout from the Federal Government to combat the fires. You would think that the State would budget for this type of thing. It is interesting to see that the citizens and faith-based organizations are ready at anytime for disaster. Is it possible that churches treat the individual with dignity and therefore in need of respect and care, while the government sees the individual as a producers of a resource (taxes). Sadly, Oklahoma (and Texas I assume) is probably among the least offenders.

  • Anonymous

    Josh: The governor and other Oklahoma elected officials look to VOTERS to muster their political courage to turn to the great individuals, faith organizations, and entrepreneurs in Oklahoma rather than the federal government as a ‘first response.’ That’s the sort of thing that VOTERS have to communicate to elected officials. Write a letter to the editor to the Oklahoman. We appreciate your response.