Mark Tooley pens another brilliant critique of the latest endeavors of the religious left in this piece titled “God’s Welfare State” in FrontPage Magazine. The commentary is a response marked with reason and clarity to left-leaning interfaith groups who are calling for more government programs and initiatives to tackle poverty. Tooley also notes in his piece that the signers of the letter calling for Senator John McCain and Senator Barack Obama to address their party conventions with a ten year plan to end poverty, are the usual suspects who equate “The federal welfare state with God’s Kingdom.” Tooley always seems to have a knack at getting to the heart of the issue, and he concludes by simply noting:
The left-leaning religious officials, guided by 100 years of statist Social Gospel, want to wage a government-led coercive struggle against “poverty” in the abstract. But most of their religious traditions express God’s love for specific poor people, while emphasizing voluntary and relational charity towards the needy. This historic stance of these religions towards the poor understandably has less appeal to the Religious Left, which often is more preoccupied with political power than with concrete compassion.
The fifth week of the CRC’s Sea to Sea bike tour has been completed. The fifth leg of the journey took the bikers from Denver to Fremont, a total distance of 553 miles.
The “Shifting Gears” devotional opens the week by focusing on the poor. “Consider this: each one of us has far less to worry about than those living in poverty who often do not know where their next meal is coming from.”
This week’s Grand Rapids Press religion section had a front page story on the problem of panhandling. How ought we to treat beggars on our streets? Many in the early church, including John Chrysostom, argued that Christians were called to be promiscuous in charitable giving, leaving the consequences of ill-used money to those who received it. Chrysostom said, “For if you wish to show kindness, you must not require an accounting of a person’s life, but merely correct his poverty and fill his need.”
As we have moved into a modern industrial society, however, it has become clear that ways of giving that provide incentives to remain poor do not properly deal with the social pathologies of poverty. The insight that our love needs to be unlimited and abundant is a proper corrective to our natural inclinations to be miserly with love and money. But from this it doesn’t follow that our giving doesn’t need to be intentional and critical.
The fourth week of the CRC’s Sea to Sea bike tour has been completed. The fourth leg of the journey took the bikers from Salt Lake City to Denver, a total distance of 478 miles.
The “Shifting Gears” devotional at the beginning of this week focuses especially on the relationship of the church to culture. On day 22, the devotion notes that the “crucial pillars of civilization–education, family, government, and science–are in a state of decline and disrepair.” This may seem like a strange claim given all that humans have been able to accomplish over the last century or so. But if you look at the moral center of all these pursuits (for no human endeavor is “value” free), then the claim begins to make some sense.
Take, for example, the prayer from day 22, which focuses on gambling and the state of Utah’s position, which “forbids gambling and casinos.” Dietrich Bonhoeffer once reflected on a symptom of the lifelessness of modern society when he wrote,
One gambles with the future. Lotteries and gambling, which consume an inconceivable amount of money and often the daily bread of the worker, seek the improbable chance of luck in the future. The loss of past and future leaves life vacillating between the most brutish enjoyment of the moment and adventurous risk taking.
Similarly, the day 22 devotion observes “that today’s culture, including the church, has sunk into a passionless routine.”
And in the same way, the day 23 devotion examines the ambivalent relationship between church and culture, although it ends on a rather optimistic note: “A hundred years ago biking was a Sabbath sin. Now our whole troupe bikes to church Sunday mornings. We, like the land, are being redeemed.” Even so, a consistent theme of critique towards destructive aspects of modern life is present throughout these devotions. As the day 13 devotion concludes, “Constant busyness is not godliness.”
The overall focus of the bike tour is poverty. To get involved in charities that effectively integrate faith and compassion, visit the Acton Institute’s Samaritan Guide. Be sure to check out the charities working in Colorado. Denver, the destination at the end of week 4, is home to two previous Samaritan Award honorees, “Providence Homes” (2004) and “Joshua Station” (2007).
The third week of the CRC’s Sea to Sea bike tour has been completed. The third leg of the journey took the bikers from Boise to Salt Lake City, a total distance of 444 miles.
The “Shifting Gears” devotional focuses especially on the theme of discipleship, of following Jesus in this third week. One way in which we follow Jesus is in the community of disciples. And as the day 16 devotional reads, “You can share everything and take turns doing the heavy work, but without forgiveness the fellowship will never last.” This gets at what differentiates what has been called the “communitarianism” of the early church from the secular visions of a socialist utopia. Only the church can rightly understand the realities of sin and forgiveness and their consequences for social life.
Day 17 quotes 2 Corinthians 2:17, “We do not peddle the word of God for profit.” This is an important verse, because it reminds us of the primacy of spiritual realities to the gospel message. The devotional puts this contrast starkly: “We are not like the giants of the cosmetic industry, pushing chemicals for profit. Rather, we peddle an ancient formula, ‘fragrance of life,’ simply as a celebration of God’s grace.” I appreciate the rhetorical power of this kind of juxtaposition, but I fear that it misses the point. Paul isn’t deriding business and the pursuit of profit in its own proper sphere. Instead, he’s warning against allowing the principles suited for one sphere (business) to invade another (church).
To the extent that it is the successful business leaders who are implicitly understood to embody religious and spiritual discernment and leadership, this text is a much more powerful witness against the church being run as a business than it is against business as a profit-driven venture. Even so, the devotional speaks rightly when it says, “Paul’s point is that we don’t speak of faith to gain our own advantage.”
The week concludes with a trip from Idaho to Utah. The prayer for day 20 notes that “Utah ranks first among all states in proportion of income given to charity by the wealthy. Today thank God for their generosity, and pray that the money will be used wisely and effectively by these charities.”
The second week of the CRC’s Sea to Sea bike tour is in the books. The second leg of the journey took the bikers from Kennewick to Boise, a total distance of 321 miles.
There’s a basic theme in the daily prayers from the “Shifting Gears” devotional. There is a fundamentally environmental focus, and by that I mean not just the natural environment, but the economic, political, and social environment of the areas through which the bikers progress.
For instance, the day 1 prayer (from week 1), notes the “controversial residential and building projects” that are faced by the community of Sultan “as its economic foundation erodes and the suburbs spread into the countryside.” On day 8 we are reminded to “thank God our provider today for the ability to produce and distribute food within a local setting.” On day 10, on the stretch between La Grande and Baker City, we are informed that “in areas like this, water runoff is a serious problem.”
One basic point this underscores is that effective compassion has to be fundamentally local, in the sense that it is intimately familiar with the local contexts of the problems that need to be faced. So far the devotional has maintained a somewhat neutral attitude about the various environmental problems, which is important because it is all too easy and simple to preemptively come in from the outside and tell communities what the solutions to their problems are.
One way to help communities around the world where we don’t have local knowledge is to partner with local groups who do have that expertise. Affiliation is the first principle of effective compassion, and we ought to ask of a program, “Does it work through families, neighbors, and religious or community organizations, or does it supersede them?”
Yesterday I was a guest on “The Jesse Lee Peterson Radio Show,” a production of BOND (Brotherhood Organization of a New Destiny), to discuss the presidential election and the faith-based initiative, with a special focus on the proposals laid out by Democratic candidate Barack Obama. A streamlined version of the interview is available for download.
One of the groups that has faced the dilemma of phasing out faith after taking government money is the Silver Ring Thing, a Christian ministry dedicated to “offering a personal relationship with Jesus Christ as the best way to live a sexually pure life.” In 2006, the ACLU settled a lawsuit with the government over federal grants to the Silver Ring Thing (SRT), on the condition that appropriate safeguards would be implemented to separate out faith elements from programs that received federal dollars.
The success of groups like SRT have made in connecting human sexuality to spiritual and emotional life makes secularists cringe, who judge that the Religious Right “has warped our sexual politics and forced even the most hardened secular humanists to sing from the Christian hymnal.” You can be sure that secularists won’t hesitate to use government funds to undermine the integrity of groups that see faith-based messages like chastity being the biblical standard.
I also discuss what I have called “the fungibility phenomenon” and the way in which the White House office sets the tone for the rest of the country. But the coup de grâce of my argument, I think, comes when I liken the faith-based initiative to the sin of simony.
Simony is commonly defined as “a deliberate intention of buying or selling for a temporal price such things as are spiritual of annexed unto spirituals.” Think about this a moment. If what the government’s faith-based initiative boils down to is the appropriation of the vigor and vitality of a uniquely spiritual ministry by means of offering federal money so that this ministry can be controlled and absorbed by the temporal power, that sounds very much like a form of simony to me.
Here’s part of the story of Simon Magus from Acts 8: “When Simon saw that the Spirit was given at the laying on of the apostles’ hands, he offered them money and said, ‘Give me also this ability so that everyone on whom I lay my hands may receive the Holy Spirit.'” Peter answered: ‘May your money perish with you, because you thought you could buy the gift of God with money!'”
Weigh in on what you think ought to be done with the faith-based initiative in our blog poll question on the right side of the page, and share your thoughts in the comment section below.
And, honestly, I can’t say it enough. Visit the Samaritan Guide and find a charity that needs your support and give it to them.
The piece by Rush-Sisterhen, who was then director of the State of Ohio’s Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives, and Stalker connect the phenomenon that I raised at the beginning of this post: “In 2001, the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives was created by executive order. Shortly after this event, offices of the same type began to appear within individual states, most notably in Ohio.”
They conclude the piece by observing,
Another topic that demands continued research is that of the effectiveness of faith-based initiatives in various states. Although the Ohio office was created with biartisan legislation, many of the other offices throughout the nation were created by executive order, giving them varying amounts of power and restriction. Each state’s program should be studied individually and compared to other states to continually improve the system. When one state is found to be successful, their methods should be shared and reviewed for conceivability in other states. This will help to keep the system fresh and adjusting to our changing society.
By 2007, a mere six years after the formation of the White House office, 33 governors and more than 100 mayors had established Faith-Based and Community Initiative offices or liaisons (the numbers cited by the White House for last month’s national conference are a bit different: “35 governors – 19 Democrats and 16 Republicans – have their own faith-based and community initiatives. Additionally, more than 70 mayors of both parties have similar programs at the municipal level.”).
The long-term trickle-down effect of the formation and orientation of the federal office on the initiatives at various other levels of government will be just as important as, if not more than, the direct impact of the White House office itself. As any expert on effective compassion can tell you, the more locally affiliated the effort, the more likely it is to be successful and effective.