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A theological case for the welfare state
Replacing government programs with private charity isn't just bad policy, it's bad theology
 
Kasich says Medicaid in Ohio is necessary to help the poor.
Kasich says Medicaid in Ohio is necessary to help the poor. (AP Photo/Tony Dejak)

In the wake of ObamaCare's passage, conservatives felt challenged to come up with effective yet subtle ways to undermine the program and inhibit its ability to carry out its mission. One method that immediately gained popularity in conservative circles was to refuse to expand Medicaid at the state-level, a move that would leave many poor people who would have otherwise qualified for the program without health care. But Republican governor John Kasich (Ohio) wasn't having it.

In remarks made to members of the press on June 18th of last year, Kasich explained:

Now, when you die and get to the meeting with St. Peter, he's probably not going to ask you much about what you did about keeping government small, but he's going to ask you what you did for the poor. Better have a good answer. [MediaTrackers]

Kasich's insistence upon a Christian obligation to the poor outraged his fellow conservatives. Their chief religious critique, as a scathing Wall Street Journal piece on Kasich repeated time and again, is that charity should only really be expected from individuals, not states. "Mr. Kasich seems to view signing up for this part of ObamaCare as an act of Christian charity," the WSJ opined, "and has literally all but claimed that God told him to do so… His intentions are laudable, though that government-as-thy-brother's-keeper riff needs some moral fine-tuning."

The moral fine-tuning the WSJ had in mind came up again during recent debates over whether to cut the budget of SNAP, also known as food stamps. In a response to a Christian argument for the support of the poor, GOP Rep. Mike Conaway (Texas) had this to say:

I read this chapter of Matthew 25 to speak to me as an individual… I don't read it to speak to the United States government… Clearly, you and I are charged that we do those kinds of things but [our government is not] charged with that. [The Huffington Post]

Amongst conservative politicians, Rep. Conaway is hardly alone in this view; Paul Ryan recently expressed a similar interest in replacing government assistance with private charity and volunteerism, but the idea has been around for far longer. According to these conservatives, charity is a fundamental good — but only when expressed by individuals acting entirely voluntarily, without any intervention from the state. For them, the fact that there is no Biblical mandate that says states must involve themselves in acts of charity is enough to render Christian arguments for welfare programs moot.

But here's what conservative Christians miss: Welfare programs aren't about charity; they're about justice.

Yes, support for government assistance programs may be born out of caritas (the spirit of love from which the offering of the material gifts often confused for charity itself arises), but when governments support their most vulnerable citizens, it isn't a matter of charity. As Christian theologian Duncan Forrester writes:

… poverty is an issue of justice. It is so because poor people bear a disproportionate burden of pain… Christians believe that justice [has] to do with relationships. Good relationships are expressed and strengthened by a just distribution of material things; poverty and deprivation put pressure on family and other relationships; and poor people tend to be marginalized by the broader community… The poor have a right to justice because justice is God's will for them. [Christian Justice and Public Policy]

In other words, poverty itself is more than an unhappy material circumstance; it's a systematic isolation and exclusion of sets of people from their rightful place in society. This isolation represents a fundamental disorder of society, as it creates a world in which large numbers of people are incapable of participating in community and civic life. Poor people are prevented by their poverty from engaging securely in many of the fundamental goods Christianity seeks to promote, such as marriage and family life.

This poses a threat to the total society. Theologians as far back as Augustine understood that the family is the basic unit of the community and thus the state. (As Augustine wrote in City of God, "domestic peace has a relation to civic peace.") For the state to function well, therefore, its communities and families must be healthy.

Just as communities need reliably enforced laws, usable roads, and other public works to function to their fullest potential, families need material resources to maintain stability and security. When secure and stable — that is, when relieved from poverty — families are rightly capable of maintaining robust relationships among themselves and their communities, and thus society is in a much better position to pursue the higher order goods human beings are made to pursue, such as the worship of God. In creating an orderly and peaceful situation in which those pursuits are possible, the state has fulfilled its purpose.

So, though charity and welfare may look similar, Christians should remember that not all charity is material — that is, visiting the sick and imprisoned and giving selflessly of our time and energy are all just as legitimate as giving money or goods — and that there are situations other than private charity which justly and legitimately call for such transfers. People like John Kasich show this belief transcends party lines, and that there really is no excuse for the state to neglect the safety and peace of its most vulnerable citizens.

 
Elizabeth Stoker Bruenig writes about Christianity, ethics, and policy for Salon, The Atlantic, and The Week. She is a graduate of Brandeis University and received her MPhil in Christian theology from the University of Cambridge as a Marshall Scholar. She is currently working towards her PhD at Brown University. In her spare time, Elizabeth enjoys working in the garden.

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