On Friday, former Arkansas governor and Republican presidential candidate Mike Huckabee dispensed some dubious advice to voting Christians:
I would urge pastors to get in the pulpit and call people to Biblical truth as it relates to the issue of life and marriage, and even the issue of stewardship, and never be apologetic and say, 'Vote the Bible in your own heart.'[…] I hear people say sometimes, 'Vote your pocketbook.' Well, if you vote the scripture, you'll ultimately benefit your pocketbook, because everything about the economy that's wrong would be fixed if people had a Biblical understanding of the economy and a Biblical understanding of personal stewardship and responsibility. [Huckabee]
It's an important glimpse into the agenda of a Christian broadcasting heavyweight who just might have presidential aspirations in the 2016 race. But what exactly does Huckabee mean by "a Biblical understanding of personal stewardship and responsibility"?
Typically when faced with the question of welfare, conservatives point out that Jesus never directly commanded the use of taxes to support the poor, arguing, as Bill O'Reilly has, that Jesus intended only private charity to support the poor. Therefore, the logic goes, there is no Christian obligation to support welfare programs, only one to help poor people in general.
But Huckabee takes a different approach. He suggests that "personal stewardship" and "responsibility" are the Christian virtues that voters should encourage — by which he basically means they should target government programs, like welfare, at the ballot box. Tying personal responsibility to welfare cuts has been an ongoing message for Huckabee. Just look at what he said on Fox News in 2012:
[Welfare is] basically just a transfer of money from the taxpayer to the government, from the government to people who become beneficiaries of the government, because that way the government can own these people...It is a trap, and it is like the roach motel. Once you get in, but you never get out. [Huckabee via Politico]
Put aside Huckabee's comparison of the poor to cockroaches for a moment and focus on his logic. To vote against social support programs is to vote for personal stewardship and accountability, he says, since welfare programs allow people to rely on the government at the expense of those virtues. This vision is part of what he has called "Self-government flavored with the culture of life."
Yet if Christians should vote for policies that leave people no other choice than to develop their personal virtues, it isn't clear why they should vote against abortion or same-sex marriage. If Huckabee's logic made sense, then laws that close abortion clinics, for instance, prevent people from really developing morally because the state has forced them into moral behavior. His logic gets further muddied when you look at other things Huckabee has supported, like his program that uses government funds to encourage estranged fathers to raise their children.
In other words, if Huckabee is all about increasing "personal stewardship" — that is, a person's ability to handle his own affairs in an upright and decent way — why draw the line at financial dependency, when all sorts of government initiatives could potentially reduce a person's likelihood to act morally on his own?
It seems the pocketbook is the bottom line. Huckabee wants to appeal to Republican voters interested in tax cuts — a demographic he took heat from during the 2008 election season. But is he right about how Christians should vote? That is, should we hope to do nothing more than try to force people into developing whatever virtues we think they lack?
As it turns out, Huckabee's hope to nudge people to goodness by taking away support measures seems ineffective. To properly address the "life" issue, for example, means directly confronting poverty itself: Women living below the federal poverty line accounted for 42.4 percent of all abortions from 2000 to 2008, while a 2005 survey found that 73 percent of abortion patients cited their financial inability to care for a child as a reason they terminated the pregnancy. For women without financial means, social support programs like the ones Huckabee targets could mean the difference between making the choice to bring their pregnancies to term versus ending them. Poverty and hard decisions go hand in hand, and it makes sense in Christian terms to create a state that offers options for people in tough situations.
After all, that's what Huckabee wants in terms of "life" and "marriage": a state that makes it easier to do the right thing. And Christians should support a state that makes doing the right thing possible. But that means choosing one that supports our most vulnerable citizens through their toughest times — something that would be lost in the event of cuts to assistance programs.