From SELLOUT: Of God and Caesar

Every now and again, when debating the federal budget, I hear or read a statement similar to this:

"How can conservatives claim to be Christian when they want to cut government benefits to the poor? What would Jesus do?"

Such comments demonstrate their ignorance of the generosity of conservatives vice the stinginess of liberals when it comes to private charity, a gap that is well-documented and empirically defensible.

It also highlights a fallacy that is increasingly prevalent in modern American society, that charity is a primary function of government. In this excerpt from my book, SELLOUT: Musings from Uncle Tom's Porch, I address this fallacy head on.

President Obama...adopts the liberal position that assumes Jesus’ commands to individual Christians and the church are actually calls for government to act as our provider.

Christians fall into the trap of thinking that by promoting the funding of government aid programs, they are doing the Lord’s work.

The only miracle of Jesus that appears in all four Gospels is the feeding of the 5,000, and I’ve always been struck by what He told the disciples when they suggested that He send the crowd away to buy food in the nearby villages: “You give them something to eat!”

His words were a personal and immediate call to action. Christ didn’t tell them to go petition the king for a food aid program, nor did He lead a march against poverty down the streets of Jerusalem. He commands us to personally serve our brothers and sisters, rather than using government bureaucracy as a surrogate.

The Acts of the Apostles is often cited by liberals as evidence of Christianity endorsing government action to provide for the less fortunate:

And all those who had believed were together and had all things in common; and they began selling their property and possessions and were sharing them with all, as anyone might have need. ~ Acts 2:44-45

To interpret this passage as a divine directive for redistributive government is either naïve or self-serving. These were the voluntary acts of a church community serving one another, not a compulsory government welfare program.

These acts of community and the meeting of needs by family, friends and neighbors are characteristic of a faith that expects its followers to touch people’s lives directly. Such intimacy not only meets a person’s physical needs, but also helps him to heal.

Jay W. Richards, author of Money, Greed and God, illustrates the fallacy of a central government serving as a charity:

Replacing a family or a neighborhood or a local church with a federal program for helping the down-and-out is like trying to have an official in the Department of Commerce guess how much I should pay, right now, for a new pair of size-9 Asics running shoes. At the moment, I wouldn’t pay much, since I just bought a pair. And I’m picky when it comes to colors. That, and I don’t wear size 9!

The official could look up the market price for Asics shoes in the United States… That’s crucial information. He probably wouldn’t know much else, though, so he’d have to guess, and he’d probably guess wrong, and waste his time and mine in the process. That’s the information gap in a nutshell. It’s impossible to fix a problem if you don’t know squat about it.

The principle of subsidiarity, as articulated in Catholic social doctrine, is partially reflected in our Constitution’s Tenth Amendment. It teaches that matters should be handled by the person or group closest to the problem because it’s at that level where we have the most detailed knowledge and the most responsibility.

It begins with individual responsibility or the family if it’s a child or someone unable to take care of themselves. It graduates to the neighbors, then to the local church or non-profit group, after that the local or state government, and then, only as the last resort, the federal government. The farther away the jurisdiction from the specific person or problem, the more general the solution because the knowledge is not as specific.

It’s not that the federal civil servant is heartless; rather,they’re just too far away.

The imposition of the federal government, in Richards' words, “runs roughshod over this intricate web of overlapping responsibilities and assumes knowledge where none exists.”

Community aid is not only more efficient and effective, it’s personal. When you are looking into the eyes of a father who has lost his job and feels the shame of not being able to provide for his family, and you are offering him not only food but compassion, the value of that kind of human interaction is incalculable.

In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, the worst natural disaster in U.S. history, government officials from the local to the federal level were embroiled in hearings,political posturing, name-calling and finger-pointing.

But individuals from private charities and private companies were hard at work restoring the Gulf Coast region, especially in New Orleans. In particular, faith-based charities made long-term commitments to the wellness of the city. Even churches in my county, including my own, sent people to New Orleans on multiple missions of mercy and love in the months following the disaster, helping to rebuild homes, churches and schools. Church groups provided food, shelter, clothing and medical attention.

Evelyn Turner, a New Orleans resident who lost her home in the flood, found herself in a rebuilt home in her old neighborhood, a blessing made possible by faith-based charities. “The church poured into the city,” she said. “Here it is two years later, and who’s still coming? The church.”

Local aid organizations won’t forget you, lose your file or treat you like a number. You’re not just a case to them. You’re a neighbor.

Unfortunately, we have witnessed in our nation an alarming diminution of personal commitment to the well-being of others because we have rationalized that “letting government do it” is equal in moral weight to personally giving of our time, talent and treasure to our neighbors. In effect, we are becoming moral couch potatoes because we are no longer encouraged to exercise our values individually in daily actions of diligence in our work, commitment to our families, devotion in our houses of worship, and charity in our communities. The impact of this shift in our thinking on charitable giving has practical as well as moral consequences.

Arthur C. Brooks, author of Who Really Cares: The Surprising Truth about Compassionate Conservatism, found that people who believe that charity is an inherently governmental responsibility either restrict or curtail their charitable giving even if there is only a promise of government assistance.

In other words, those who believe in the forced redistribution of income through government are less likely to give to private charity even if the government isn’t actually attempting to meet the need. As private giving is withheld, charities find themselves dependent on government grants which bring with them the burden of various rules and regulations on how they distribute the funds, how they advise their beneficiaries and even who they must hire.

Moreover, government disbursements to charity are insufficient to replace the loss of private funds. The net effect is that the people most in need of charitable assistance are getting less of it.

Note: I invite you to read Japan and the Loss of American Charity for more on this topic.