Q&A: Evangelicals and Social Welfare

    “If [Evangelicals] are so into Christ, why do they hate social programs that help the poor?”

    While it certainly isn’t true that all Evangelicals are opposed to government-based social welfare programs, the ones who are often express their stance with such vehemence that they do stand out and create a confusing general impression for the rest of society. This confusion for the onlooker stems from the popular (and I would say correct) understanding that Jesus not only talked a lot about helping the poor, he also (1) kind of demanded that his followers do it and (2) lived a life of great material simplicity himself. If that’s the case, why would those who publicly identify as Christians shoot down any proposal that would compel people to engage in a more egalitarian distribution of wealth?

    Well, unfortunately, over the years the religion of Christianity--which some, including me, would argue was not actually created by Jesus--has come to be defined not by daily action but by personal professions. In other words, if you say “the Sinner’s Prayer” and “accept Jesus into your heart”, you are saved. There’s not much else that’s required of you, according to modern Protestant standards, and many of the more radical teachings of Jesus, such as those having to do with committing to the care of society's vulnerable, are forgotten or considered optional. In addition, Christianity in the United States is so wrapped up in partisan politics these days that much of what is blatantly and frequently mentioned in the Gospels gets buried by more contemporary hot-button issues like abortion or sexuality. Interesting, isn’t it, how the so-called “hot button” issues are those in which morality involves judging other people’s lives, as opposed to those issues (such as sharing one’s resources) that demand an examination of one’s own daily practices and priorities?

    In any case, Evangelicals in the U.S. have inherited this tradition of being very concerned about making sure their neighbors' life choices align with the church’s idea of right and wrong. Is it particularly Biblical? Forget about Biblical--is it particularly Christ-like? I would say no. Even people who didn’t grow up in the fold--such as the asker of this post’s main question--are able to see that this version of Christianity has strayed far from its source. Regardless, Evangelicals are generally considered to be, and even pride themselves on being, morally “conservative”. What else falls under the label of “conservative”? Certain economic policies, rooted in a strong conviction that the government should be extremely limited in its capacity to intervene, even in cases of need. What I’ve seen is that, politically, “conservative” economics get conflated with “conservative” moral stances for the church, and after a while we have Christians aligning with the former because, culturally, they align with the latter. A person inclined toward reason might say that a little critical thinking on the part of believers could go a long way in detangling this oxymoronic mess. But, if you’ve been reading this blog for a while, you’ll know that critical thinking is not something that’s exactly encouraged in the Evangelical church.

    There’s another thing that comes into play, too, I think, when analyzing this situation. In the previous paragraph I mentioned that Evangelicalism is particularly concerned with the concept of personal choice, especially the personal choices of others. In this version of Christianity, nearly everything comes down to it. This matters for two primary reasons. The first is that, in this worldview, poverty is almost always a choice. Yes, bad things may happen to a person that are out of their control, but one always has a say in one’s destiny, and one can always cry out to God for help. I mean, if one can simply choose in a single moment to follow Jesus and thus secure a place for oneself in eternal paradise, one can certainly find a job/a home/a therapist/sobriety/etc. if one tries hard enough, right? So, what obligation do I have as a hard-working, rule-abiding citizen to give of the resources I clearly deserve for the sake of those who haven't earned their keep? Never mind that Jesus actually pointed out on more than one occasion that it was the governmental and religious systems that were often the reason certain people could not escape poverty--remember, the only thing Jesus ever did that actually seems to matter to Evangelicals is dying and coming back to life. For ME. It’s all about ME.

    Okay, I’m getting a little worked up. I’ll try to stay on track. The other way that an emphasis on personal choice plays into the overall issue of opposition to social welfare is that it has melded nicely with (and perhaps comes from, too) the U.S.'s ideal of personal freedom--i.e., choice. It has subtly, perhaps even unconsciously, created an attitude of “You can’t make me”--you can’t make me give my money; you can’t make me contribute; you can’t make me help. I think this is understandable, as far as human nature goes. Religion aside, we’re pretty greedy creatures. But isn’t that what religion’s supposed to help with? I mean, it’s not an automatic fix. But it’s the practice: the practice of generosity, the practice of humility, the practice of simplicity. There’s that quote attributed to Mahatma Gandhi, “Live simply that others may simply live.” It’s painted on the side of a Quaker meeting hall near where I live. As far as Christian involvement in politics goes, that tenet actually makes sense to me. Which is why the question that prompted this post makes a lot of sense, too: Why--WHY--would any version of Christianity ever be hostile toward social programs that help the poor?

    There are surely more “official” answers to the question than the ones I’ve laid out here. Certainly there are studies and books and historical analyses that explain the situation in a more linear and objective way than I’ve done. Go out and read them, because I’m also sure they are interesting and helpful. As with everything I post on this site, this is simply what I observed over my many years in the church. It is an on-the-ground account, so to speak, and a personal perspective. I hope my thoughts have lent a bit of method to the madness, even if it remains difficult to sympathize. Maybe if we understand where those with whom we disagree are coming from, we can make a little more progress than seems possible now. Or, maybe these regressive, ignorance- and self-loving traditions will die out soon enough and we’ll be able to move forward to a more generous and community-focused future.