Public Square

Did Bad Theology Create the Welfare State?

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In When Helping Hurts, Dr. Brian Fikkert makes a bold claim: the current welfare state is the fault of the evangelical church.

In The Great Reversal: Evangelism Versus Social Concern, scholar David Moberg argues that prior to the twentieth century, the early church played a huge role in ministering to both the spiritual and physical needs of the poor. It was common for churches to establish hospitals, schools for immigrants, homes for unwed mothers, and welfare societies like the Salvation Army.

But all of this changed after the social gospel movement of the early twentieth century. The “social gospel” refers to a theologically liberal movement driven by the belief that the second coming of Christ could not happen until humanity would rid itself of all social evils by human effort. This led social gospel adherents to a much stronger emphasis on poverty alleviation than evangelism.

Conservative evangelicals reacted strongly against the social gospel movement, perhaps swinging the pendulum too far in the opposite direction. Fikkert writes,

As evangelicals tried to distance themselves from the social gospel movement, they ended up in large-scale retreat from the front lines of poverty alleviation.

According to Fikkert, the evangelical church’s retreat from poverty alleviation between 1900 and 1930 encouraged the welfare state to grow to its size today. Church historians refer to this era as the “Great Reversal” because the evangelical church’s shift away from the poor was so dramatic.

Others have argued that government programs drove the church away from poverty alleviation. Some economists call this “the crowding out effect,” when government spending crowds out private spending. Or in this case, government welfare programs crowd out church-based welfare programs.

What came first, the chicken or the egg? Fikkert answers this question:

In short, the evangelical church’s retreat from poverty alleviation was fundamentally due to shifts in theology and not—as many have asserted—to government programs that drove the church away from ministry to the poor.

He backs up this claim by pointing out that the Great Reversal preceded the welfare state in America, since “Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty did not occur until the 1960s, and even FDR’s relatively modest New Deal policies were not launched until the 1930s.”

In a review of Moberg’s book, Katie Wiebe observes,

It is hard for [evangelicals] to admit that social concern belongs with the Gospel, but by studying the Scriptures and present situations, they are acceding to this truth. The Great Reversal is being reversed.

Adherents of the social gospel can’t fulfill the mission of the church without including Christ’s message of redemption, and evangelicals can’t fulfill the mission of the church without caring for the physical needs of the poor. Both need each other. We see this most clearly by studying Christ’s example on earth: he made disciples and cared for the sick.

Fikkert says the church must focus on reconciling relationships to fight poverty:

Poverty alleviation is the ministry of reconciliation: moving people closer to glorifying God by living in right relationship with God, with self, with others, and with the rest of creation.

Let us all join in Christ’s example, in word and deed, to reverse the Great Reversal.


Editor’s note: Learn more about the role of the church in caring for the poor in For the Least of These: A Biblical Response to Poverty.

On “Flashback Friday,” we publish some of IFWE’s former posts that are worth revisiting. This post was first published on Apr. 11, 2013.

  • “According to Fikkert, the evangelical church’s retreat from poverty alleviation between 1900 and 1930 encouraged the welfare state to grow to its size today. Church historians refer to this era as the “Great Reversal” because the evangelical church’s shift away from the poor was so dramatic.”

    This is not good history. See Murray Rothbard’s “The Progressive Era” at and “The Decline of American Liberalism” by Dorothy Ekirch. The push for a welfare state began in the 1880s from US students returning from college in Germany, such as the founder of the American Economic Association, Richard Ely. The social gospel preachers, such as Rauschenbusch, had also embraced the liberal theology of Germany that denied the virgin birth and deity of Christ. Without Christ of the Bible, liberal Christians had no reason to exist, so they baptized socialism as the goal and means of their false Christianity.

    “Fundamentalist” Christians in the US insisted that true Christianity required belief in the fundamentals of the virgin birth and deity of Christ, his physical death and resurrection, and the veracity of the Bible. While fundamentalist, and later evangelical, Christians rejected the social gospel, they never quit helping the poor. Such giving is as big part of most Southern Baptist Churches. They just didn’t see it as their first goal. But it is true that as the government increased taxes to support the poor Christians saw less need and had fewer resources to do the same. There is a lot of research in economics that public spending on welfare crowds out private giving.

    The welfare state grew in the US from the 1880s on as US Christians abandoned Christianity for liberal “Christianity” from Germany. As people rejected Christianity, they became socialists. Rejection of God caused the welfare state, not any “reversal” in evangelical theology or abandonment of the poor.

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