At Work & Economics 101 & Public Square

Is the Church Responsible for 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 over 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.

Tell us what you think. Is the Church responsible for the welfare state? Do government programs crowd out church programs? Leave your comments here

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  • Jim Price

    Since Mr Fikkert focuses on the years 1900 to 1930, it gives us reason to bring up just a few of the events in that period of history that caused hunger and dislocation. The robber baron era had reached it’s zenith with one or two percent having most of the money. The great earthquake in San Francisco, World War I, a hugh flu epidemic, the drought and subsequent dust bowl, the stock market crash and the great depression.
    At the same time the population was growing rapidly, internally and from massive immigration. My point is that the Church, the government and the helping agencies of that time were all inadequate. They were inadequate in understanding how big the problem was; they were short on vision and had outdated theology and government policy.
    If we truly put value on human life; why not encourage all the positive forces to work together to undergird those caught in the winds and storms of life?

    • Jim, thanks for your thoughtful comment! I’m sure there are several factors going on at that time and it is quite possible that the public and private sector were all inadequate in some sense between 1900 and 1930. But I’m not sure that encouraging the public sector to assist equally in the welfare of the nation is what we should strive for simply because I believe churches have an informational advantage over the government. They have a better opportunity to understand the problems in their community and the best solutions for those problems in a way that the government does not. I understand the need for a small and local government safety net, but I would encourage the private sector over the public sector to take action in the fight on poverty for efficiency Thanks for engaging in conversation – I appreciate your input!

    • RogerMcKinney

      Actually, the period of the “robber barons” was one in which inquality fell dramatically and the standard of living increased as it never has since. See Nobel Prize winner Fogel’s book “Escape from Hunger and Premature Death.”

      As I wrote above, what percentage of our income should we give to the poor? If there is no objective standard, then how does anyone know that giving has been too small?

      Economics and history have proven that be only sustainable way to reduce poverty in the long run is through economic development creating jobs. The latest proofs are India and China. Charitable giving and state redistribution actually hinder that process, as the USSR, N. Korea, Cuba, and China before 1980 prove.

      Of course, we need to trade off some jobs for charity simply because we love people.But how much?

  • Joel Hallet

    Well stated.

  • RogerMcKinney

    As an economic historian I think Fikkert and Moberg are full of nonsense and guilty of the post hoc fallacy. There was a lot more happening in politics and economics than the evangelic battle over the social gospel.

    Socialists had been trying to get the German welfare state into the US since the civil war. That intensified with the mass migrations to the US of socialists from Europe. In the late 19th century, German “liberal” theology had taken over most Protestant denominations. “Evangelical” or “fundamentalist” Christians were a minority. It would have been easy for the liberal churches to make up for the small loss in evangelical giving. But instead they demanded the state do it because they were all socialists at that point.

    Also, evangelicals never quit giving to the poor. It may not have been a major agenda of the denominations, but evangelicals have always given personally to the poor. In fact, surveys prove that most charitable giving in the US is done by evangelicals today.

    “Scholars” love to make Christians feel guilty about giving, but how much should we give to the poor? What is an objective measure? They don’t have one and the Bible doesn’t give one. So how do they know we didn’t give enough?

    The correct answer to why the US adopted the Welfare state is that the decline of traditional Christianity opened up gullible people to the nonsense of socialism. By the late 1920’s, most Americans believed that the USSR had a better economic system and had solved all of the problems that Americans thought the US suffered from. It had nothing to do with evangelicals.

    • Roger, thanks so much for your comments! Your thoughts are very insightful and certainly present a side that Fikkert and Moberg ignore. It makes sense that the lure of socialism of that time was so strong that those effects outweighed whatever “Great Reversal” Fikkert describes in his book.

  • Nathan

    Awesome article, thank you! I am not sure the mission of the church is clear with regards to poverty and I believe this is causing a lot of problems in the church.

    Is the mission of the church to “alleviate” poverty – which sounds to me like non-self-sustaining efforts to blunt the consequences of poverty. Or is the church’s mission to “eliminate” poverty – which sounds to me like directing capital to its most productive uses and not something the church is setup to do well (maybe better than the government but worse than the for-profit sector).

    Also, what is poverty – should the church care about relative poverty or limit itself to abject poverty? I believe that “equity” is an insidious standard and one should be suspicious whenever someone advocates for it without deeper discussion.

    Does poverty matter intrinsically (I’m not convinced the Kingdom of Heaven concerns itself with the value of ones resources) or does poverty only matter as a matter of justice – i.e. when there is oppression or discrimination? What about poverty resulting from sickness or other elements of a broken Creation?

    So maybe the church’s current situation is caused by an overreaction to the social gospel or maybe it is caused by the government crowding the church out, but my guess is that agreeing on the answers to some of these questions would go a long way towards re-enabling churches. It would be especially interesting to know how the church would have answered these questions before their “retreat” in the 1900’s.

    • Great thoughts Nathan! You’ve given me a lot to consider for future blog posts. I agree that the for-profit sector does the best job in fighting poverty through wealth creation and job creation. I think the church’s role is to pick up those left behind since we know capitalism isn’t flawless. I also believe there is a minimum role for a basic government safety net, but you’re right, the line is grey between the role of these three sectors.

      Equity is a word thrown around very carelessly and we must be careful to view equity as justice under the rule of law. I do think that poverty matters intrinsically in some sense, since whole-person development includes both spiritual and physical aspects if humanity – it can act as a symbol of Christ reclaiming all things new (not just souls). But you are very right, these questions need to be answered before we can have a serious conversation about whether the chicken came before the egg.


    Stop the corporations from moving jobs into other countries.

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