Public Square

Poverty and Government

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The wealthy, the Church, and the Poor

It is clear from Scripture that God holds the rich accountable for how they use their resources. The wealthy are particularly judged by how they treat the poor and disadvantaged in society, typically described in the Bible as the widow, the orphan, and the sojourner, the people who have no advocate or legal or social support in the community.

The rich are not to mistreat or to take advantage of the weak, and are to provide for their immediate needs as well as to preserve their dignity by providing them with opportunities to earn their own way rather than reducing them to dependency.

It is also clear from Scripture that religious communities are expected to take care of the poor. One use of the Old Testament tithe was to provide for the needy, and the churches in Greece and Asia took up collections for the poor in Jerusalem.

Government and the poor

Given the individual and church mandates to care for the poor, what responsibilities does government have in this area? The Bible does not answer this question directly. It does tell us a number of things about government, however, that have some bearing on how we answer the question.

First, government has an important role to fill in society in the related areas of administering justice impartially, including rewarding good behavior and punishing wrongdoing, and defending the body politic from attack. Biblical teaching strongly suggests that these are the principal functions of government, though in the example of Solomon we see other elements as well, such as building programs and the promotion of trade and economic prosperity.

Nowhere, however, do we find the state engaged in welfare programs. There are several possible reasons for this. For example, since no state in the ancient world provided poor relief, the Scriptures may simply reflect common practice at the time. On the other hand, Israel was the only culture in the ancient world that tied morality and religion together, and as we saw in the last article, the Law transformed the practice of slavery. In view of this, it seems quite possible for the Law to have mandated government welfare as a unique institution in Israel. Yet it did not.

Alternately, the absence of governmental involvement in social welfare may have resulted from practical considerations: given the communication and transportation technologies of the period, it may have been impossible to organize state-run welfare. Care of the poor thus would of necessity have been handled on a more local level. We will return to this idea later.

Whatever the reason for the lack of governmental support of the poor in the Bible, it is clear that some functions are central to a Biblical vision of government, while others, including social welfare, are at best peripheral.

The second key point about government is that Jesus is Lord, and Caesar is not. This may seem obvious, but we rarely realize today how important and radical that statement is.

In the ancient world, religion and government were inseparable. Kings ruled by divine authority or were seen as gods themselves. As such, nothing was beyond their authority. The early Christian proclamation that Jesus is Lord challenged this concept of governmental power at its very core.

To be sure, as Jesus taught, Christians were prepared to “render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s”—they were not rebels in that sense—but they refused to render to Caesar the things that were God’s. This amounts to a de facto insistence on limited government. And as a result, the Romans considered Christians seditious and subjected the church to nearly 300 years of sporadic persecution before Christianity was finally decriminalized by Constantine.

Christianity is therefore unique among the world’s major religions in that it established itself in society without the support of the state. And since the church had been independent of the state for centuries, after Christianity was legalized, religion and government were for the first time seen as separable, with each having authority in its own sphere without interference from the other, though cooperating in areas of mutual interest.

The distinction of church and state had enormous implications for society. As George Weigel has argued, the church’s independence from government created the possibility of other areas developing their own authority separate from the state. Schools, business, labor, family, and other institutions emerged as largely autonomous spheres operating with minimal state regulation. And it is precisely this that created Western civil society.

What has this got to do with poverty? During the middle ages, social welfare programs were handled through a variety of intermediate agencies, including guilds, lay religious groups, monasteries, and churches rather than through governments. With few exceptions, the states relied on these independent charities to handle social welfare.

When the Reformation came, governments in some areas took social welfare functions away from the churches, but for the most part charity continued to be handled by families, private individuals, benevolent organizations, and churches all the way into the late nineteenth and even the twentieth century. This emphasis on local solutions is the flip side of Schneider’s idea of moral proximity discussed in the previous article: just as individuals have greater responsibility to those closest to them, so the solution to problems should come from those closest to them.

Government as last resort

This principle, which Catholic thinkers call subsidiarity, argues that governmental institutions are subsidiary (secondary) to more immediate groups in finding solutions to problems. Thus social welfare is better handled by families first and then by local charitable institutions rather than by governments. Only if a situation is sufficiently widespread or intractable should government get involved, and even then it should be handled on as local a level as possible.

The principle of subsidiarity thus does not reject governmental involvement in poor relief out of hand, but argues that it should be a last resort after other institutions prove unable to provide solutions. Even then, the more local the government, the better. From a Biblical perspective, this idea has several advantages:

  • it reinforces the responsibility of families to take care of their own;
  • it helps develop compassion and love of neighbor;
  • by encouraging voluntary charitable institutions it helps promote civic mindedness, care for the needy, and thus virtue in the populace (one responsibility of government, according to Rom. 13);
  • it fosters liberty by encouraging the citizens to take responsibility for their communities rather than relying on government to do so.

In the United States, the New Deal began to shift responsibility for the needy away from private and local organizations toward the federal government. This process was accelerated in the ‘60s by the Great Society and the War on Poverty. These programs moved the country away from subsidiarity toward more centralized approaches to social welfare. We will look at some of the consequences of this shift in the next article.

Reprinted with permission of Prison Fellowship,

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