Conservatives are wrong to say government has no obligation to care for the poor

I am not a fan of Jim Wallis’s understanding of the relation between Christianity and politics. In the name of fidelity to Jesus and to Scripture, Wallis often does little more than justify a hard left economic and political agenda. Though he is able to provide legitimate criticism of the Christian Right, his own program amounts to little more than a Christian Left.

Matt Hamilton points out some of the fallacies in Wallis’s understanding of the responsibility of government toward the poor. Responding to Wallis’s claim that “A budget shows who’s important, who’s not, what’s important, what’s not,” he writes,

At face value, this assertion may ring with the sound of truth, but it is very subtly deceptive….  [T]he responsibility of the government is limited and therefore there are things that are important to us not included in government budgets. For example, the government does not fund religious institutions like churches, mosques, or synagogues. That does not mean that religion is not important to Americans, it simply means that it is not the government’s responsibility to be funding religious institutions.

Amen to that. But then Hamilton goes on to make a claim that I think is downright dangerous.

Jesus gave the church the responsibility to take care of the poor, the widow, and the orphan, not the government. To prioritize the government’s coercive role in welfare is ultimately to support the government’s usurpation of a God-given responsibility to the church. If for no other reason why this distinction of roles exists, it is because only one being can be glorified when the poor and the needy are taken care of. Either that being will be God, or that being will be the government. If it is the latter, it can only lead to idolatry.

In contrast [to Wallis], here’s what I want pastors to say: “I will take the responsibility to lead my congregation in providing for the poor, the widows, and the orphans, rather than shirk that responsibility by passing it on to the impersonal idol of Big Government.” That would be following Jesus’ commands.

Now to be sure, Hamilton is correct to call out Wallis and others like him for pretending that everything Jesus said about care for the poor should be applied directly to the obligations of government. A healthy, classic, two kingdoms distinction would help to remind us that Jesus was proclaiming an ethic for the kingdom of God, an ethic attainable only in the community of disciples where the Spirit is at work, and an ethic only secondarily relevant to our understanding of the role of government.

That said, Hamilton’s argument goes a step forward. It argues not only that the church should care for the poor, but that it is the church’s unique role to care for the poor, and that government usurps that role when it takes steps to ensure the care of the poor. In other words, Hamilton is writing as if Jesus’ words apply exclusively to the church, such that whatever they command Christians to do by definition cannot apply to government. Consider this a version of the two kingdoms doctrine taken to the extreme. Hamilton seems to want to completely separate the ethics of the people of God from the ethics of human beings generally.

But is not the very purpose of Jesus’ teaching to demonstrate to human beings the way God would have us live? Is the church not to be a light to the world in order that the world might in some sense imitate that light? Is it really the case that Christians should take care of the poor – and all of the poor – while nonbelievers should not? And do political communities – political communities made up to a significant extent of Christians – have no obligations to their weakest members?

To be sure, we will never make our political communities into the kingdom of God. The church is indeed empowered to attain a greater level of righteousness than is the sword-bearing state. But that does not mean that the obligations of justice or of care for the poor and the weak have no relevance to the state. The state is also appointed by God, responsible to defend the weak against those who would do evil – including the evil of refusing the poor their God-given rights. Christians who know that they will be judged based on how they care for the poor cannot imagine that they are permitted to leave that responsibility out of their minds when they enter into political office and consider how a community ought to be structured. Government is not outside the scope of morality or the authority of God’s law.

Even natural law, as Calvin argued, teaches us that all human beings are brothers and are therefore obligated to care for one another. As Mitt Romney said in his acceptance speech last night, “That America, that united America, will uphold the constellation of rights that were endowed by our Creator, and codified in our Constitution. That united America will care for the poor and the sick, will honor and respect the elderly, and will give a helping hand to those in need.”

Conservatives are right to point out the abuse to which many in the Left put Scripture. They are right to insist that fulfilling our responsibilities toward the poor does not equate supporting Marxism, socialism, or the modern welfare state. And they do us all a service by emphasizing that government best helps the poor when it promotes economic growth, rather than redistribution of wealth.

But conservatives must be careful not to abuse Scripture in service of the agenda of the Right either. Scripture clearly calls government to enforce basic justice for the poor, and nothing that Jesus said suggests this obligation is restricted to the church, or that it is somehow made the church’s unique responsibility. Let’s not let our politics cloud our faithfulness to Scripture.

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About Matthew J. Tuininga

Matthew J. Tuininga is the Assistant Professor of Moral Theology at Calvin Theological Seminary in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

Posted on August 31, 2012, in Politics, Two Kingdoms, Welfare State and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Comments Off on Conservatives are wrong to say government has no obligation to care for the poor.

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