Social Issues

Christian Republicans and forced altruism

When I was younger, election years thrilled me. The entire process of campaigning and rallies and speeches and debates was one of my favorite things ever, and I reveled in it all. I remember the 2008 election clearly– on campus, the only two people anyone seemed to care about were Mike Huckabee and Ron Paul, and when McCain won the nomination we were all bummed.

I don’t know about you, but I’m already starting to see election news burst into my newsfeeds, with everyone shouting about Jeb Bush and Ted Cruz and Ben Carson and Hilary Clinton and Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders and I’m exhausted. None of the options really appeal to me at the moment, and I can see myself voting Green or Communist or something. I’m 27 and already cynical about politics.

One of the biggest reasons why I’ve changed from a conservative to a liberal over the last few years is that I came to see the role of government differently. As a conservative my deep distrust of the government (which hasn’t gone away, just changed focus; now it’s things like police brutality and corruption that bother me) meant that I wanted a small government. Tiny. Miniscule. Invisible, preferably. Leave me alone to run my own business and I’ll be happy.

That point of view affected how I saw welfare, especially. Before, I saw programs like SNAP and WIC and TANF and unemployment and disability insurance as infringing on what rightfully belonged to the Church. It should be primarily the Church’s responsibility to care for the widow, the orphan, the poor; the federal government shouldn’t be interfering in that.

I also believed that it was beyond ridiculous for the government to turn altruism and charity into taxes– doesn’t that defeat the entire point? I should be able the one to control my money and where it goes and I’m the one who gets to decide who is deserving. Bureaucracies and red tape and forms and waiting lines can’t eliminate welfare queens and people who just want to be “one the dole.” But me– an individual person, perhaps part of a local church– I can. I’m a part of my community. I know best how it needs to be helped.

In a way, I haven’t changed my mind about those things. Handsome and I still believe in giving as much as we can to help people, and that it is our responsibility as Christians to meet needs whenever possible. As I’ve become more liberal, my opinion on the Church’s role in loving the least of these has become even more firm: now, I believe that the bulk of the Church’s attention should be on benevolence and charity. Soup kitchens, food pantries, homeless shelters– whatever the needs of the community are, the gifts of your congregation should be used to fill them.

But one thing has definitely changed– I believe that the Church has failed spectacularly in doing any of that, and that the needs of our communities are beyond the reach of the even a united, committed effort from all our local churches. The problem is just too big, just too systemic. Anything the Church could do would be a bandaid on a bullet wound.

Now, when I hear a Christian arguing that welfare is “forced altruism,” I ruefully laugh– and not just because I had my eyes opened to things like how “pulling yourself up by the bootstraps” is a fondly held conservative myth. I laugh because, supposedly, many conservative Christians believe this country should be run according to biblical principles, and “forced altruism” is definitively one of them.

During the seventh year, let the land lie unplowed and unused. Then the poor among your people may get food from it, and the wild animals may eat what they leave. Do the same with your vineyard and your olive grove. ~ Exodus 23:11

Do not go over your vineyard a second time or pick up the grapes that have fallen. Leave them for the poor and the alien. ~ Leviticus 19:10

When you reap the harvest of your land, do not reap to the very edges of your field or gather the gleanings of your harvest. Leave them for the poor and for the foreigner residing among you. ~ Leviticus 23:22

At the end of every three years, bring all the tithes of that year’s produce and store it in your towns, so that the Levites (who have no allotment or inheritance of their own) and the aliens, the fatherless and the widows who live in your towns may come and eat and be satisfied. ~ Deuteronomy 14:28-29

The seventh year, the year for canceling debts, is near, so that you do not show ill will toward your needy brother and give him nothing. He may then appeal to the LORD against you, and you will be found guilty of sin. ~ Deuteronomy 15:9

Those are just the very tip of the iceberg, as I listed only a few of the specific laws. There are dozens of other commandments that tell the ancient Hebrews to be “openhanded” with the poor. And then there’s the whole concept of Jubilee, which is, at its heart, what a modern conservative would label redistribution of wealth. Those principles were clearly and unequivocally endorsed by Jesus, just in case you want to wiggle out of it with “we’re not under the Law anymore!”

“For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.”

Then the righteous will answer him, “Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?”

The King will reply, “Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.”

Matthew 25:35-40

Not only is taking care of the poor one of the principle roles of the local church, I believe that a Christian doesn’t have a biblical leg to stand on if they want to argue against public government assistance.

Photo by Norman Maddeaux
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