Should Christians seek to help the poor by growing a secular government?

I found a paper (PDF) on the University of Washington web site that makes the case for why Christians ought to care about more than just social issues when it comes to politics and elections.

Here’s the abstract:

What accounts for cross-national variation in religiosity as measured by church attendance and non-religious rates? Examining answers from both secularization theory and the religious economy perspective, we assert that cross-national variation in religious participation is a function of government welfare spending and provide a theory that links macro-sociological outcomes with individual rationality. Churches historically have provided social welfare. As governments gradually assume many of these welfare functions, individuals with elastic preferences for spiritual goods will reduce their level of participation since the desired welfare goods can be obtained from secular sources. Cross-national data on welfare spending and religious participation show a strong negative relationship between these two variables after controlling for other aspects of modernization.

Here’s the conclusion:

It is quite apparent that there is a strong statistical relationship between state social welfare spending and religious participation and religiosity. Countries with higher levels of per capita welfare have a proclivity for less religious participation and tend to have higher percentages of non-religious individuals. People living in countries with high social welfare spending per capita even have less of a tendency to take comfort in religion, perhaps knowing that the state is there to help them in times of crisis.34 As laid out in the theory above, there is likely a substitution effect for some individuals between state-provided services and religious services. Religion will still be there to serve the spiritual needs of people seeking answers to the philosophic mysteries of life, but those who value those spiritual goods less than the tangible welfare benefits churches provide will be less likely to participate in religious services once secular substitutes become available. Given that religious practice and values are often passed down from generation to generation, the weakening of practice in one generation will likely translate into weaker practice in subsequent generations. Does this mean that secularization theory is correct in its prediction that religion will gradually fade away? Doubtful. Realizing that there is still a yearning among many people to understand the mysteries of life, religion is not likely to dissipate at any time soon. Government simply cannot offer credible substitutes for these less tangible, supernatural goods. The explosion in spirituality once religion was made legal in former Soviet bloc countries lends credence to this assertion (Greeley 1994). As religious markets become more deregulated in various parts of the world, it is likely that new religious movements will take advantage of increased liberty and discover ways to expand.

Perhaps one of the most important lessons from the findings above is that the religiosity of a society is not simply determined by sociological factors. Government policy can play an important role in shaping the religiosity of a nation. Policies aimed at regulating the activities of religious organizations — from tax laws to zoning regulations — have important effects on the firms that supply religious goods and services. Many of these policies are designed consciously to promote or inhibit religious practice. Alternatively, welfare policy has been shown here to unintentionally affect the demand for religious services, likely over the course of generations. And, finally, since an extensive welfare state is considered by many to be a hallmark of modernized societies, the microfoundational analysis presented above provides a way of incorporating a component part of the secularization thesis (which relies heavily on notions of modernization) into the religious economy perspective.

Have you ever heard a sermon that addresses the size of government and individual liberty and prosperity? I haven’t. You’d have to be reading Christian scholars like Wayne Grudem or Jay Richards to find that. The typical church you attend either praises big government or says nothing about it. After all, we can keep making withdrawals on the liberties we have right now without ever worrying about having to make any deposits, right? Everything will be fine, and it’s easier not to have to think about what’s down the road to serfdom, so long as the scenery is nice for us right now. Religion is primarily about comfort, not truth. Right?

The funny thing is that when I talk to most Christians about this, especially non-Americans, they simply don’t have the knowledge of economics to understand how big government affects liberty, prosperity and security. Few of my international friends read people like F.A. Hayek and Thomas Sowell, and there are not that many people reading them here at home, either. Maybe we should be, though.

7 thoughts on “Should Christians seek to help the poor by growing a secular government?”

  1. “The typical church you attend either praises big government or says nothing about it. After all, we can keep making withdrawals on the liberties we have right now without ever worrying about having to make any deposits, right?”

    Your last paragraph on economic ignorance touches on where much of the problem for this can be found, though I would add its more worse than merely misunderstanding economics. The typical churchgoer has been schooled from infancy until their mid-twenties in a state-run education system that continuously perpetuates myths about how government programs lifts people out of poverty, when the exact opposite has occurred. Particularly since the beginning of the War on Poverty in the 1960s, the state has tried to take on social responsibilities, such as caring for the feed, the sick, and the needy, that were traditionally handled by the church. Pastors won’t challenge big government, especially when it comes to their spending on welfare programs, because either they don’t have a secure philosophical understanding of why such policies are at odds with Scripture, or they do but the congregation still believes that paying taxes is akin to tithing.


  2. Hmm, interesting. “Have you ever heard a sermon that addresses the size of government and individual liberty and prosperity?”

    I have actually, oddly in churches in very poor areas addressing that very thing. The problem with secular bureaucratic charity is that it just treats the symptoms, rather then the whole person. It’s also impersonal and prone to be cruel, so someone can lose their benefits at the drop of a hat or a clerical error. Many poor people are keenly aware of this.

    There are some well off Christians however, usually of a left leaning persuasion, who seem to believe that their call to love people can be accomplished by just increasing secular government. Recently I was with a group of Christians talking about the need for low income housing, for increased benefits, for a higher minimum wage. No, what this community really needs is jobs! People need to be able to provide for themselves, that is how you love people, not by endlessly trying to provide for their crisis needs that will never ever go away if you are just treating the symptoms.


  3. Not sure if I understand your pitch: Are you saying that churches should argue for small government because then people will seek their welfare from the church?
    If so, I disagree.
    The fire of secularism is burning the chaff that churches don’t need. If we can return to the true, core orthodox theology (and get rid of all this prosperity theology for one) we should rejoice.


    1. Well, look. If you are happy with where the church is in North Korea, or even in the UK, then by all means, vote for bigger government and disregard the study. But then don’t complain about abortion and gay marriage – you voted for it. Economics is only an issue for people who are pro-life and pro-marriage. If you favor big government making sex changes taxpayer funded or cracking down on Christian doctors and nurses who object to abortion, or persecuting Christian businesses, colleges and individuals for disagreement with gay marriage, then vote for the biggest secular government you can. If you think it’s a good idea to make government bigger so that more people can be paid to not work, go for it. Or maybe you don’t like Christianity, and so you want to increase fatherlessness, which is proven to discourage religious belief in children. If that’s your view, then increase the size of government so that more people can be paid to fornicate and raise fatherless kids.


    2. I saw this article, and thought of you:

      Mark Oppenheimer of The New York Times is now calling for the government to remove tax-exempt status from churches. After I posted a link to his article on Facebook, a pastor friend commented: “I’m not sure our small church could survive.” That, my friends, is the point. And Oppenheimer knows it.

      […]A call for ending tax exemptions for religious institutions is a call to close them down—or at least to plunder them of their property. That is what is going on here. Think of the irreparable harm that would follow if and when these many small churches are effectively forced to close their doors—harm that will come not only to these ministers and parishioners themselves, but also to the poor and vulnerable: lost foster-care services, tutoring of teens, material and spiritual relief for the poor, and character development, often in the places it is needed most.

      But if you think that big government is great, then you’re all on board with this. You want churches to pay more of their money to the government, because you think that it’s government’s job to help the poor. Look. Either Christians spend their money as they see fit, or they give it to the government to spend as they see fit. Let’s not have any pious talk about helping the poor. If you are for big government, that means you want christians to give their money to the state, and churches to give their money and property to the state. If you are for small government, then you want Christians to keep what they earn, and churches to keep operating.

      Europe took your advice, and look at how well the church is doing there, in a socialist welfare states. Or how about North Korea? Lots of big government there. Not much Christianity there, since they are beyond mere fines and on to executing Christians.


    3. Oh, and here’s another thing you support, this time from big government Seattle:

      Earlier this month, reported on a high school in Seattle, Washington that is now implanting intrauterine devices (IUD), as well as other forms of birth control and doing so without parental knowledge or permission.

      The IUD is known as a long acting reversible contraception, and may even act as an abortifacient. So, a young teen in Seattle can’t get a coke at her high school, but she can have a device implanted into her uterus, which can unknowingly kill her unborn child immediately after conception. Or, if she uses another method, she can increase her chances of health risks for herself, especially if using a new method.

      The high school, Chief Sealth International, a public school, began offering the devices in 2010, made possible by a Medicaid program known as Take Charge and a non-profit, Neighborcare. Students can receive the device or other method free of cost and without their parent’s insurance. And while it’s lauded that the contraception is confidential, how can it be beneficial for a parent-child relationship when the parents don’t even know the devices or medication their daughter is using?

      As it turns out, Chief Sealth isn’t the only school in Seattle doing this. As CNS News reports, more schools are fitting young girls — as young as 6th grade — with the devices and doing so without their parents knowing.

      Why? Because big government knows more than parents, churches and religious schools. Another triumph for the big government you support.


  4. Coming from Europe I would note a few points:

    1. Europe is mainly post-Christian. Some Christians may have misplaced views about welfare, but the influence if the church is that small that it doesn’t make much difference to actual policies adopted.

    2. From my outside perspective the US seems to be very far down the same road. When it comes to abortion and gay marriage the US is more liberal than Europe. The legal strategies designed to impose these were devised by liberal interest groups and academics in America.

    3. Much of the accomodationist theologies which European evangelical churches have adopted in recent years are merely copying the latest fashion from US. We were foolish to copy, but the original ideas often originated in US.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s