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

Major welfare programs as of 2012
Major welfare programs as of 2012

I was asked a question by e-mail by Kerri about why some Christians like Bernie Sanders and his plan for big government, more spending, higher taxes and more debt.

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 truth is that religious liberty and freedom of conscience works better in societies where individuals are large, and government is small. We can do more as Christians to help others and draw attention to Christ when we are allowed to keep our own money, and make our own lives the way we want. When a secular government takes half our money to buy the votes of people who just want money and not a transformed life, we lose. It’s our job to attach wisdom and goodness to our giving when we give of ourselves to others. In the long run, that wisdom and goodness rubs off on the people we give to, reducing the need for them to be dependent on others. Government just takes our money and sends it to people who are living unwisely, with no strings attached. That will never get people out of dependency. It’s a mistake for Christians to use government as a substitute for doing the work of charity. That’s our job.

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

  1. Very well said and refreshing too. Government dependency erodes the soul and I wish is something we as a society would have more conversations about. Too often it’s taken for granted that large spending programs equate with compassion. In reality I think most politicians don’t have the smarts to know how to lift people out of poverty nor the kahunas to tell some much needed hard truths, so they take the easy way of trading govt goodies for votes.

    All at the expense of our liberties of course and individual self worth. Yet those of us calling for reforms are the “evil” ones, sigh….

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