Amid the frenzied weeks of the National Political Conventions, Jim Wallis and other liberals are urging politicians and voters to consider the fate of the poor when contemplating economic policies. The message is nothing new, but this time Wallis, president of the liberal Christian activist group Sojourners delivered it on Huffington Post’s live streamed “Shadow Convention.”
Of course Christians should care for the poor and consider them when casting their ballots. But Wallis essentially says if Christians truly care about the poor, then they will support government programs intended to address poverty.
Wallis repeatedly proclaims the federal budget is a “moral document,” and urges Congress to not reduce the deficit “on the backs of the poor” by cutting welfare programs. He explained “How we reduce deficits is also a moral issue,” but if reductions are made “by mostly punishing people who are already poor and suffering, that from a Christian point of view is fundamentally immoral.”
As a special guest on the “Shadow Convention,” Wallis reviewed statistics about having the “highest poverty rates in years,” and stated that “from a religious point of view [poverty] should be a top voting issue.” He described how “more and more of our friends are now in poverty,” and that “poverty in the suburbs is rising.” At the same time, he claimed many people aren’t concerned about poverty because they have “no personal connection with people who are poor.”
Wallis is absolutely right that Christians are commanded to love their neighbors and help the poor, and it is wrong to care only for ourselves and our own families. But is that command an imperative to support government systems?
Conservatives who prefer a smaller government don’t do so out of a disdain for the needy and admiration of the rich, as many liberals seem to think. Many, if not most who vote Republican genuinely care about the poor and give generously to charitable organizations. They simply don’t believe the way to solve poverty is through State structures. In fact, a recent study found that residents of Republican states contribute more to charity than those in Democratic states. The top states for charitable giving were also the most religious – Utah and Idaho ranked first and second, and the rest of the top nine were in the Bible Belt.
Also part of the “Shadow Convention” was a short debate on the motion: “The government is responsible for protecting poor people and reducing poverty.” Wallis argued the “Yes, it’s the government’s biblical role” side, and Joseph Loconte, a professor of history at The King’s College argued the opposing side.
Loconte wrote that too often, conservatives simplistically claim the solution is to “slash government assistance … and private-sector charity will rise from the ashes, like the mythical phoenix, to take care of society’s neediest.” Because poverty is not only a matter of material need, we must recognize its complex causes when discussing solutions. Loconte wrote:
The hard truth is that the worst assumptions of the welfare state have shaped and distorted social assistance of all kinds. The lack of personal responsibility, the denigration of entry-level jobs as the training ground for better employment, the isolation of individuals from their families, the indifference to marriage, the denial of any moral or spiritual dimension to the problem of poverty — these and other habits of mind infect much of what passes for private-sector charity.
Acknowledging the broader cultural problems – especially the breakdown of the family – contributing to the persistence of poverty and the failure of welfare to solve it points to the critical need for real community. As marriage and family have weakened and individuals have become more isolated, and in many cases more dependent on government assistance, it is clear we must reevaluate the role relationships and community play in addressing poverty.
“The balance between the two, the individual and community is critical … we’re losing that balance now,” Wallis said. He “[wants] a country that takes care of each other,” but what does it really mean to do that? When Jesus said “love your neighbor as yourself,” he meant love your literal neighbor – the one who you actually know in person, not an abstract neighbor you will never meet. Supporting assistance programs is valid if you truly believe those are good policies, but doing so does not contribute to building genuine community.
Quoting Methodism founder John Wesley, Loconte wrote: “‘Put yourself in the place of every poor man … and deal with him as you would God deal with you.’ Here is the one thing the secular State, by definition, cannot do — and the one thing that could make all the difference in the world.” Poverty and hunger are real issues demanding the attention of all faithful Christians. Perhaps it is time to take a break from the abstract discussion and help a neighbor in need.