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God's Welfare State By: Mark D. Tooley
FrontPageMagazine.com | Thursday, August 07, 2008

The Islamic Society of North America recently has joined the National Council of Churches, Jim Wallis’ Sojourners, two Jewish groups, the National Association of Evangelicals and Catholic Charities to urge Obama and McCain to give primetime convention speeches about the “plague” of poverty n America.

“As we look across our country today, we see a nation in which millions of people lack the basic necessities of life,” declared the interfaith appeal to Obama and McCain.  “During these tough economic times too many Americans are only one job loss, health crisis, or foreclosure away from poverty.”  Citing 37 million poor people in America, and our “common faith teachings,” the interfaith officials instructed the presidential candidates each to present a convention speech that is solely dedicated to proposing a comprehensive plan to address poverty and opportunity in America over the next decade.”

The signers of the letter are nearly exclusively left-leaning groups, which now includes the National Association of Evangelicals, a formerly conservative organization that now increasingly echoes Jim Wallis and the National Council of Churches.  “Moderate” evangelicals, long embarrassed by religious conservatives and by confrontational cultural issues, are straining to promote causes that will win The New York Times’ approval.  Generic Great Society-style government warfare against poverty and environmental activism are two easy pathways to applause, or at least benign acceptance, from the secular media and cultural elites.

This interfaith appeal to Obama and McCain is fairly careful not specifically to call for the endless welfare state expansions and increased federal regulation that have characterized the Religious Left’s “justice” agenda for much of the last century.  But nearly all the signatory groups have long been on record as equating the federal welfare state with God’s Kingdom.   It’s hard not to read the appeal as an attempt to align religious groups with political emphases that favor Democrats over Republicans.  For left-leaning faith groups, who are unable to agree on theology or morals, enlisting in an umpteenth crusade against poverty is their longstanding default mechanism for religious unity.  Supposedly avoiding specifics about God can allow nearly everyone to come together by demanding that Big Government become even bigger.  The altar of the Welfare State ecumenically has room for everybody!

“As communities of faith, we are grounded in a shared tradition of justice and compassion,” the interfaith coalition announced.  “We are called upon to hold ourselves and our communities accountable to the moral standard of our faith tradition. We speak together now to express concern about the plague of persistent poverty in America.”   What is this elusive “moral standard” that ostensibly transcends each of the represented faith traditions, Catholic, Protestant, Jewish and Islamic?   Purportedly, it is based on a “vision of shared responsibility that commands that we leave the corners of our field for the poor and the stranger, and mandates, “There Shall Be No Needy Among You” (Deuteronomy 15:4).”  

Christianity, Judaism and Islam do all commend helping the poor, of course.  But the Book of Deuteronomy, a law book for the ancient Hebrews’  theocracy, does not provide detailed policy guidance for modern political parties.  How interesting that left-leaning religious groups can quote from the Old Testament and its supposed counsel about welfare programs and environmental regulations.   In contrast, conservative religious groups that cite the Scriptures about their moral and political issues are widely derided as aspiring theocrats.

According to this Deuteronomy-quoting appeal from “people of faith,”  it is “immoral to ignore our nation’s most vulnerable populations.”  And, from a more utilitarian perspective, “enduring poverty undermines our country’s economic strength and prosperity.”  They insist that religious charities are not sufficient to address poverty.  So there must be a “serious plan from our political leaders to reduce the number of needy.”

Supposedly Republican Senate Leader Everett Dirksen once derided Lyndon Johnson’s “War on Poverty” by tongue-in-cheek claiming that it violated the Bible’s promise that “ye have the poor always with you.”    A more serious complaint from the Christian and Jewish perspective about the Welfare State is that it is largely materialistic and often utopian.  Can poverty be eliminated?  First, poverty is a somewhat relative term.   Most poor people in today’s America would not be regarded as poor by much of today’s world, nor by most Americans in earlier decades.  Secondly, a free society to some extent allows people the possibility of economic failure.  Only a police state can fully mandate the economic choices of individuals.

Predictably, the interfaith coalition ominously cited the anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, whose tragedy “temporarily unmasked the depths of poverty that are too common in our country.”  Unmentioned by the concerned religious officials is that many of Katrina’s victims were locked in chronic poverty partly thanks to decades of government welfare programs, which had eviscerated families and private philanthropies throughout America’s inner cities.   The religious officials do mention their “commitment to shared prosperity and opportunity for all,” which at least implies some appreciation for the private economy.  But does their citation of “shared prosperity” refer to creating new wealth, or simply coercively redistributing old wealth?     

Naturally, the interfaith coalition warns Obama and McCain of their impending political mobilization.  “In the weeks leading up to the election, the interfaith community will be mobilizing our networks and starting a national conversation in churches, synagogues, and mosques--in the shelters and soup kitchens of our faith based service providers, and among people of faith across our great nation.”  This “conversation” will “build the political and public will to combat poverty,” they insist.    

The left-leaning religious officials, guided by 100 years of statist Social Gospel, want to wage a government-led coercive struggle against “poverty” in the abstract.  But most of their religious traditions express God’s love for specific poor people, while emphasizing voluntary and relational charity towards the needy.   This historic stance of these religions towards the poor understandably has less appeal to the Religious Left, which often is more preoccupied with political power than with concrete compassion.

Mark D. Tooley is president of the Institute on Religion and Democracy. He is the author of Taking Back the United Methodist Church.

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