On Paul Ryan: Why Personal Responsibility and Charitable Giving Aren’t Enough


The appointment of Paul Ryan (and his eponymously titled budget) places in stark relief two different positions Christians often take on the role of government—personal or charitable responsibility vs. governmental responsibility.

Conservative Christians often argue that any commands Jesus made concerning justice and the compassionate care of other human beings ought to be expressed not primarily through the government, but through the church. Progressive Christians, on the other hand, generally view government as an important part of the solution in manifesting the justice and compassion commanded by Jesus. I’d like to take a look at the conservative argument, for a moment.

Conservative Christians tend to emphasize personal responsibility as the primary locus of Christian morality. That is to say, Christians are first of all responsible for themselves–”If you are travelling [sic.] with a child or someone who requires assistance, secure your mask on first, and then assist the other person.” Of paramount importance here is the state of one’s soul. After having secured your own soul, you are then free to “assist the other person.”

On a conservative reading of scripture, the assistance one provides ought to come through individuals, or at least through charitable organizations, preferably those associated with the church. Jesus, it is often pointed out, didn’t command his followers to prop up governmental institutions (even humanitarian ones) as a way of establishing justice and compassion. These kinds of good works are best left to those who answer first and only to God. (Of course, it should be pointed out that Jesus was Jewish, which carried with it an implicit understanding that governmental and religious responsibility were indistinguishable from one another–in ways that don’t admit of a modern American analog.)

This willingness to help through voluntary giving is how many conservative Christians can reconcile a desire for cutting taxes–even though those cuts might come at the expense of governmental programs designed to aid the poor and the powerless. In other words, the argument goes, if you cut taxes, Christians can use the money saved and apply it to humanitarian programs administered by the church–or at least, not by the government.

The question raised by this line of thinking is: Why would it be better for volunteer organizations to help the marginalized than governmental organizations? The practical answer to that question is I think a legitimate critique of governmental programs, which is, those programs sometimes display an appalling lack of efficiency. One need only hear a couple of stories about “$640 toilet seats, $7,600 coffee makers, $436 hammers” to believe government often treats money too casually, as an inexhaustible resource.

While I think this conservative critique has some meat on the philosophical bones, it runs into a couple of problems. First, people often argue that what they could do with the extra money saved in taxes is help people, when what they actually do is use it to help themselves to more and better stuff.

Now, someone might object that the money that’s not taxed belongs to the individual, who may spend it however that person decides–without any unnecessary meddling from the likes of long-haired busy-bodies like me.

True enough, I suppose. However, if you happen to regard the reading of scripture as something like a serious enterprise, it will be hard to get that kind of logic past Jesus and Paul, both of whom thought money was much less the object of personal prerogative than much of popular Christianity would be comfortable with.

But arguing how you spend your tax savings isn’t my point for the moment. I’m only calling attention to the fact that it’s disingenuous to argue for paying lower taxes because charitable organizations are more efficient than governmental ones, but then use those tax savings to buy an extra jet ski.

The second problem a conservative critique of governmental programs designed to aid those on society’s sidelines runs into has to do with whether the resources available to charitable organizations are sufficient to address the problems.

Unfortunately, at present charitable organizations like the church can’t do enough to feed all the people who need food. The church can’t provide healthcare to all the people who need healing. The church can’t teach Calculus and Physics to all the people who need to know them. The church doesn’t have the capacity to tend to all the elderly and disabled who can’t afford to take care of themselves.

You might respond by saying: Well, the church used to do those things before the government took them over.

You’re right. But the indisputable truth of the matter is that the church is no longer in any position to do those things on the scale necessary now. So, until the church puts up the infrastructure necessary to meet all those needs, we’re just going to have to run the fruits of those labors through the only apparatus capable of handling them all–the government.

Someone might chime in: But we think the government’s the problem–not the answer.

The truth of the matter is: For the most basic needs of those people who, for whatever reason, aren’t in a position to help themselves–that is, they’ve got no bootstraps to pull–the government is the only game in town.

Why punish the poor, the powerless, and the hungry just because we have a difference of agreement over organizational strategies?

Here, another objection might be raised that turning over our responsibilities to those unable, for whatever reason, to help themselves is an abdication of personal responsibility. That is to say, Christians ought not let the government do a job that God gave exclusively to them.

What this fails to take into consideration, however, is that–at least in the United States–we’re very explicit about the fact that the government isn’t some alien body imposed on us from without; the government, according to the story we tell ourselves about ourselves, is a body designed and staffed by us to order our common life. If the government is inefficient, it’s because we’ve not demanded efficiency.

To this it might be protested that the reason government is inefficient is because a body of people working together under the constraint of regulation is always necessarily inefficient—that because of human depravity groups of people are always prone to problems when it comes to working together.

This might very well be true. However, one might wonder how it is that governmental and not ecclesial bodies are the only one’s prone to manifesting this human weakness. I suppose the answer to that question might be one of scale–that is, the more people you have working in an organization, the less efficient it is. I’m not sure there’s a direct causal relation between size and inefficiency, but if there is, wouldn’t that also be an argument suggesting that mega-churches are an inherently bad idea?

Here’s one of my concerns in all this: I worry that the argument about the rightful place for seeking justice and compassion is framed by the conservative critique as an either/or argument. I’m not sure why it’s not possible to believe that both ways (i.e., governmental and charitable) of offering aid and support to those who need it is important–that the relationship between governmental and charitable help need not be competitive but complementary.

My deepest fear, however, is that the argument to take money from those programs that support the folks who need it most, under the guise of a Christian emphasis on personal responsibility and a distrust of government, is just a cover for selfishness.

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11 thoughts on “On Paul Ryan: Why Personal Responsibility and Charitable Giving Aren’t Enough

  1. Pingback: On Paul Ryan: Why Personal Responsibility and Charitable Giving Aren’t Enough | [D]mergent « The Company of the Eudaimon

  2. A key component of the $640 toilet seats, $7,600 coffee makers, $436 hammers narrative is that in government that was specifically the military which many conservative folk uphold the inexhaustible resources for–but not for the hungry, elderly , weak or children who cannot pull themselves up by their own bootstraps.

  3. I like the discussion of efficiency. Efficiency presupposes certain accounting assumptions. Simply, measuring efficiency depends on what is accounted for as having value. If only certain objects are given value, then efficiency only considers those certain objects.

    Obviously, one can see the problems when applying principles of efficiency in matters of human well-being: not only are such considerations left out of the accounting equation, but it would be impossible to convert human well-being to a value that can be balanced against the dollars which represent hammers, toilet seats, etc. We see this in the debate of the so-called “cheap energy” of coal, for example. Cheap? Sure, if you don’t include the cost of miner’s health or the value of mountains. Cheap computer technology? Sure, if a Chinese girl’s life is left out of the equation. Cheap clothing? Well, go to Mexico or Guatemala and you get the idea. Don’t get me started on the cost of our foreign policy and who pays for that. Hint, it isn’t American taxpayers.

    Furthermore, the current debate of “what to do with our tax dollars” presupposes the legitimacy of an economic system that allows some people to profit via the exploitation of the many. Should we allow capitalists and corporate non-persons to keep all the surplus? Or should we allow a governing body make use of the surplus for supposedly mutually agreed upon social priorities such as entitlement programs, infrastructure or military adventurism?

    Well, I reject the legitimacy of a system that exploits the poor for the production of surpluses for the use by the wealthy. I find it abhorrent and anti-Biblical to say the least.

    I, of course, know that there is no solution that can be had tomorrow for those of us who believe what I do. But I think that even as we work within the broken system towards something just, we must keep at the forefront of our minds what actually is just. And American imperial capitalism isn’t it (neither are the many varieties of totalitarianism, of course).

    I think the short-term practical goals should be for community activists to non-violently fight for representation of the poor and exploited in our governance, while at the same time creating alternative models of community that give people an idea of what a just society should look like. We must restore the common currency of human dignity as the measure against which any society is valued.

    The most immediate thing that we can do is educate and enlighten folks to the injustices of the system, to which we have been deliberately kept blind by a selective telling of history and an inaccurate framing of discourse in the media. Which is exactly what we are doing here. 🙂 A careful, contextualized reading of our Scriptures will do the same.

    The long term goal is the Kin-dom, which God will provide. All we must do is have faith and share the Good News of what is to come.

  4. “…is just a cover for selfishness.” There will always be some for which this is true. But this is even more a problem with the current “liberalism”. Statistics show that as a group (individuals vary!) those with a liberal viewpoint want to force others to pay for social programs they believe in while at the same time personally contributing much less on average than their conservative counterparts. (From a study by Arthur C. Brooks, independent:– Although liberal families’ incomes average 6 percent higher than those of conservative families, conservative-headed households give, on average, 30 percent more to charity than the average liberal-headed household ($1,600 per year vs. $1,227). We are all selfish, but we don’t solve our personal problem with selfishness by forcing others to do what we won’t willingly do ourselves.

    Human desire and expectation has raised the cost and demand for social programs beyond the level that government can afford, even if it is efficient. The added demand is also fueled by the casualties of the “new morality”. While there is no silver bullet, “compassionate” conservatism offers a solution that will provide for more people over the long term.

  5. I am absolutely certain that it is selfishness. “I’ve got mine, you can go get yours yourself.” As I see it, only the Democrats follow Jesus’ commandment to “feed the hungry, care for the sick, …” Now if only more Democrats knew that they are Christian in their hearts.
    Nancy Parish nlparish@msn.com

  6. I wonder what Jesus might think of our ready affiliation with one of two political parties offered to us by an imperial power structure.

    Perhaps our willingness to submit to a political platform says more about where our hearts are more than which flavor.

    I choose none of the above, but then again, I don’t pretend that a vote every four years is the same as exercising a civic duty.

    I advocate solidarity with the poor, not voting for those who exploit the poor by claiming to speak for them.

    My two cents, of course, meant respectfully always

  7. God bless you borther.i am thomas.my life is very sad.please help me i need to any job.i am pree degree passed and computer.i am not a job.please support me and help me.God be with you friend.

  8. The Good News has 3 inseparable messages:
    1) The universal accessibility of the personal and persistent unrestrained love and unconditional grace of God; and
    2) The feeding quenching clothing healing visiting welcoming compassion and the reparative rehabilitating restorative justice of the Community; and
    3) The inclusive hospitality and joyous generosity and healthy service of the Individual.

    Being charitable – in and of itself – is not a Christian virtue.
    We are called to stop the hunger and thirst and nakedness and sickness and lonliness and exclusion and the hurting.
    We are called to stop hatred, revenge, and punishment in the name of justice and instead make justice about repairing the brokenness, rehabilitation, restoring to a place of full participation in the community.

    Charity as an isolated act of giving by an individual that requires no personal involvement – is not the Christian way.
    It is about being and living and exuding and provoking the Kingdom of God here and now.

  9. This post reveals a very basic flaw with progressive christianity thinking. The author states that he fears people won’t use their tax breaks to help the poor, thus we should be happy and wiling to allow the government to deal with them. This post should have been about christians not being selfish and “Loving their neighbor as themselves.” The whole line of thinking is skewed. True arguements are even presented as to why government shouldn’t be the ones to administer such things and wastefulness is foremost. How can THAT be considered as being a good steward of what God has given us?? Because the church is ill-equipped makes it okay to hand over it’s duty?? No! We need to get back to basics: Love God first, and then love others. This sounds like “passing the buck” to me. Christians are selfish, the church is unable, so let the government do the job, however poorly.

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