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.