Commentary

God: The Shakedown Artist for the Welfare State?

God is the ultimate trump. Everyone proclaims that God is on their side. Whatever the issue, someone somewhere will argue that they are doing what Jesus would do. Even in politics.

The Right long has claimed Scriptural warrant for using government to enforce Christian moral norms and wage war to promote American values. The Left prefers to claim God as the inspiration for government income distribution. Activists currently are deploying Christianity to sell expansive, expensive, redistributionist government.

For instance, President Barack Obama recently declared that “God wants to see us help ourselves by putting people back to work.” White House spokesman Jay Carney concocted a supporting Biblical quote: “I believe the phrase from the Bible is, ‘The Lord helps those who help themselves’.” There is no such verse, but never mind. Surely God wants the U.S. government to tax and spend America to prosperity.

Many mainline churches have endorsed the Occupy Wall Street movement. The Episcopal Church’s Executive Council proclaimed: “the growing movement of peaceful protests in public spaces in the United States and throughout the world in resistance to the exploitation of people for profit or power bears fruitful witness in the tradition of Jesus to the sinful inequities in society.” Directors of the United Methodist Women’s Division marched on Wall Street demanding higher taxes, “free” university education and health care, debt cancellation and more.

Several religious leaders were arrested in the Capitol Rotunda protesting budget cuts. Explained one: “Today, we offer our bodies as a living sacrifice to say to Congress, ‘Raise revenue, protect the vulnerable and those living poverty’.”

The so-called “Circle of Protection” has sought to block most any spending reductions. The group calls for resistance to “budget cuts that undermine the lives, dignity and rights of poor and vulnerable people.” While defending government bureaucracy, evangelical Jim Wallis argues that the Circle proves that “poor people do have a constituency looking out for them.”

Another coalition of liberal church groups has been explicitly praying for the welfare state. The Washington Interfaith Staff Community declared that “To eliminate vital domestic and international programs that respond to the needs of poor people and our planet is wrong.” Included in this group’s list of “vital” programs are Social Security and Medicare, middle class welfare and the two largest domestic programs; Medicaid, which provides inadequate care for the poor while breaking state as well as federal budgets; and even Pell Grants, educational subsidies which mostly benefit universities, which raise fees to soak up the extra money.

An earlier political campaign asked: “What would Jesus cut?” Obviously no programs supported by the Left. Too bad Jesus wasted so much time in Jerusalem talking about the Kingdom of God rather than going to Rome to lobby for increased social spending on the provinces and economic benefits for the Jewish people. But even the more conservative National Association of Evangelicals has joined the Circle of Protection, while simultaneously, and incongruously, calling for fiscal responsibility.

The Left’s priority not only is more spending, but more taxes to pay for the higher expenditures. For instance, Wallis stated that “the economy needs a correction like Jubilee” to level the playing field by redistributing wealth. He added: the government needs to “make the wealthy pay their fair share.” In a similar vein, Brian McLaren, noted for his role in the Emergent Church, advocated redistributionist tax policies: “If you care about the poor, but don’t support the right tax policies, your care is subverted by your bad economics and bad politics.”

What, one wonders, is the “right” tax level for the “rich”? In 2009 the top one percent of Americans paid 37 percent of income taxes. The top five percent paid 59 percent of income tax revenues. Many low income people pay no income taxes, not even a symbolic amount. In contrast, Social Security taxes are regressive, but benefits are skewed toward people with less income and that program has been sold as social insurance. The “contributions” are not supposed to be progressive.

Still, economic crusaders are convinced that God is on their side. Declared Wallis: “The most vulnerable need a special exemption from all spending cuts as they usually have had in previous times of deficit reduction. We told President Obama that this is what God requires of us.”

Does God really insist that no program ever be eliminated and no expenditure ever be reduced if one poor person somewhere benefits? Perhaps that is the long lost 11th Commandment. Detailed in the long lost book of Hezekiah.

The budget does have moral as well as practical implications. However, as Ryan Messmore of the Heritage Foundation observed, “The budget is indeed a moral document, but it is also a morally complex document.” The fact that one is poor does not entitle one to any specific form or level of government benefits.

David Beckmann, president of Bread for the World — which actually lobbies government for more government spending rather than provides food for the world’s poor — stated that “there’s a lot in the Bible that says you have to help poor people.” That’s right. That “we” have to help the poor. Not that we have to force others to help.

Yet, as Mark Tooley of the Institute on Religion and Democracy noted, these groups “aren’t calling for individuals to shed their wealth for God’s Kingdom. Of course, they primarily want an all powerful state to seize and redistribute wealth according to some imagined just formula, after which the lion will lie peaceably with the lamb. It’s a utopian dream, not based on the Gospels, always monstrous when attempted, and premised more on resentment than godly generosity.”

Concern for the poor permeates Scripture, but nowhere does God set forth the means to achieve this end. There certainly is no directive to turn to the state. The Good Samaritan didn’t lobby the Sanhedrin to create a public bureau to aid travelers waylaid by criminals; rather, he personally paid to care for the injured man. Paul wrote the Corinthian church urging its members to give generously: “I am not commanding you, but I want to test the sincerity of your love by comparing it with the earnestness of others.” (2 Cor. 8: 8) Moreover, “Each man should give what he has decided in his heart to give, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver.” (2 Cor. 9: 7) The God he describes is no shakedown artist for an expansive welfare state.

This doesn’t mean that Scripture forbids reliance on government. But doing so is a matter of public policy, not Biblical justice. Michael Gerson, an aide to President George W. Bush, an irresponsible spendthrift second only to President Obama, contended that “The scale of private efforts is not sufficient to meet the demands of public justice — which gives government an important role.” However, government has no money of its own. It can only take resources, which otherwise could be donated, from people, who otherwise could donate.

Moreover, the state has actively discouraged private assistance by steadily taking over more areas of human life. One can apply Gresham’s Law (bad money pushes out good) to poverty: bad welfare pushes out good charity. More expansive benefits with less stringent conditions will draw more takers than tough-minded initiatives which speak to the whole person, including addressing self-destructive behaviors. And to the extent that people believe helping the poor is the government’s responsibility rather than their own, they naturally will do less. They are likely to believe that they’ve already “given at the office,” so to speak.

Equally important, simply labeling a program as pro-poor does not make it so. The Circle declared that “We know from our experience serving hungry and homeless people that these programs meet basic human needs and protect the lives and dignity of the most vulnerable.” Does the group mean every federal initiative? There are some 100 transportation programs, 82 programs to enhance teacher quality, 80 economic development initiatives, 70 means-tested anti-poverty programs, 62 measures to provide transportation for the disabled, 56 programs for financial literacy, 47 employment training initiatives, 20 measures for the homeless, and 18 programs for food and nutrition. Is every one of these effective, vital, essential, and supported by God?

Indeed, government welfare has been notable for denying the dignity of recipients. Path-breaking work by Charles Murray and others demonstrated how the government was “losing ground” despite spending trillions of dollars to eliminate poverty. The system long subsidized the break-up of family and community and discouraged education and work. That is why the most important objective of the 1996 welfare reform was to encourage people to become independent, not to save government money.

A number of religious leaders less inclined to confuse Uncle Sam and God formed Christians for a Sustainable Economy to counteract the “Circle of Protection.” CASE observed that “We need to protect the poor themselves. Indeed, sometimes we need to protect them from the very programs that ostensibly serve the poor, but actually demean the poor, undermine their family structures and trap them in poverty, dependency and despair for generations.”

Foreign welfare works no better. Two board members of the General Board of Church and Society of the United Methodist Church argued that “Cutting foreign aid is about more than balancing a budget. Attached to those dollars are the lives of real persons whom God has created and loves.” Even the NAE pushed its members to defend giving money to foreign governments as reflecting “our moral values as Americans, and also contributes to making the world a better and safer place for all of us.”

In fact, misnamed “foreign aid” does no such thing. While direct humanitarian assistance, a small portion of total foreign aid, can be beneficial, six decades of economic development programs have generated increased debt, not faster growth. And many transfers, such as to Israel, Egypt, and a variety of other allies, serve political and military, not social, objectives. The result often has been greater oppression of Third World peoples.

But it is not just anti-poverty programs which have so often failed. So has the larger idea that government offers some form of panacea to human problems. The president has proposed yet more “economic stimulus” and another “jobs program.” Yet the federal government has run $1.3 trillion in deficits each of the past two years alone while the Federal Reserve has flooded the economy with money. Unemployment rose, not fell. The number of poor rose, not fell.

This should surprise no one. While the Circle of Protection advocates concern for the “least of these,” the poor have the least influence over government policy. Social Security and Medicare are designed as middle class welfare programs. Both parties support overt corporate welfare and disguised tax preferences. Democratic and Republican insiders work together to milk the system of endless grants, subsidies, contracts, loans, and more. No one is working harder today to sustain the bloated military budget, which benefits most everyone except average Americans, than liberal insider Leon Panetta.

And it is these policies which collectively are creating an unsustainable financial future. The current national debt is almost $15 trillion, roughly 100 percent of GDP. That compares to 85 percent for Europe. The unfunded liability for Social Security and Medicare, that is, the benefits promised but for which no revenues have been collected, is over $100 trillion. Economist Laurence J. Kotlikoff figures that if you count all of the other government obligations — pensions, health care, and more — America has a real public debt of $211 trillion, 14 years worth of American production. As CASE sensibly observed: “To the question, ‘What would Jesus cut?’, we add the question, ‘Whom would Jesus indebt?’.”

Of course, there are genuine Biblical messages about wealth. Love of money is the root of all evil. Wealth can be an idol. Envy is a destructive sin. Generosity is an outgrowth of faith.

These injunctions tell us much about how to order our lives in terms of God and our neighbors. They tell us very little about public policy — what programs to create, whom to tax, whom to subsidize, whom to regulate. And they warn against the presumption that we can fulfill our moral obligations by conscripting others to our ends. Christ’s challenging message in the Beatitudes involved what we had done “for the least of these brothers of mine,” not what we had forced others to do. (Matthew 5: 40)

When it comes to the federal budget, good sense suggests that skepticism is in order. Every political institution and public program should be questioned: is it moral, is it appropriate, is it necessary, is it cost-effective, does it achieve its purpose, is it more important than competing needs, is it affordable? Such questions should be asked of military as well as domestic outlays, of economic as well as social programs. In fact, there is good cause for radically shrinking what the government does. But the Bible says little about such issues.

Of all people, the religious Left, with its concern for the most vulnerable and least influential, should be skeptical about encouraging sinful human beings to accumulate enormous political power. It is worth remembering Samuel’s response when the Israelites came to him demanding a king:

“This is what the king who will reign over you will do: He will take your sons and make them serve with his chariots and horses, and they will run in front of his chariots. Some he will assign to be commanders of thousands and commanders of fifties, and others to plow his ground and reap his harvest, and still others to make weapons of war and equipment for his chariots. He will take your daughters to be perfumers and cooks and bakers. He will take the best of your fields and vineyards and olive groves and give them to his attendants. He will take a tenth of your grain and of your vintage and give it to his officials and attendants. Your menservants and maidservants and the best of your cattle and donkeys he will take for his own use. He will take a tenth of your flocks, and you yourselves will become his slaves. When that day comes, you will cry out for relief from the king you have chosen, and the Lord will not answer you in that day.” (1 Samuel 8: 11-18)

Government is necessary and plays a vital role. But good intentions and moral fervor are poor guides to public policy. Nor has God made it easy for us by turning Scripture into a guide for contemporary issues. Instead, we are left to use the wisdom that he has given us to work through the toughest human problems.

Doug Bandow is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute. A former special assistant to Ronald Reagan, he is the author of Foreign Follies: America’s New Global Empire (Xulon).