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Conservatives, Christians, and the poor

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When it comes to the poor, conservatives and Republicans have a reputation for being heartless. While this reputation may not be deserved, it is one that must be addressed if Republicans wish to be given the chance to lead a country where the labor rate has fallen to a forty year low and the poverty rate is at a 50 year high.

Even though not all conservatives are Christians, liberals often cite two Biblical passages in support of government programs to aid the poor. In Matthew 25:45, God admonishes religious people who are about to be cast into “eternal punishment” that “whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.” Another common citation is the story of the rich young ruler found in Matthew, Mark, and Luke. In the story, Jesus told the man to “sell all that you have and give to the poor.”

They have a point.

Even though there is no indication that Jesus intended for that specific instruction to be applied to anyone other than the one individual to whom it was addressed, there is ample evidence in the Bible that God wants people to help the poor.

Jesus said in Matthew 26 that the poor will always be with us. No amount of private funding or government aid can eliminate poverty, but if Christians were fulfilling God’s commandment to help the poor there would be much less need for a government “war on poverty.” According to Pew’s Religion and the Public Life survey, there are an estimated 246 million Christians in the United States while the Social Security Administration notes that the median income of Americans is $44,321. This means that if each Christian tithed 10 percent of their income, there would be almost $1.1 trillion available to churches and charities.

Helping the poor should not be limited to writing checks. Much of the benefit derived from both the recipient and the giver is in the human contact that results from the act of giving. When people help others, they feel better about themselves. When the Bible commands Christians to put their faith into action, it does not offer a buyout option.

Two groups that offer Christians, or anyone else for that matter, a chance to help the poor are located in West Georgia. The Rapha Clinic, a medical clinic with several locations in West Georgia and Eastern Alabama, serves the uninsured free of charge with a staff of volunteer doctors and nurses.

In nearby Villa Rica, volunteers from the First United Methodist Church make hundreds of sack lunches for the town’s underprivileged children. The church took on the task of providing the children with food during the summer break when they would not get free meals at school. During a ten week period last year, the volunteers prepared and delivered more than 10,000 sack lunches according to the Times-Georgian. The ministry hopes to double that number this year and expand into even more areas of the county. As the group expanded, it was given a formal name, the “By HIS Hands Summer Lunch Ministry.”

Throughout America and the world, Christians like Sue Brockman, who was instrumental in founding the Rapha Clinic, and Derek Porter, the pastor of the Villa Rica First Methodist Church who started the summer lunch ministry, are helping the poor and sick. In fact, Christians have been helping the poor since the days of Christ. Some Christian charities are small, centering on a single town or county. Others are now large groups with a presence in many countries. The Red Cross was founded by a Christian businessman after witnessing the destruction of the Napoleonic wars. The Salvation Army was founded by a Christian evangelist and remains explicitly Christian, as does CARE, which stands for Christian Action Research and Education. Many hospitals and colleges were founded by Christians of various denominations.

Just because Christians have a rich history of charitable and humanitarian endeavors doesn’t mean that the rest of us should rest on our laurels (halos?). One of the big rationales for the growth of the welfare state has always been that churches and private charities have not done enough to help the poor. The New Deal began the displacement of private and religious charities by the federal government. This process was continued by the Great Society of the 1960s.

This liberal policy of government enforced charity runs afoul of several aspects of Biblical teaching. The most obvious is the admonition in 2 Corinthians 9:7 that everyone “must give as he has decided in his heart, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver.” Congress and the IRS compel us to give, however reluctantly, and could not care less whether we are cheerful or not as we submit our tax returns.

Second, the Bible clearly values honest work. People who are legitimately in need should be helped, but those who are capable of working should support themselves and their families. In 2 Thessalonians 3:10 Paul wrote, “For even when we were with you, we gave you this rule: ‘The one who is unwilling to work shall not eat.’” Charity should not go to people who could be working to support themselves. Many government programs actually encourage people not to work because they lose their benefits if they do.

Jesus, in Luke 16:1-2, commanded Christians to be good stewards of their resources. A good steward is not wasteful. Government often is. Fraud and waste in government programs are common, although no one can be sure of the exact extent. The universal nature of many government programs such as Social Security and Medicare means that precious resources are spent on the wealthy, who could provide for themselves, rather than the truly needy. Even in the best case, government “charity” funds flow through a huge bureaucracy with an expensive overhead which takes a large percentage before the first dollar reaches the poor.

Government programs also ignore the Bible’s warnings against incurring debt. Proverbs 22:7 warns that “The rich rule over the poor, and the borrower is slave to the lender.” Psalm 37:21 says, “The wicked borrow and do not repay, but the righteous give generously.” Paul writes in Romans 13:8, “Let no debt remain outstanding, except the continuing debt to love one another….” and admonishes “You were bought at a price; do not become slaves of human beings” (1 Corinthians 7:23). What, then, would God think about borrowing 40 cents on the dollar and confiscating money from workers trying to feed their families to pay for a wasteful and inefficient system that encourages the poor not to work?

Finally, there are the unintended consequences of government programs. According to Census data, more than 30 percent of children today live in single-parent families, a three-fold increase from the 1960s when the Great Society declared war on poverty. Factors in the increase include government entitlements, birth control, the declining marriage rate, and others. Given the strong link between poverty and broken families, it seems likely that many government programs perpetuate poverty by discouraging marriage.

If conservatives hope to be successful in scaling back government entitlement programs, then conservatives and Christians must become even more willing to step up and give sacrificially to help the poor and sick. Even if government entitlements go away, the poor will remain.

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