Saturday, November 3, 2012

Welfare and Charity, God and Government

I want to respond to line of argument I've read many times, most recently here (note: the author was good enough to comment below), about the relationship between charity and welfare, and how that ties in with the role of religion in government. Many conservatives and libertarians oppose government run welfare programs on the grounds that they force individuals to engage in "charitable" giving against their will, thus undermining the entire purpose of charity. The implication is often that supporters of government "charity" do so in lieu of their own actions, forcing a counterfeit charity on the unwilling and congratulating themselves for it. Not only does this undermine agency, the argument goes, it's downright hypocritical!

That type of argument, while cogent, misunderstands the purpose of social welfare as I see it, and also relies on potentially troublesome assumptions about the roles of God and government--assumptions that liberals are often guilty of making as well. I take seriously the injunction to "Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar's, and to God the things that are God's," which I take to mean that earthly affairs of government are separate from the affairs of God. The conflict arises from confusing or mixing the two.

Sometimes the conflict is awesome.

The post I linked above imagines a judgement day conversation in which a liberal defends his parsimony to God on that grounds that he supported politicians who promised to redistribute wealth to the poor. Wasn't that charity enough? No, says God, who expresses disappointment that he chose to waste time on selfish pursuits instead of engaging in truly charitable acts. Forcing charity on others is no substitute. It's a very damning indictment, and as far as it goes, I totally agree. Nobody should feel justified taking credit for the contributions of others, whether compulsory or voluntary. Charity, in the sense of donating one's own time, talents, and energy, in service of others, is an individual responsibility that cannot be outsourced or voted into another's care.

God's purpose is to lead his children toward salvation through belief in him and following his commandments, including the requirement caring for each other, the basis of charity. Government's purpose is more mundane: to keep society organized. From a religious perspective, problems only occur when the latter interferes with the former. God has dealt with every form of government imaginable, from monarchy and despotism to republicanism and democracy, yet the only governments that come under condemnation are ones that suppress belief, persecute believers, or encourage believers to disregard God's commandments. To the extent God works through secular government--which is always tricky to prove--it is to achieve his larger purposes, which transcend the government itself.

Others disagree
Government focuses squarely on everyday, plain ol' life on earth. Some governments do it more effectively than others, and the differences can make a big difference in how a society functions. The nice thing about democracy is that it gives everyday folks like me a voice in how Caesar's things get rendered: since I have a say in government, Caesar's stuff is partially my stuff. In the case of welfare, it means I can vote for government to guarantee certain basic standards of living for all citizens, which, I think, ultimately benefits everybody in society. Reducing income inequality also minimizes social unrest and improves quality of life. Charity, frankly, has little to do with it. It doesn't matter if taxes are paid happily or grudgingly, because the outcome is what's important. If you want a different outcome or better administration of it, you can vote for Caesar to render stuff differently. Individual acts of charity, which is what matters for the religious, are still possible regardless of any government policy.

The important thing is that these policy disputes are rooted firmly in the the everyday, the earthly. They are not part of the cosmic battle between good and evil; God has more important things to worry about than unemployment benefits and tax rates. If government starts suppressing (or mandating) religious activities then we've got a problem and I'll be the first to protest. In Jesus' day, many of his followers were disappointed that he was no political revolutionary against the oppressive Romans, but Jesus understood and taught the proper relationship between God and government.

And there was war in heaven: Michael and his angels fought against a 4%  top marginal rate increase
Religious liberals can be guilty as well. How often have you heard a liberal accuse religious conservatives of being heartless, uncaring, or hypocritical because they oppose welfare programs? But if Christianity does not forbid government welfare, then it does not compel it either, and claiming that someone is unchristian for opposing welfare is both flawed and counter-productive. It offends conservatives who see themselves as very charitable individuals and stirs resentfulness and anger in a rhetorical race to the bottom. 

I believe conservatives have some very reasonable criticisms of government welfare, such as the fear that it rewards those who refuse to work at the expense of those who do. How to deal with that, however, is a temporal matter, an earthly thing. If I accuse someone of being evil or uncaring because they have such concerns, it only poisons the debate. Heck, even if they are actually selfish, I have no right to judge them. Doing so demeans God's purposes and drags him down into the mud with the rest of us.

Although my wife doesn't seem to mind...
It's okay to feel passionate about earthly things, and if possible, try to change them for the better. I can't imagine living under a system of government where the possibility is out of the question, even if that accounts for most of human history. But that passion means disagreement, and it's arrogant to think that my opinions, full of biases and imperfections as they are, just happen to align with God's eternal will. For religious people today, we should always think twice about dragging God into temporal politics. Doing so puts us at risk of assuming that God's thoughts are our thoughts, that his ways are our ways, and that those who disagree with us are enemies of God. Although it's easy to fall into that trap, it's not a judgement I'm comfortable making about someone else, and I hope people aren't making it about me.