The Party of the Poor?

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By Regis Nicoll, Crisis Magazine, June 22, 2017 – For decades liberals have claimed that Democrats care for the poor and Republicans don’t. And they really believe it. A meme that circulated widely over left-leaning blogs a few years back had a depiction of Jesus with a child on his lap, reading,

It’s ironic because the biggest enemy of the Republicans isn’t Harry Reid or Nancy Pelosi or Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama, it’s THIS MAN… He said heal the sick, feed the hungry care for the weakest among us, and always pray in private.

The real irony for the Party of Pro-choice and its apologists is the child in Jesus’ arms.

More recently, religious progressive Jack Jenkins wrote a piece, bluntly titled, “The Strange Origins of the GOP Ideology that Rejects Caring for the Poor” in reaction to comments made by GOP Congressman Roger Marshall on health care.

In an attempt to explain why government-run programs don’t work, the Kansas Representative remarked, “Just like Jesus said, ‘The poor will always be with us. There is a group of people that just don’t want health care and aren’t going to take care of themselves.”

Although Marshall clarified that he was speaking “in the context of supporting the obligation we have to always take care of people (emphasis added),” progressives, imagining themselves tapped into the divine mind-set, took to the media with their own hermeneutics.

There was MSNBC host Joe Scarborough who disparaged the lawmaker’s comments as a “complete twisting of everything that the Gospel is about. Everything! Read the Gospel. Read the Sermon on the Mount. … I mean, Jesus was pretty clear.” Yes, he was, and Scarborough would do well to read those texts himself—or, perhaps, a little more closely.

There was also Matthew Loftus in America: The Jesuit Review who traced Marshall’s biblical quote to Deuteronomy 15:11 where the Israelites were commended “[to] always be generous and open-handed with their neighbors.” Jack Jenkins included a link to the same verse in his critique.

Such biblical expositors should note that unless we are living under a theocratic government, as was ancient Israel, the state has no biblical duty to the poor. As James Madison put it, “Charity is no part of the legislative duty of government.” Our nation’s Founders understood that, biblically, the role of the state is limited to protecting the citizenry, preserving civil order, and executing justice, and that care of the needy is the responsibility of those closest to their need—neighbors and de-centralized civic and faith-based organizations.

Contrary to the “clobber” verses marshaled to argue otherwise (e.g., Matthew 5 and Matthew 25), when Jesus taught about duty to the poor, he was not speaking to government officials or their political bodies, he was speaking to his disciples—sometimes privately—indicating that the care of the needy is their responsibility as Christians.

For nineteen hundred years, their followers did just that, individually, and through the collective of the Church, caring for each other and their neighbors by establishing hospitals, orphanages, food distribution systems, and houses for the poor and aged.

Although exceptions can be found on both sides of the political aisle, Republicans do not care any less about the poor than Democrats. They just differ on how and by whom it should be given.

In short, they believe that care is best handled at the local level by individuals and “mediating” institutions like churches, faith-based charities, civic groups, and other volunteer associations. They reject programs that encourage a culture of idleness and dependence, in favor of those that help the able-bodied poor become employable and self-reliant so that they can have the dignity of earning a living and providing for their families.

Republicans do not deny a role for government in cases of deep, widespread need (e.g., The Great Depression) or in the wake of severe local emergencies (e.g., hurricane Katrina). They just believe that the state’s involvement should be limited and temporary—augmenting, not usurping, the responsibilities of neighbors and mediating organizations.

Republicans are rightly distrustful of ever-expanding centralized programs, because instead of lifting people out of poverty as they were intended, they have created a permanent underclass of dependence, fatherless homes, and gang-infested neighborhoods. For example, Walter Williams and Thomas Sowell—columnists who were young black men in the 50s and 60s—regularly comment that prior to “The Great Society,” most black families were intact with a mom and a dad, there was less unemployment for young black men, and less crime in black neighborhoods.

For those who uncritically assume that the Democratic Party is the Party of the Poor, perhaps our national giving data will come as a surprise.

According to the non-partisan Chronicle of Philanthropy, the most generous (and often poorest) states are red, and the least generous (and richest) are blue. In its most recent report (2014), it found that the 17 most generous states voted Republican in the 2012 presidential election, and the seven least generous states voted Democrat. Rocket science, it’s not.

Once personal duty is usurped by the state and enforced through the power of taxation, it is easy for the individual to deem his charitable burden fulfilled and himself justified to brush off personal appeals in Scrooge-like fashion, “Aren’t the food stamp and child support programs operational? Medicaid is in full vigor, I trust.”

The solution to need and poverty is not more government, but less. From a biblical perspective, in the area of compassion services, the Church must increase and the State decrease. Specifically, the Church, in partnership with other mediating groups, must work to reduce the demand for state involvement in social service. Is that a realistic expectation?

Considering that Christians make up over 70 percent of the tax base, the Church should be able to take over the compassion business with a fraction of what is paid to support state-run programs, given their bloated bureaucracies and costly inefficiencies.

Idea: What if each church took care of its own and devoted 10 percent of its revenue to local social service groups?  Better, yet, what if area churches worked together across denominational lines to establish a central campus where the needy could receive food, clothing, health care, counseling, job training, and such locally?

Admittedly, such a sea change in governance would be neither quick nor easy. Even with the political will of the electorate and the moral will of the Church, it would take decades to defund and shrink government and prepare the Church (individual Christians, churches, and faith-based organizations) to become the primary compassion provider.

Yet difficulty is never justification for the status quo. No one knew that better than British statesman, William Wilberforce.

In the eighteenth century, Britain was the world leader in the slave trade. Yet, as a young parliamentarian, William Wilberforce made it his “Great Object” to put an end to the brutal practice.

Although it took five long decades, Wilberforce was instrumental in closing Britain’s dark chapter of slavery in 1833. At the same time, Wilberforce’s parallel work to “reform the manners” of society helped raise the moral vision of his countrymen and made compassion fashionable in a culture that had long turned a blind eye to want and need.

Although a 50-year struggle is unimaginable to people raised on fast food and TV, if the Church is to reassume its biblical duties, a Wilberforcian effort will be required, along with some modern-day Wilberforces.

Editor’s note: Pictured above is a detail of “Saint Elizabeth of Hungary Healing the Lepers” painted by Bartolome Esteban Murillo.