President Trump recently proposed a budget which makes a number of cuts to discretionary spending across government agencies. Liberal-leaning folks are predictably up in arms. Conservatives range from mild concern to relief that Trump is finally realizing Grover Norquist’s dream of “reduc[ing] [government] to the size where I can drag it into the bathroom and drown it in the bathtub.” People on the left are wagging their fingers about the hypocrisy of professed Christians being so concerned about performance of programs designed simply to feed the poor and hungry. Conservatives answer with their standard retort that being Christian doesn’t mean you advocate that the government do everything. To them, it’s the job of churches and private citizens to step in and take care of the poor and needy. Who’s right?
As usual, the answer requires a bit of nuanced thinking. Conservatives have a point about their Christian obligations not extending to an explicit call to fund government programs. Other than giving to Caesar what is Caesar’s, Jesus himself says little about how we respond to government authority, though he says a lot about how we should individually behave. Paul says more, generally telling us that we should generally abide by the government’s rules and authority, even if we are encouraged to live in a socially countercultural way and not allow human law to subvert God’s law. Generally, the commands on how to live and treat people speak to individuals, not governments. So it is technically fair to say that there’s no call in the Bible to engage in aid through taxation or government programs.
That said, it requires a narrow interpretation of the Bible to assume then that government programs that execute Jesus’s mandates are inherently bad, or even just inherently worse than a church or individual doing the same. While I cannot presume to know the mind of God, why would God not be pleased about a government that distributes some of the taxes it collects for programs to help the poor or needy? Corruption is certainly found in government, but what is forgotten by many who prefer limited government is that government is ultimately just comprised of people, just like any institution. Churches and individual hearts are no less susceptible. In fact, churches have to be on special guard because of their perceived proximity to God’s desire for humanity.
Another challenge with the standard conservative Christian position on the role of government is that churches have both an inward-facing and outward-facing obligation. The churches may have mission that they engage in locally or far away, but a primary objective is the cultivation of spiritual life and community among their attendees. While it would be better if people gave more in general so that church coffers were overflowing and churches were able to step into the breach for the needy across the nation, that’s simply not the case for most churches. The churches that do have lots of money often struggle with the challenges Jesus warned us that money brings.
Also, the outward-facing missional work of a Christian church is usually tied to evangelism, the spreading of the Gospel. Conservative Protestant denominations tend to interpret this fairly literally, with telling the message being as important or more important than showing and patiently modeling in one’s life. So, then, what if a person refuses the Gospel? What if they don’t wish to come because they know that that’s what will be served with their soup and bread, or with the clothes they are given? I’m not encouraging anyone to shut their mouth about the Gospel. I’m just asking if the church expects that it can be effective at meeting all types of needs.
On top of all this, the Christian church is no longer hegemonic in America. By this I mean that it’s not the default, dominant framing for most citizens. As church membership declines and more people turn away from faith as it’s historically been understood, the weight on the shoulders of each remaining member increases. It simply isn’t reasonable to assume that the church can serve the needs of everyone.
Even if other people start chipping in out of pocket, we’ve already seen what that looks like. Go to GoFundMe and see which medical requests get funded and which don’t. Popular, well-connected, attractive people get more money than the unpopular, the undesirable, the forgotten. We give to people we care about or think we care about, dropping $25 here, $100 there, while we leave the masses of the invisible at the margins and mercy of government programs that we want to cut so that “real charity” can begin. Why do we think a post-tax world would look any different than GoFundMe writ large, with individuals and small shelters and nonprofits spending more time putting on a good face for well-heeled donors than servicing the needy?
This is the part where some would point out that the liberals or non-religious people out there should put their money where their mouth is and give a lot more to charity. The response: they do give, in the form of taxes. The government is able to achieve some economies of scale with the support programs it funds. Taxes are also a great way to get everyone to participate in programs that improve the state of the society as a whole rather than relying on the goodness of individual hearts. The concern often raised following this assertion is that too much government money is going to the undeserving. I always find the notion of being deserving of grace to be a funny thing to be promulgated by people whose entire faith is predicated on receiving a gift that they did not deserve.
Moreover, when we unpack the notion of an unworthy recipient of government largesse, we often find ourselves envisioning someone very different than ourselves, someone with a different style of dress, different way of speaking, different way of acting, possibly different complexion. Our biases have a way of working themselves into our decisions about who should get what, whether it’s our tax dollars our just our attention.
I consider myself fairly generous, but I hold too tightly to my money, forgetting that I’m only a steward. I don’t manage as well as I should. Why would I assume my neighbors would on average fare any better? I’m always in favor of examining places where we can cut spending waste, where private organizations can serve people more efficiently than government organizations, or where government organizations can be restructured to be made more nimble. What I am not in favor of is the replacement of tax dollars that are helping millions with a reliance on the kindness of each of our individual hearts and our willingness to cheerfully give. I fear that switching to that model will find us coming up painfully short, with a net increase in suffering, all so that we can be satisfied that someone isn’t getting what they don’t deserve.