During recent budget and tax bill debates in Congress, Republicans moved to allocate fewer breaks to poorer tax brackets while providing massive cuts to the most wealthy. They more explicitly revealed a belief that the previous budget, which allocated more resources to social programs like Medicaid and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, was far too progressive. It’s becoming clear that equity is not at the forefront of their priorities. Essentially, the wealthy continue to legislate their way out of supporting just and charitable causes and thus, legislate their way out of helping those most in need.
Where the state fails, the Church should step up to provide for the poor. However, despite the frequent teachings of the Bible to care for the marginalized, American Christians fail to vote for and support programs that provide for those in need. While early Christianity leaned on social programs and welfare as devotion to Jesus, in the early 20th century Christian charity ceased to simply be a tool of social aid, but shifted to a means to structurally maintain value-based oppression.
“In being against programs that benefit the poor, Christians are almost ensuring the very poverty they're meant to eradicate.”
Throughout the Bible, Jesus invites his followers to live generously and to care for the poor. And it’s not that church-goers aren’t generous (although only 10-25 percent of a typical congregational membership gave to their church and of those, most are giving 2.5 percent of their income as opposed to the standard 10 percent tithes). In fact, Christian’s from states that typically vote Republican are among the most likely to give to both congregations and to non-profit organizations. But these same conservative voters, often giving the most, are also among those backing President Donald Trump, whose administration has sought to cut funding for social programs that promote justice and provide for the disenfranchised.
In being against programs that benefit the poor and create pathways to eradicate poverty, some Christians are almost ensuring the very poverty that their local churches are meant to give their time and financial resources to. Much of the rhetoric preventing many American Christians from supporting government social welfare programs stems from a value-based approach to poverty adopted in U.S. politics. Conservative Christians mirror the anti-big government rhetoric espoused by GOP legislators over the years and believe in decreasing dependency on the government, promoting personal responsibility and valuing hard work.
“Pulling oneself up by the bootstraps has become American gospel.”
Personal responsibility and hard work are not bad values. However, these values tend to move charity to a subtle form of social control where the poor are offered assistance based on merit or adherence to conservative standards, rather than on the basis of generosity and a commitment to a more equitable society. Providing social charity becomes less about if there is need, but about whether one deserves charity.
There are multiple ways some local governments decide who’s deserving of assistance, which can include not having felony convictions, being drug-free and having a mailing address. These requirements add a racial lens to who, in this value-based system, deserves care, with people of color being disproportionately represented in the criminal justice system, urban poverty and homelessness. Pulling oneself up by the bootstraps has become American gospel and a reinterpretation of the way of Jesus that shifts to affirm conservative social policy.
Christians, of all people, have been among the first to cast stones at those who the government has deemed undeserving of assistance. This value-policing of social programs inherently shames those who rely on them. Planned Parenthood is demonized while providing necessary health services for those without insurance. Publicly funded free and reduced meal programs are defunded and the poor are shamed for not being able to provide for their families.
To be sure, there are American Christian communities who fight for justice, who use their charitable giving to generously provide for the needs of poor. There are communities who march alongside Black Lives Matter and fight against racism. There are communities that create and maintain charities that provide necessary services and more comprehensive justice to the needy.
Still, Christian motivation is a complex intersection of genuine compassion, power and politics. Social control may not be a primary motivation for all American Christians, but it is the natural result of a Christianity that is increasingly indistinguishable from secular conservative politics.
“True community justice requires that Christians set aside political agendas and seek equity.”
The Bible is clear that charity and justice are key and non-negotiable values. Over 200 times in the Old Testament, God calls for various forms of restorative and socially motivated equality. Jesus himself models a commitment to charity and justice. He regularly critiques those who use charity to boost the perception of their personal piety, calls out the ways that the temple system maintains social hierarchy through its giving systems and tells parables about caring for the outsider, one’s enemies, and the poor. He flips tables in the temple to critique the systematic exclusion of ethnic outsiders and the exploitation of the poor. Jesus implores people not to simply be more generous, but to overturn oppressive systems that create inequality in the first place.
True community justice requires that all American Christians ― conservatives and liberals alike ― set aside political agendas and values and seek equity because ultimately, charity is incomplete without a pursuit of justice. It’s not motivated by who deserves it, but about restructuring systems and a communal sharing of resources. That’s something the GOP, in its current iteration, will legislate its way out of in the name of Jesus while entirely missing the spirit of the God who invites them to “Do justly, love mercy, and walk humbly.”
American Christianity’s collective inability to practice the intersection of charity and social justice is the natural result of a faith system that has claimed to value generosity, but serves politicized agendas over the good of the marginalized. Christians have all but abandoned their communal responsibility for “the least of these.”