Social Programs and Sacred Callings

This is a modified e-mail I sent a friend who I’ve been visiting with about a Christian view of politics. They asked about how we should view social programs like Welfare and Social Security, which I think are complicated issues I’ve been pondering myself. Here are the three key questions I sent her that need to be under consideration; I’d love your thoughts if you have them.

1. What are these government programs? One of the challenges in talking about things like welfare is to avoid simple answers. While the classic Church and State/Cross and Sword dichotomy has value, the real world is much more complicated. Are government aid programs just exercises of the sword by an external political power? Simply put, no. Because of our republican government, they are also what could be termed “collective action” programs. That is, there is an element of cooperative problem-solving to them. This is what their proponents tend to argue for. Welfare and medicare are, in these peoples’ eyes, the result of a nation of people pooling their resources in order to combat social ills. Insofar as this is the case, it seems to me that the church can get behind and advocate them. However, it gets complicated because unlike other sorts of collective action, this one is backed up by the sword. If I decided to give my tax money that goes to social security to some other charity, I’d get thrown in jail. Because of this, the challenge is in determining how much of this is cooperative and how much is coercive. A Christian theology of politics has to make this distinction and base its support to some measure on whether the state is a helpful tool of organization or a substitute for the kingdom of heaven.

2. How effective are they? This needs to be a seperate question. For example, I agree with many of the younger, left-leaning Evangelicals I know that poverty and other social problems should be a huge priority for Christians. However, we have dramatically different political convictions because I think most of the remedies they recommend don’t actually work. This is where a lot of practical ground-level study needs to be made. Even if welfare and social security are judged to be more good than bad in theory, they are at present extremely ineffective programs. Working to reform, or even just to supplement these programs, should certainly be a Christian priority if they aren’t doing well. The same thing applies to questions of political aid versus private giving. They might be equally permissible in a Christian framework, but if one is more helpful or efficient than the other, it makes sense for us to focus resources on this area. After all, God has structured the world in certain ways, and we are responsible to live in the world has He has made it. In this regard, study of political theory, law, and economics are invaluable. I’m not arguing for simple pragmatism, but we must be practical as we implement Christ’s calling because the goal is to actually help people, not simply go through the motions to satisfy our own consciences.

3. How can the church live out its calling in a broken world? This is where I think a lot of political thought, including some that I myself have recommended, needs to spend more time than it does. Too often, we as Christians go looking for the perfect solution to a social problem, the one untainted by sin and fallenness. Of course, no such solution exists. For some, this perfectionism ends up being paralyzing. They can’t do anything because everything has issues. For others, and I’d say the majority live here, it breeds blindness to the weaknesses of the position you’re backing. In a very real sense, every political choice is the lesser of two evils. Then again, it’s also the greater of two goods. Much like the humans that create them, no political system or social program is completely good or thoroughly wicked. Our calling is to be God-loving realists who seek to see his kingdom come little by little in the world. When we try to make it happen faster, it usually ends in disaster.

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