Politics and the Church – Extrication from the Shoal Waters [Part 21]

Welfare, originally designed as a stop-gap for those who were unable to make economic ends meet because of poverty level income, is one of the most recognizable of the many entitlement programs. It was a widely supported program, for Americans in general definitely want to help the poor.  Over the past couple of years two-thirds say they volunteered their time for some charity and 83% say they donated money [Gallup Editors, “Most Americans Practice Charitable Giving, Volunteerism”, Gallup Well-Being, December 13, 2013].  So strongly inclined are Americans to help others that 57% believe that dealing with the poor should be a top priority of the president and Congress [http://federalsafetynet.com/welfare-opinion.html].  This desire to help the poor was behind President Johnson’s 1964 announcement, “I have called for a national war on poverty.” [Lyndon B. Johnson, “Special Message to the Congress Proposing a Nationwide War on the Sources of Poverty”, March 16, 1964, as quoted in the American Presidency Project]; because he said, “for the first time in our history, it is possible to conquer poverty.” [Ibid].  But welfare is no longer a safety net designed to keep people from slipping into poverty.  It seems to be going the same way as the ‘war on drugs’.  Maybe President Johnson should have read what God’s Word says about our always having the poor [Deuteronomy 15:11; Mark 14:7].  No where in the Bible does it approve of Caesar…government…taking from the rich and giving to the poor.  Charitable giving is a function of the individual and the church.

In more than a dozen states a family of three receiving welfare support can live on a middle-class salary…all while holding absolutely no job.  In Hawaii a family of three would have to earn more than $61,000 to make it worthwhile to abandon their welfare benefits [Eric Boehm, “In Many States, Welfare Can Pay Better Than an Honest Day’s Work”, Watchdog.org, August 21, 2013].  In eleven states welfare recipients make more than the starting salary for a schoolteacher; in thirty-nine states they make more than the starting salary for a secretary [Ibid].  When all the money spent on welfare programs in 2011 was divided among those at or below the poverty level, it averaged $61,194 spent per household [Daniel Halper, “Over $60,000 in Welfare Spent Per Household in Poverty”, The Weekly Standard, October 26, 2012].

The genuinely poor do indeed need to be helped, and there are scores of Bible verses admonishing us to help them.  Nearly all of these verses are directed at individuals and the congregations.  The only responsibility concerning the poor that government is charged with is to provide justice for the poor and maintain their rights whenever they utilize the civil process [Exodus 23:3, 6; Leviticus 19:15, 27:8; Proverbs 29:14].  Government is not charged with meeting the material needs of the poor [Leviticus 25:25, 35, 39; Deuteronomy 17:7-8, 10-11, 24:12; Job 29:12-16; Psalm 41:1; Proverbs 14:21, 19:17, 31:20; Isaiah 58:6-10; Matthew 19:21, 25:34-40; Mark 10:21, 14:7; Like 14:13-14, 18:22; Galatians 2:10; Esther 9:22; Acts 4:34-35; Romans 15:26-37].

This Biblical pattern was understood and closely followed in early America.  Founding Fathers such as George Washington and Thomas Jefferson therefore served as vestrymen in their respective churches, meaning they arranged care for the poor in their local communities.  In addition to the responsibility of the church to help the poor, individuals also had a Biblical obligation to do the same.  Thomas Jefferson affirmed: I deem it the duty of every man to devote a certain portion of his income for charitable purposes; and that it is his further duty to see it so applied as to do the most good of which it is capable. [Thomas Jefferson, The Writings of Thomas Jefferson, vol. 4, Washington DC, Taylor and Maury, 1854, pgs. 589-590].  George Washington felt the same personal duty.  When he was called away from Mount Vernon to serve as commander of the Continental Army during the American Revolution…which by the way he took no paycheck during his eight years of service…he directed his business manager: Let the hospitality of the house, with respect to the poor, be kept up.  Let no one go away hungry…supply their necessities, provided it does not encourage them in idleness [George Washington, The Writings of George Washington, vol. 3, New York, G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1889, pg. 236].

God mandated that provision should be made to help the poor, but, significantly, work was required in exchange [Exodus 23:11 ; Leviticus 19:9-10, 23:22; Deuteronomy 24:19-21].  The Bible commands, “If anyone will not work, neither shall he eat” [2 Thess. 3:10. NKJV].  The exception to this was orphans, widows, and the disabled, who truly were unable to work.  If they physically could not supply for themselves, then charity was provided for them…but not by government.

Benjamin Franklin, who at the time was serving America overseas in London, wrote a newspaper piece criticizing the English practice of providing for the poor by taxing citizens.  Here’s what he had to say:

I am for doing good to the poor, but I think the best way of doing good, is not making them easy in poverty, but leading or driving them out of it…the more public provisions were made for the poor, the less they provided for themselves, and of course became poorer…the less that was done for them, the more they did for themselves, and became richer.  In short, you offered a premium for the encouragement of idleness, and you should not now wonder, that is has had its effect in the increase of poverty. [Benjamin Franklin, The Life and Essays of Dr. Benjamin Franklin, London, John M’Gowan, 1838, pgs. 327-328].

The Bible and the Founders both firmly supported a work requirement in order to receive welfare benefits, and Americans today strongly agree with this approach…although many are probably unaware that its origin is from the Bible.  In closing this week, consider the attitude that says that money should be taken from the rich because ‘they can afford it’ or because ‘it won’t hurt them’.  The teaching in the Bible is this: “You shall not steal” [Exod. 20:15].  It is not right to steal from the poor, nor is it right to steal from the rich.  If I were to visit the home of Bill Gates…worth approximately $58 billion…and I see a few dollar bills laying around, it would still be wrong in the eyes of God for me to take just one of them.  He can afford it but it would be morally wrong.   This subject of ‘welfare’ is so complex that I shall finish it next week.  It is important that citizens are aware of the damage that the current system is doing to our citizens and nation.  It is not a sustainable system.

– Bob Munsey

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