I am fortunate to have friends from many religious backgrounds, beliefs and traditions. While I personally consider myself a Christian theological liberal with monistic sympathies, many of my dear friends are politicaly right- and politically left-leaning Christians. On more than one occasion I have heard my left-leaning Christian friends ask, with what appears to be sincere wonder, how right-leaning Christians can question or even oppose forms of social welfare delivered by the state as a form of wealth redistribution. I’m going to try and answer as if I were a conservative-leaning Christian.
It would seem that Jesus was very much in favor of wealth redistribution. When asked what, in addition to keeping the 10 commandments, a young man could do to be “perfect”, Jesus answered:
21Jesus said to him, ‘If you wish to be perfect, go, sell your possessions, and give the money* to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.’ 22When the young man heard this word, he went away grieving, for he had many possessions. (Matt 19:21-22 NRSV)
Many other verses could be cited wherein Jesus counsels his followers to give up earthly possessions and focus on heavenly gifts by serving the poor, the widowed, the sick, and the hungry. Famously, Jesus taught in parable:
34Then the king will say to those at his right hand, “Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world;35for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, 36I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.” 37Then the righteous will answer him, “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? 38And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? 39And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?” 40And the king will answer them, “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family,* you did it to me.” (Matt 25:34-40 NRSV)
Given these verses, and others like it, how can one who claims to follow Christ not support governmental wealth redistribution to aid the poor, widowed, sick, and hungry?
First, we must understand that a conservative Christian does not judge the merits of a given social welfare policy based solely on the admonitions of Jesus. The teachings of Jesus are not meant as guides for social policy and to reduce them to such is to deny the true power of charity these teachings represent.
Christian discipleship is about choice. Indeed, the very salvific act of Christianity is the choice to follow Jesus. The early disciples simply followed Jesus in response to a simple invitation: “come, follow me.” This choice becomes irrelevant if one is compelled to choose Jesus and follow his commands. It is the voluntary and uncompelled choice to follow Christ that lies at the very heart of Christian faith.
So let’s examine social welfare or wealth redistribution strictly from this vantage point. If we accept that it is the choice to follow Jesus, made without compulsion or coercion, that represents the core faith of any Christian, wealth redistribution and social welfare, in principle, may be cause for some concern.
First, wealth redistribution is compelled through taxation. As such, Christians and non-Christians alike have portions of their income given to the needy in various forms of social welfare programs. Because neither Christian nor non-Christian have any choice in the matter, there is little moral value in this transfer of wealth. Conversely, the Christian who voluntarily and with absolutely no compulsion chooses to give a portion of their income to the poor is directly answering Jesus’ call. Being “good” when you are formed to be “good” doesn’t seem to mesh well with the core of Christian faith. Compelled faith and obedience to the teachings of Jesus is hollow.
Second, it is morally reprehensible to foist one set of religious values upon persons who may not hold those values, are of a different faith, or have no faith whatsoever. Just as social liberals (of which I am one) don’t want the government coming into the bedrooms of gay and lesbian couples, likewise, conservative Christians don’t want the government to dictate how and when they choose to follow their faith. Not to mention that if we base social welfare programs on Christian teaching how can we, in good conscious and with the 1st amendment in mind, force non-Christians to accept our particular moral viewpoint.
The question, then, is not whether or not Christians should help the poor and needy. They must! However, this is a completely separate question from the prudence of social welfare policy. If a conservative Christian opposes the expansion of food stamps, perhaps he is doing so because he would rather give that money to a local orphanage where he volunteers from time-to-time. She may recognize that compelled choice is no choice at all and understands that she alone, without the help (interference?) of governmental wealth redistribution, is the only person capable of making the choice to follow Jesus by lessening the burden of those who suffer.
There are, of course, policy wonks who can, and will, argue the economic merits of social welfare. I have heard compelling arguments on both sides and tend to believe that social safety nets are economically valuable and necessary in an industrialized economy. But while such safety nets are essential, they must be managed with care.
So when considering questions of social welfare I think it is probably best to leave Jesus out of it. The New Testament is not a treatise on domestic policy. It is an admonition for individuals to follow Christ which, in large part, involves caring for the poor, sick, hungry, and needy. All Christians, left, right, and center, agree that caring for the poor is an essential Christian duty. No Christian should be faulted for expressing skepticism about social welfare and wealth redistribution being the appropriate means to fulfill this duty.