Up until now, I have avoided any in-depth discussion about the Center for Public Justice’s Call for Intergenerational Justice, a document which “demand[s] that Washington end our ongoing budget deficits.” The document was signed by a variety of Christian leaders from across the political spectrum, and was designed to “start of a biblically grounded movement in which grandparents, grandchildren and everyone in between can join hands to promote a just solution to our debt crisis.”
The Call has garnered both praise and criticism, with much of the latter coming from friend-of-the-blog Jordan Ballor. To discuss their disagreements, Gideon Strauss of CPJ recently joined Ballor for a discussion at the Acton Institute. This week, Common Sense Concept took the conversation a step further by hosting a panel on the Christian’s role in the budget crisis. Included on the panel were Strauss, Ballor, Jennifer Marshall, Ron Sider, Ryan Streeter, and Pastor Jonathan Merritt.
Catch the conversation here:
But as an evangelical, I’d like to focus specifically on Pastor Merritt’s concers, particularly his (mis)perception of how conservatives and libertarians view poverty solutions — a misunderstanding that permeates evangelicalism at large.
Merritt, himself a self-proclaimed conservative, begins his response by countering Ballor’s claim that the Call does not do enough as far as “putting the church on the hook.” In an initially shocking statement, Merritt says that he’s tired of putting the church on the hook, wrongly assuming that Ballor wants the church to ramp up its political involvement. Going further, Merritt says he is tired of evangelicals using “beautiful, elegant language” to talk about poverty solutions while doing nothing to provide “substantive policies.” So we aren’t supposed to be on the hook as a church, but we are as individuals? Here is where a narrow view of poverty alleviation can be crippling in one’s overall perspective.
Indeed, Ballor’s intention is to emphasize that the church has a distinct and non-governmental role in helping the poor (a view he has expressed on this very blog). Why, then, does Merritt automatically assume that politics and “substantive policies” are the primary ways the church does go about poverty alleviation, and why does he imply it is the primary way by which individual Christians should go about alleviating poverty? Later in the discussion, he again argues that conservative evangelicals are prone to “throwing rocks” at those who are trying to help the poor without actually doing anything themselves. Once again, this assumes that trying to help the poor is limited to governmental means and that any governmental means will actually help the poor.
As Arthur Brooks has detailed, the less individuals agree with redistributionist government solutions, the likelier they are to engage in voluntary charity. In fact, Brooks found that conservative Christians are far more active in volunteering and giving than others, even non-conservative Christians. This is based on statistical evidence, so it is by no means all-encompassing or all-determining, but given this and plenty of more basic observations, I don’t think conservative Christians should be singled out as the ones who are lacking in their individual care for the poor. This is not even to mention the role of the market and the role conservatives play in promoting that as a means for empowering the poor.
Yet besides Merritt, the other panelists seem to recognize this distinction from the get-go. Strauss talks at length about the market economy being the “primary agency for generating wealth,” and notes that the government is not the “first agency that has a responsibility for addressing the problem of poverty.” Sider, who is left-leaning on economic issues, then agrees with Strauss, explaining that drafters of the Call simply assumed that readers would understand that churches and private institutions have an important role to play.
Merritt’s confusion on this illuminates that such distinctions do indeed need to be made, giving weight to Ballor’s expressed concern that the Call does not go far enough in making those distinctions explicit. Although those in the trenches of policy debate like Sider and Strauss will gladly (and rightly) make such distinctions, those in the evangelical church — the realm of Merritt — rarely even consider the church as a source of poverty relief on a national or global scale.
With this mindset, it’s no wonder we think the poor are doomed without government programs.
This may seem like nit-picking, but I think it’s crucial to our success as a nation and a church. In our discussions of the budget, the church’s unique role in caring for the needy must be leveraged. I truly believe that if we were to truly step up to our God-given tasks, many of these bloated, ineffective “anti-poverty” policies — as well as the effective ones — could be cut off and vacated with little to no resistance or impact.
I agree that the rest of the discussion is important as well, and Strauss is right to point beyond the “sexy” issue of poverty to the longer-term economic concerns. Yet it is precisely because helping the poor has become “sexy” that we need to take a step back and make the proper church-vs.-government distinctions.
Invigorating individual- and community-based volunteerism is not easy, primarily because it is more complicated than checking a “yes” box next to Anti-Poverty Policy X. To start the process, we need to start taming and enriching our views of poverty and the related church-vs.-government distinctions.
Let’s leave the sexitizing to the long-term solutions. God knows, they could use it.