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Via Sense of Events comes this gem from Matt Hamilton on the “Moral Budget” myth:

A defining flaw for the Religious Left when it comes to welfare is that they believe welfare is synonymous with charity. But welfare can never be charity because anything that the government does is backed with coercion and force. Charity, by definition, is voluntary. The Apostle Paul writes in 2 Corinthians 9:7: ‘Each one must give as he has decided in his heart, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver.’

The government cannot run welfare programs without compulsion. Paying taxes does not make the Religious Left charitable because they are required to pay money to the government under threat of penalty. The only way to be charitable is to give from your own pocket or from your own time to help the poor. Sending a check to the IRS to go through the maze of government bureaucracies is not following Jesus’ commands to be charitable. But, how much easier it is to simply pay your taxes and feel pride in believing yourself a charitable Christian rather than actually tithing to the church and working to provide for the poor and needy yourself!

I hate to just post quotes and more quotes, but he’s said it more eloquently than I could have: “Jesus gave the church the responsibility to take care of the poor, the widow, and the orphan, not the government. To prioritize the government’s coercive role in welfare is ultimately to support the government’s usurpation of a God-given responsibility to the church.”

And indeed, doing such work at a personal level means far greater accountability than you would ever get from a government program, and an equivalently smaller government would give us more resources to do so.  Just as government involvement in law enforcement does not absolve me of the responsibility to protect myself and those around me from the lawless, neither does government involvement in welfare absolve me of the responsibility to help those around me in need.

Matthew Tuininga makes some good points in response to Hamilton, however:

Hamilton is writing as if Jesus’ words apply exclusively to the church, such that whatever they command Christians to do by definition cannot apply to government. Consider this a version of the two kingdoms doctrine taken to the extreme. Hamilton seems to want to completely separate the ethics of the people of God from the ethics of human beings generally.

But is not the very purpose of Jesus’ teaching to demonstrate to human beings the way God would have us live? Is the church not to be a light to the world in order that the world might in some sense imitate that light? Is it really the case that Christians should take care of the poor – and all of the poor – while nonbelievers should not? And do political communities – political communities made up to a significant extent of Christians – have no obligations to their weakest members?

I can’t and wouldn’t argue with that.  Clearly, the polity has obligations to the poor, but just as clearly (to me), these are entirely independent of the Christian’s obligations. One is the polity’s enlightened self-interest at work; the other is simply response to God’s command.  By happy coincidence–ha!–they reach the same conclusion.

[My duties to the Army require loyalty, duty, respect, selfless service, honor, integrity, and personal courage; many of these were already explicitly demanded of me as a Christian as well.  It’s another happy coincidence, if you will–except that it’s not, because I chose a career path that honored values I already considered important; I am not a professional hit man, though that might be more fun, because it is not in keeping with my personal values.  Also, life insurance premiums.]

One other difference of note: where the polity (in the form of its representative government) has certain obligations to its weakest members, the means by which it fulfills those obligations is quite open; there is no directing force telling the government how it must happen.  As Christians, we are specifically and personally directed to support those in need and given clear scriptural examples of how to do so.  Though we are commanded to render to Caesar what is Caesar’s, our imperative to help those in need is not the proximate cause.

A rational government, then, should seek to assist the poor by the most effective means possible, perhaps in partnership or consultation with non-public institutions which should be charity experts.  I suggest that it is easier (and, aside from that, a Christian obligation) to become experts in charity than it would be to produce a rational government.