That's Our Job
Jerry Falwell Jr., the president of Liberty University, the largest Christian university in the world, stirred up controversy on Twitter after he said,
There is a lot to unpack here, but I want to focus on his statement about the church’s responsibility for the poor. Whatever we may think of his unwavering support for President Trump, his thoughts on the poor are dogma in American Christianity.
I voted for the first time in the 2016 elections. It wasn’t because I had only just reached voting age. I could have voted back in the 2008 elections. I abstained for religious reasons. Back in middle school, I found the advice of my youth minister convincing. “The government cannot bring the kingdom of God to earth. Let the world choose who rules them,” he would say, “I’m going to follow Jesus.”
It was that same logic that led me to agree with Falwell Jr’s sentiment that it’s the church’s job to care for the poor. The government has no business helping poor people; it merely exists to protect our rights. Helping the poor is the church’s job, so we shouldn’t try to use the government to do it.
But, what would it take for the church to do its job? Do we have the means to care for America’s poor?
According to Pew research, around half of Americans claim to attend Christian church around once a week. That’s 161 million people. Assuming the demographics of the church are the same as the rest of the country, around 80% of those are older than fifteen, and so qualify to work. (Let’s set aside the fact that many of these are still in school or disabled/elderly, and assume that the full eighty percent of self-proclaimed church-goers older than fifteen are working.) The real median income per capita in 2016 was just over $31,000. Together, they earn almost $4 trillion.
The cost for operating WIC (Women, Infants, and Children), SNAP (aka: food stamps), CHIP (Children’s Health Insurance Program), Medicare, and Medicaid is roughly $563 billion each year. Based on the median American income, every worker who regularly attends church would need to give around $4,300 per year (about fourteen percent of their annual income) directly to programs that help the poor. That’s not even including the $900 billion it costs to fund Social Security, on which very many elderly people depend for food.
The numbers I’ve used here for churchgoers is optimistic. These are self-reported numbers, which means they are subject to the exaggerations of those polled. When someone says they attend church once a week, they may actually attend once few months. Self-reporting, while generally helpful, is not the most trustworthy source for statistics. Other polls say the number of churchgoers is closer to forty percent of Americans. Those who study the actual attendance of churches (rather than self-reports) say that less than twenty percent of Americans will be in a church service on any given weekend. Some say that number is declining.
As we all know, statistics are tricky to interpret. These differing numbers are due to differing research methods. Still, though, I imagine the number is much lower than half of all Americans. I also imagine that those who give offerings to the church are not giving fourteen percent of their income. In fact, one report from 2011 claimed that up to half of Christians give nothing, and those who do give about 2.5 percent. And we must not forget that the majority of money that comes through the church goes to building maintenance and staff pay.
So, the best case scenario is that around 129 million working Americans attend church regularly and make a median of $31,000, necessitating that they give fourteen percent of their income directly to the poor. At worst, around twenty percent of Americans regularly attend church. They would need to give more than 280 percent of their income! That’s not a typo. Churchgoers need to make almost three times as much as they do now, and we need to give every penny of that to the poor if we are going to do our job of caring for the poor.
The fact is that the church does not have the capability to care for the poor on its own. Even if we take into account that these social programs could be run more efficiently, and even if we got rid of the few people who abuse the system (for instance, food stamp fraud is under 1.5%), we would still be left with a burden we are simply not equipped to handle.
Those in need should not be left to depend on the possibility that they might get some help, that their children might get to eat tonight if some generous or guilt-stricken person chooses to throw a few dollars in their lap. A capitalist society does not reward generosity or charity. It mocks and destroys it. I cannot count the times I have heard Christians justify withholding money from a beggar simply because she looks able to work or because he might use the money for beer or cigarettes. Every time, I’m reminded of the words of St. John Chrysostom,
If you see anyone in affliction, do not be curious to inquire further. His being in affliction gives him a just claim to your help. For if when you see a donkey choking you lift him up without inquiring whose he is, you certainly ought not to be over-curious about a person. He is God’s, whether he is a heathen or a Jew; since even if he is an unbeliever, still he needs help.
We do not want the government to help the poor, because that’s the church’s job. But the church doesn’t want to help the poor, because this is America and the poor can go get a job and help themselves. I am hard-pressed to find this teaching among Jesus’ words.
In the end, I think we have to face the fact that we simply do not want to help the poor. Not really. We want to keep our money for ourselves, because we earned it for ourselves. We want the poor to be well, so long as their wellness is self-earned.
It was Karl Barth who ultimately changed my mind on using political influence to make the world better.
The poor, the socially and economically weak and threatened, will always be the object of [the church’s] primary and particular concern, and it will always insist on the state’s special responsibility for these weaker members of society. That it will bestow its love on them—within the framework of its own task (as part of its service), is one thing and the most important thing; but it must not concentrate on this and neglect the other thing to which it is committed by its political responsibility: the effort to achieve such a fashioning of the law as will make it impossible for “equality before the law” to become a cloak under which strong and weak, independent and dependent, rich and poor, employers and employees, in fact receive different treatment at its hands: the weak being unduly restricted, the strong unduly protected. The church must stand for social justice in the political sphere. And in choosing between the various socialist possibilities (social-liberalism? cooperativism? syndicalism? free trade? moderate or radical Marxism?) it will always choose the movement from which it can expect the greatest measure of social justice (leaving all other considerations on one side).
In the past, I’ve had plenty of people try to convince me to vote. “Of course the government can’t bring the kingdom of God,” they’d say in response to my challenges, “But that doesn’t mean we can’t make the world a little better by using the opportunity to vote.” When I read Karl Barth, it finally made sense to me. The church does not have the means to help the poor—especially not in a post-Christian society.
So, Jerry Falwell Jr. is right. Jesus never told Caesar how to run Rome. He never told Caesar to tax the rich to help the poor. That’s our job.
is a writer and co-host of Podcastica Patristica. He is co-author of Divine Providence: A Conversation and author of the forthcoming The Separation of Church and State: Capitalism and the Christian Conscience and Arius in His Own Words, the first ever stand-alone translation of the works of the fourth century heretic Arius.