This guest post is by Joel Poindexter.
Christians who identify with a Left political ideology frequently appeal to state intervention in the market as a means of promoting the common good. This is especially true as it relates to many Christians who place an emphasis on promoting social justice. Having attended a Jesuit University where progressive politics were dominant and social justice was held in very high esteem, I can readily attest to this. For examples beyond my personal anecdotes, see the anti-libertarian conference Erroneous Autonomy at The Catholic University of America, and note some recent trends among protestant Christians.
I assume that proponents of such government action often have the best of intentions. I believe they act in good faith, both as Christians and as individuals dedicated to caring for the less fortunate. I also happen to agree that social justice can even be a worthy goal for Christians, provided it is confined to voluntary arrangements. However, a state-based approach to caring for those in poverty is especially problematic for the Christian.
Among favored government regulations of such social justice advocates are minimum wage laws and welfare programs intended to reduce poverty, including food stamps and medical subsidies. These aid programs are widely viewed as benevolent merely because of the surface results. After all, we can see the poor child who is fed and clothed through welfare payments.
However, the libertarian cannot help but see that what undergirds this regime is coercion. The state, by definition, applies force to achieve compliance. Hence, individuals in society face threats of imprisonment or financial penalties should they fail to abide by the law. This utilitarian approach has a host of negative consequences.
First, one might ask if such intervention is the best way in which to handle a given social ailment. There are sound arguments that question whether government welfare is effective at all, and suggest that in fact it may exacerbate the very the issues it purports to alleviate. However, such arguments are best left for a different essay altogether, one which addresses the economics of state welfare initiatives. Clearly there are many alternative approaches to caring for the poor which do not involve government aid.
What are the ethical and theological implications for supporting government mandates in the name of the common good? Taken to its logical end, the application of state control over voluntary choices leaves wide open the door to ever-increasing encroachment on individual rights. If it is ethically and theologically acceptable – or indeed preferable – for the state to require acts of charity, why stop there? If the common good is the end sought, it would be all the better to have the state mandate everyone be baptized a Christian. What greater good for the collective could a Christian hope for than to see every man, woman, and child come to Christ?
To even raise the question is to see what a farce it would make of Christ’s commandment to spread the Gospel, not to mention what it would require of government agents to achieve compliance. Yet it is founded upon the very argument that supports the social justice-advocate’s attempt to care for the impoverished by means of coerced charity.
We know from the Apostle Paul in Ephesians 2: 8-9 that Christ offers His salvation as a free gift to all who accept it. We learn from Matthew 28: 19-20 that we ought to “make disciples of all nations.” Christ also commands us to give freely to those in need, as described in Matthew 25: 34-40. But clearly this is not a license for Christians to demand the state make us virtuous, or to spread the Gospel by force.
The early church was faced with a host of social problems and its members had few resources with which to address them. Widespread poverty, slavery, racial and ethnic bigotry, sexism, and an increasing number of orphans confronted those who followed Jesus. Amidst all of this they were persecuted by the Roman Empire yet they persevered, caring for the marginalized and forgotten members of society, establishing the first orphanages, and giving refuge to those in need.
Instead of using precious resources to lobby the government to expand welfare programs, Christians ought to instead work to grow the church. In the end, this will have a greater effect than anything the state can do.
Activists for social justice should demonstrate this life of compassion, while impressing upon members of the body the example of the Macedonian churches in 2 Corinthians 8: 1-4. While attending to the immediate needs of the poor is important, this must be done in such a way as to not violate the precepts of Romans 3:8; we must avoid doing evil hoping that good may come.