Each week in Citizenship Confusion, Alan Noble discusses how we confuse our heavenly citizenship with citizenship to the state, culture, and world.

The number of food stamp and welfare recipients in the United States has grown dramatically in the past few years. Liberals interpret this as a reflection of how well the State is caring for those in need. How would these families eat if they didn’t have aid? Conservatives tend to interpret these figures as evidence of out-of-control government entitlement spending, increased dependence upon the State, and another part of our debt crisis. Both perspectives are probably correct. It’s good that our country is able to provide for the millions who need assistance, and it’s also unsustainable in these amounts.

For conservative evangelicals, our response to out-of-control entitlement spending has been varied, but strongly critical—for the most part. High levels of entitlement spending is inefficient and culturally harmful. Whether it is government subsidized health care, or food stamps, or section 8 housing, we have tended to be very vocal about opposing government “handouts.” And to some extent, and in some situations, I think this opposition has been good. If we believe a government policy is harmful, then it is loving to our neighbors and honoring to God for us to oppose it. However, the long conservative opposition to entitlement spending has had several negative consequences.

In some cases, opposition to entitlement spending has helped to cultivate animosity toward those who accept government aid, so that we end up viewing many people who use food stamps as lazy, ghetto druggies who make bad choices and force tax payers to pay for their mistakes. Soon we can justify cutting any programs because we are convinced they don’t deserve our aid, which is wrong, as I have previously argued.

It also affects our witness to the world. When Christians are most vocal about cutting government support to the needy, it gives the appearance that Christians simply don’t care for the least of these. Now, statistically, Christians in the United States give tremendous amounts to charity each year and volunteer a great deal of their time. But if what the world hears is us calling for an end to welfare and health care for the poor, then it is reasonable for them to assume that we really aren’t following Christ’s commands concerning social justice.

Our culture teaches us that the way to change things in this world is through political action. And some pockets of our evangelical culture teach us that the way to change this world is through spiritual action—praying and witnessing. A more realistic perspective recognizes our embodiedness, our culture, and our need for a Savior, so that change involves political action, spiritual action, but also non-political social action. If Christians desire to see an end to the monopoly of the State on caring for the poor and oppressed, and if we desire to live in a way that testifies to the world about how the Gospel radically transforms us, then we need to be known more for advocating private and nonprofit charity work and less for condemning government work. We need to be known for our passion for caring for the poor and needy rather than our hatred of the State caring for them. We need to evidence an alternative to the State as the answer to all our problems. We need to out compete the government in providing aid.

One major way I believe Christians can accomplish this is through the funding of church-run early childhood intervention programs for at-risk young children. The cover feature of Issue #4 of CaPCMag argues that such programs are needed in our country to address a widening gap between the opportunity- and resource-rich upper classes and the opportunity- and resource-poor lower classes. If this trend continues, our country is headed for an ever-more unemployable and more criminal lower class. Many policy makers and economists argue that ECI programs are exactly what we need to address skill deficiencies among the lower classes, but in the feature article I argue that this is a perfect mission for local churches. Supporting and running projects like this, I believe, will go a long way in making our hearts more sensitive to our disadvantaged neighbors, in fulfilling our obligation to their physical needs, and in our witness to the watching world. I’d encourage you, if you haven’t already, to download and read my feature, “The Coming Class Crisis,” and to consider how you can be a more public advocate for non-governmental aid, rather than being primarily or exclusively a public critic of government aid.


  1. I believe that if the critics of government aid took the time to know this demographic, the would realize their preconceived notions were very far off. (Center on Budget and Policy Priorities Report: Contrary to “Entitlement Society” Rhetoric, Over Nine-Tenths of Entitlement Benefits Go to Elderly, Disabled, or Working Households) Although we pay plenty of taxes, I would willingly pay more to help this demographic. However, this would do little to address the problem you point out. What should Christians do?

    As you said, stop complaining about government aid; dare to speak out in favor of it! Give more, and get involved personally. Most churches have programs to help the poor. If yours doesn’t, look for opportunities to involve your church. Christ calls us to do so. Especially take care of the children. They are the future of this nation.

  2. Arguments for government services state that the church can’t feed the world. But this misses the fact that one man — just one — fed over 10,000 orphans, without asking anyone for money. Read George Muller’s testimony, it’s breathtaking!

  3. Is it really “reasonable” for non-Christian liberals to form what you yourself have admitted, statistically, is a straw-man caricature of Christians on this issue? I think we should just admit that non-Christians are always looking for an excuse to “hate on” Christians, and that often takes the form of deliberately overlooking blatant statistical evidence to the contrary. If they walk away with an impression that has _that_ poor of an evidential basis, why should we assume that _we_ are somehow at fault? In this case, I think “known more for” could be translated as “are more talked-about/noticed for.” There is a difference. It’s the same reason why the mainstream media loves to fasten on Westboro Baptist as the epitome of evangelicalism, when in their hearts they know mainstream evangelicals despise Westoboro as a fringe cult.

    1. I don’t think anyone holds Westboro up as normative evangelicalism. In my experience, even the most zealous new-wave atheists recognizes the difference. I suppose there may be some who look at Westboro as the face of Christianity even as some look at Al Qaeda as the face of Islam, but I don’t think it’s that many. Or at least doesn’t seem to be in my exposure.

    2. But don’t you agree that there’s a lot of vitriol that’s spewed toward any Christian who holds a biblical view of sexuality? I’ve seen salt-of-the-earth folks called “scum” and other hateful things for affirming traditional marriage. As for Westboro, I had a conversation once with an atheist who was actually really polite but acted surprised when I told him that church isn’t normative for evangelicalism.

      There’s a certain stereotype that’s definitely out there, at least in the college atmosphere where I work, of the megalomaniacal Christian who just hates everybody and never helps anyone.

  4. “A more realistic perspective…” For me, everytime I hear a Christian use a similar phrase they are excusing worldliness, justifying their actions, and you affirm that with the following: “…so that change involves political action, spiritual action, but also non-political social action.” Take out “political action” and keep this as central:
    “We need to evidence an alternative to the State as the answer to all our problems.”

  5. Thanks for this, Alan. I wrote in Faithful Citizenship that it seems to me until/unless churches and NGOs have the resources and infrastructure to feed the poor, Christians must accept that government is needed in that holy task, and that our taxes will be a part of the solution. We never want to sound as though we don’t want to feed the poor; what we can discuss, thoughtfully, without pulling the rug out from under the needy, is how best to accomplish it.

    1. I’m not sure I would go so far as to say something is “needed” if that “something” is being handled so irresponsibly as to ultimately harm the very people it’s ostensibly supposed to be helping.

    2. You need to support your statement. How does the distribution of foodstamps harm the people who are receiving them? Most studies have shown that the foodstamp program is remarkably efficient, fraud is rare, and the nutritional impact on poor families is massive.

    3. Foodstamps are only one example. I’m looking at the big picture and seeing economic policy that spells disaster for America’s future, including that of the lower class. Take free health care. What happens when you make something, anything free? What would happen if you declared access to orange juice a basic human right tomorrow? Hint: You’d run out of orange juice, eventually. We’re already experiencing doctor and medicine shortages. This is just basic economic good sense. Where do you think the poor are going to be in the long run if this trend continues?

    4. Esther, may I ask, as humbly as I can, how you take care of the poor, the widows, and the orphans? Honestly, I’d really like to know. I’m not being sarcastic when I say, I could use some inspiration.

      If it is true that “Over Nine-Tenths of Entitlement Benefits Go to Elderly, Disabled, or Working Households”, then my tax money is helping the poor. And keeping church food banks stocked helps, too. But I’ve run into obstacles when I’ve tried to help in other ways, like helping kids to learn to read better. You’d think this would be welcome, but I couldn’t overcome the obstacles. I’ve done a few other things, but I’d like to hear what you’re doing.

    5. I have no money or resources, personally, and I’m not plugged into a large church. However, the very tiny church where I do attend has members donate personal need items not covered by food stamps, which the priest delivers to the local community center. That seems like something that could work on a large scale.

      Investing personally in education is a completely different issue, where as you’ve experienced, things vary wildly on a case to case basis. What sort of obstacles are you encountering? Is it an attitudinal resistance to learning, or good faith efforts that simply aren’t getting past certain learning blocks? If it’s the former, I can’t really contribute any wise advice. If it’s the latter, good methodology is always a step in the right direction. I would recommend you try this book for reading. It just teaches basic phonics, and it’s very practical. (I personally was taught by this book, but I’ve seen it work with others too.) It doesn’t require great intellectual prowess to pick up the basic techniques.


    6. Thank you, Esther, for your response. It is honest, and I appreciate that.

      I have lots of teaching experience. I homeschooled my kids (I also taught Science and Languages -French, Spanish and Latin- to homeschool groups and a High School that wanted to start a Latin program.) I taught them to read using Sing Spell Read & Write, which is phonetically based and was very successful.

      What I ran into were *administrative* problems. The group doing after-school tutoring in a nearby city did not need my skill set. They wanted math teachers. I’m not gifted or particularly comfortable with math – I had to have tutors teach math at every level past Algebra I. And I struggled with Algebra I itself. But my kids overcame my obstacles just fine.

      You say that what your small church does seems like it could work on a large scale. I don’t actually believe that. Just as many don’t have the money to fund such projects, the time and organizational skills needed to supply for all the needy in this country can’t be met, I think, by local churches. So I count on my government and my taxes as doing that for me (for the most part). Then there’s giving to various non-profits. But I’d like to be more involved personally, hands-on. For years I carried food and blankets in my car at all times. Never did I find, around where I live and during my travels, an opportunity to give. I feel more than a little foolish admitting that, but I wasn’t driving around NYC. Oh, well. I did other things, but I’m not doing anything personally right now. I wish I was.

    7. Funny you should mention the demand for math teachers—I’m going into math because it seemed like a smart career move. I was going to do philosophy but, well, they say the only difference between a philosophy master’s holder and a pizza is a pizza can feed a family.

      I didn’t really mean “large scale” as in whole country scale, I was thinking large scale as in large church scale. Just answering your question about what ordinary people like us can do.

      I think we’re headed off a fiscal cliff, but at this point the economy is such a tangled mess nobody can really stop the car. I remember shaking my head when I heard Romney/Ryan promise they were going to turn it around. It’s too tangled and too late. It’s been a long time coming. But I know this much: Obama’s policies have only accelerated things. When the crash comes, everyone will suffer, but nobody more than the poor. I don’t think it’s unloving to point out that certain policies which seem on the surface to be “needed” are actually, in the long run, harmful.

      Don’t feel guilty if you personally are having trouble finding opportunities to help the needy. It’s not like you haven’t tried! But you never know, maybe there are people in your own church who are struggling financially. They may not live in a cardboard box, but they could still be in need.

  6. This is a rather absurd statement:

    “The number of food stamp and welfare recipients in the United States has grown dramatically in the past few years. Liberals interpret this as a reflection of how well the State is caring for those in need.”

    We liberals don’t think it’s awesome when millions are on foodstamps. Frankly, we’d prefer that these folks were employed by General Motors, the local school district, the hardware store around the corner, or running their own business. No, liberals view record numbers on foodstamps as evidence that the brand of low-regulation free market capitalism that America has favored for the past three decades is not working too well, and it works less well with each passing year. When liberals warned about the dangers of McDonalds and Wal-Mart, we were scorned as wet blankets. When we said there was something immoral about wealthy CEOs who could put up great financial numbers simply by firing thousands and holding down the wages of everyone else, we were called socialists. But our warnings about a dysfunctional America are proving true; we warned that America would be impoverished, and now half of America lives in poverty.

    But, whatever. I see that this article calls on the Church to be awesome in regards to generosity, because the Big Bad State won’t do it right. And of course, there are no specifics on how to make this happen, or on why getting food stamps from a church is any better than getting food stamps from the county welfare office. If you asked the country’s biggest charities like World Vision and the Salvation Army to take over welfare or Medicare, I’m guessing these groups would run out of funds in a month. The needs are just too massive, and the problems too endemic.

    Frankly, I’m surprised more Christians, in their quest for easy answers to American poverty, don’t go after the obvious — increase minimum wage by a hefty amount, then tie it to inflation. That would put money in the pocket of the working poor, period. But so far, only one major American Christian seems to be advocating such a policy — Barack Obama.

    1. I’d encourage you to read what I wrote again, more carefully. There is nothing absurd about that statement. Liberals *do* (and rightfully so) see the rise of people using entitlements as a sign that the state is doing it’s job. That does not mean (and I didn’t not say) that liberals *want* people on assistance.

      As for details, well, actually, I linked to an article in Issue #4 of our magazine in which I do lay out details about what the church could do better. And I did not argue that the church should take over for the state.

  7. Most churches I know have a hard time meeting their own needs of keeping a church going. How will they feed the poor? Government aid just helps the poor from sinking further and dying in the streets, but not enough to raise out of poverty. I agree that we need to give more, much more than just a sustainable level aid. Invest in people. It pays off better than the stock market.

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