Christian Compassion, Government Responsibility

Last week’s Ideas in Action reminded readers of a message that is unambiguous in Scripture: Christians have a responsibility to freely and generously serve the poor. Many readers agreed with the message, but were concerned that we were advocating more government programs and higher taxes. We were not, but their concern is certainly understandable. Many government anti-poverty programs have been miserable failures. Too often, they have exacerbated the very problems they were intended to solve.

Last week’s article was not a call for new government spending. It was intended to challenge Christians to engage in serious introspection about our obligations to the poor and needy. The church and the government have different roles to play when it comes to addressing the needs of the poor. However, I am convinced that many have advocated an increased role for government in this area precisely because the church has failed in its obligation to those in need. Unquestionably, however, government also has a role to play in addressing the needs of the poor. One only has to remember at the despairing faces of those who lost everything in Hurricane Katrina or to look at the bereaved survivors of a coal mine catastrophe to understand that government has a role to play in helping those in need.

Our hearts, but not our heads, should be soft.

Government-centered approaches to dealing with the needs of the poor and destitute should be informed by the following three principles:

1. The Principle of Stewardship. Government has no money of its own. It is funded by mandatory taxes. People who don’t pay taxes are subject to fines or imprisonment, so in a very real sense taxes are raised under compulsion. In view of this, government has an obligation to be a faithful steward of the taxpayers’ money. Any programs funded by the government should be effective and efficient — effective in meeting the targeted needs and efficient in the utilization of the funds expended.

2. The Need Principle. Before getting involved, government should demonstrate that there is an actual need for the proposed action. It should also demonstrate that it is the best, if not the only, body that can meet the need. For example, the federal government should not usurp responsibilities that can be adequately accomplished by smaller units such as families, civil society, or local governments. This is sometimes called the principle of "subsidiarity."

3. The Independence Principle. In keeping with human dignity, government programs should foster freedom from government dependence. Dependence creates a cycle of vice that is poisonous to an individual, and detrimental to the community. The government’s goal should always be to help an individual achieve independence where possible.

These three principles are just the beginning of a conversation that needs to happen among Christians who contend for social justice. "Social justice" is not just the province of the left. Conservatives, and especially Christians, have obligations to those in need. Our love for the poor should drive us to reject failed policies that have clearly hurt those in need, and it should inspire us to find new, creative alternatives that can make a positive difference. The Center for a Just Society hopes to continue to foster a dialogue on these issues, developing new ideas based on traditional core principles.