"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Sunday, May 17, 2015

Are Churches Neglecting The Poor?

Ross Douthat writing in the New York Times (5.17.15) cites Harvard’s Robert Putnam who suggests that churches are failing the poor:

Over the last 30 years,” Putnam told The Washington Post, “most organized religion has focused on issues regarding sexual morality, such as abortion, gay marriage, all of those. I’m not saying if that’s good or bad, but that’s what they’ve been using all their resources for ... It’s been entirely focused on issues of homosexuality and contraception and not at all focused on issues of poverty.”

Douthat does not agree.  Organized churches spend relatively little time cultural issues – e.g. homosexuality and abortion – and they are by and large fulfilling their pastoral duties. Moreover most churches, especially black and Latino ones, are fully committed to social programs.   The problem is that organized religion is losing ground to ‘nones’ and that the failure of churches is their inability to provide the faithful with enough inspiration for staying and compelling reasons to attract the non-believer.

New England church

Protestant churches in the early days of the Republic were responsible for far more than religion.  They provided a strong cultural center for the communities they served, educated their children, and gave them a thorough and unflinching lesson in religion, morality, and ethics.  Local government was relatively new, and its social reformative mission was many years in the future.  Its role was to provide a legal context for the burgeoning activities of the private sector, a judicial arbiter for disputes, and the maintenance of law and order.  The churches were expected to see to the spiritual needs of their congregants and to provide whatever social services might be required.

Image result for images Cotton Mather

               Cotton Mather

Calvinism was a severe religion and insisted on absolute faith in God and adherence to a rigorous code of ethics.  Religion, individual responsibility, and social integrity were part of the same creed.  There was little difference between religious and secular behavior.

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                    John Calvin

As government grew and became more involved in civic life, the socially normative role of the church became less important.  Government – as anointed representatives of the people - increasingly invested in individual and community affairs.  It was to federal and local authorities to which citizens turned for economic and social support.

To be sure churches continued to preach moral rectitude – i.e. righteous and proper behavior as citizens in a commonwealth – but they were less directly responsible for influencing the practical path of people’s lives.

Poverty and social injustice were issues turned over to the State; and while churches did indeed mobilize small-scale charitable efforts, they were to small, independent, and disparate to be able to mobilize the revenues or consensus required for concerted action.

On the one hand this transition was a good thing. Churches were now able to focus clearly on spiritual matters.  Salvation was the end.  Grace, prayer, and obedience to God’s law was the means.  Regardless of denomination, Christians believed that the world was a sinful place, and that redemption could be mediated by the church. Believers had to personally accept the grace of Jesus Christ, but the church provided the context and the discipline to facilitate this transformation.

Image result for images apostle paul

For decades, church and state were separate, each with its own domain and responsibilities; but human nature being what it is, churches realized that they had the political power to influence public decisions. Why should a pastor in a rural Southern church be content with assuring the spiritual salvation of his congregants when, allied with others of the same convictions, could influence electoral politics.  Evangelism became big business and The Moral Majority, a convention of fundamentalist religions organized around political issues, became increasingly powerful. Associations of churches realized that there was power in numbers, and like labor unions in their most influential days, began to assert their rights and demands.

Image result for images jerry falwell

The so-called ‘Religious Right’ became a force in American electoral politics and few candidates could reject or ignore their demands for a return to Christian values.  The issues of abortion and reproductive rights, homosexuality and gay marriage, and prayer in the schools became visible and potent symbols of American fundamentalism.

It was logical, therefore, that pastors increasingly linked politics and faith.  It was in their own secular interests to do so.  Performance and advancement, as in any corporation, depended on revenue, expansion, and influence. Douthat goes on:

President Obama’s version, delivered when he shared a stage with Putnam at Georgetown University, was nuanced but similar in thrust: “Despite great caring and concern,” the president remarked, when churches pick “the defining issue” that’s “really going to capture the essence of who we are as Christians,” fighting poverty is often seen as merely “nice to have” compared to “an issue like abortion.”

However poverty, no matter how much a civic, secular concern, does not resonate with the fundamentalist faithful.  Abortion has become the ideal issue for churches because Roe vs. Wade represents an egregious overstepping of public authority in an issue which is at the very core of religious belief – the value of an unborn child.  Homosexuality is no less of a contentious and vital issue for churches because the practice has been roundly censured in the Bible and called ‘an abomination’.  Not only that, Christ’s teachings and those Paul and the Apostles clearly identify the family as the center of both spiritual and secular life. 

Not only has poverty been government’s responsibility for so long that few churches consider concerted action necessary or required; but that it is peripheral to much doctrinal teaching.  Redemption and salvation, most Protestants believe, is up to Jesus Christ, and only prayer and personal resurrection (being born again) have any meaning in life. It is up to the individual to reform himself, find God, and live a life of obedience.  He is not responsible for the spiritual or secular welfare of others.

While Christ did indeed preach compassion for the poor, he made it clear that individual salvation was all that really mattered.  Liberation Theology, a short-lived radical offshoot of Roman Catholicism was roundly criticized by the Vatican for its focus on the plight of the poor diverted attention away from spiritual salvation.  The job of priests was to minister to the souls of the faithful, not the social welfare of the poor.

Image result for images liberation theology


So is there are role for churches in addressing poverty? Yes, but not by replicating the social programs of the State.  Pastors can turn their attention away from both hot political issues like abortion and homosexuality and social activism, and return to an insistence on moral values that have characterized every successful civilization since Greece and Rome – honesty, respect, courage, discipline, honor, and compassion.

The code of the streets in inner-city neighborhoods is antithetical to this right behavior. Adherence to majority white (and increasingly Asian) norms is absent.  There is no way that blacks can join the middle class without adherence to their clearly enunciated values.

The culture of entitlement has persisted for decades and inner city churches have colluded with venal municipal politicians to ensure a servitude little worse than slavery. There has been precious little focus on individual responsibility, moral rectitude, and acceptable social behavior; and far too much ceding responsibility to the state and its ‘progressive’ private advocates.

Moral reform serves both spiritual and secular needs. It forces an increased introspection which can ultimately lead to faith; and it provides a respectful position from which to interact with a society larger than the community.

Churches can abandon the pseudo-moral, hot-button political issues around which they have organized their power and return to Biblical righteousness and the moral rectitude which precedes it.

Churches, then, do indeed have a role in the alleviation of poverty, but not the one that either Douthat or the progressive Left envisages.



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