Samuel Gregg: Christians in a Post-Welfare State World
Religion & Liberty Online

Samuel Gregg: Christians in a Post-Welfare State World

The American Spectator published a new commentary by Acton Research Director Samuel Gregg. The commentary was also picked up by RealClearReligion.

Christians in a Post-Welfare State World

By Samuel Gregg

As the debt-crisis continues to shake America’s and Europe’s
economies, Christians of all confessions find themselves in the
unaccustomed position of debating the morality and economics of
deficits and how to overcome them.

At present, these are important discussions. But frankly
they’re nothing compared to the debate that has yet to come. And
the question is this: How should Christians realize their
obligations to the poor in a post-welfare state

However the debt-crisis unfolds, the Social
Democratic/progressive dream of a welfare state that would
substantially resolve questions of poverty has clearly run its
course. It will end in a fiscal Armageddon when the bills can’t be
paid, or (and miracles have been known to happen) when political
leaders begin dismantling the Leviathans of state-welfare to avert
financial disaster.

Either way, the welfare state’s impending demise is going
to force Christians to seriously rethink how they help the least
among us.

Why? Because for the past 80 years, many Christians have
simply assumed they should support large welfare states. In Europe,
Christian Democrats played a significant role in designing the
social security systems that have helped bankrupt countries like
Portugal and Greece. Some Christians have also proved remarkably
unwilling to acknowledge welfarism’s well-documented social and
economic dysfunctionalities.

As America’s welfare programs are slowly wound back, those
Christian charities who have been heavily reliant upon government
contracts will need to look more to the generosity of churchgoers
— many of whom are disturbed by the very secular character assumed
by many religious charities so as to enhance their chances of
landing government contracts.

Another group requiring attitude-adjustment will be those
liberal Christians for whom the essence of the Gospel has steadily
collapsed over the past 40 years into schemes for state-driven
wealth redistributions and promoting politically-correct

The welfare state’s gradual collapse presents them with
somewhat of an existential dilemma. The entire activity of lobbying
for yet another welfare program will increasingly become a
superfluous exercise — but this has been central to their way of
promoting the poor’s needs for years.

More-pragmatic liberal Christians will no doubt adjust.
Others, however, will simply deny fiscal reality and frantically
lobby for on-going redistributions of an ever-shrinking pool of

But even those Christians who have long moved past the
heady-days of the ’60s and ’70s — or who never actually drank the
kool-aid — will have their own challenges in a post-welfare state

One will be financial. Will Christians be willing to reach
even further into their pockets to help fill the monetary gaps
caused by on-going reductions in government

For American Christians, this will be less of a struggle.
They’re already among the world’s most generous givers. For
European Christians, however, it will require a revolution in
giving-habits. Many of them have long assumed that paying the taxes
that fund welfare programs somehow fulfilled their obligations to
their neighbor.

But the more important, long-term challenge posed by
significant welfare state reductions will be less about money and
more about how Christians will take concrete personal
responsibility for those in need.

Here Catholics, Orthodox, and the many Protestant
confessions will find helpful guidance in Benedict XVI’s 2005
encyclical Deus Caritas Est.

Among other things, this text reminds Christians that
poverty is more than a material phenomenon. It also has moral and
spiritual dimensions: i.e., precisely those areas of human life
that welfare states have never been good at — or interested in —

For Christians, humans are more than mere mouths. They
know moral and spiritual poverty can be as devastating as material
deprivation. This expansive understanding of poverty has enormous
potential to help Christians correct materialist assumptions about
human needs.

Another source of inspiration — especially for Americans
— may be Alexis de Tocqueville’s great book, Democracy in
. Among other things, this nineteenth-century text
illustrates how American churches played the predominant role in
helping those in need in an America in which government was the
means of last resort when it came to poverty.

Lastly, there is the example of the ancient church. The
early Christians didn’t imagine that lobbying Roman senators to
implement welfare programs was the way to love their neighbor.
Instead, to the pagan world’s amazement, the early Christians —
bishops, priests and laity — helped anyone in need in very direct,
practical ways.

As anyone who has read the Church Fathers knows, the early
Christians went out of their way to personally care for
the poor, the incurably-sick, and the disabled — the very groups
who were non-persons to the pagan mind.

Moreover, the Christians undertook such activities at
their own expense, and often put their own lives at risk. When
plagues came and everyone else fled, Christians generally stayed
behind, refusing to abandon those in distress, regardless of their

In crisis, the cliché goes, we find opportunity. Instead
of engaging in politically exciting but ultimately futile
rearguard-actions to defend welfare-states crumbling under the
weight of decades of irresponsible spending, the coming
post-welfare state age could be a chance for a Renaissance in
Christian thought about the whys and hows of
loving those to whom Christ Himself devoted special

Yes, that means abandoning much of the framework that
dominated 20th-century Christian reflection upon these questions.
But anyone interested in serving the poor rather than their own ego
or career-advancement shouldn’t hesitate to take such

The poor’s spiritual and material well-being demands
nothing less.

John Couretas

is a writer and editor based in Grand Rapids, Michigan.