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In any discourse about the modern welfare state, rehearsing all the religious and moral reasons for assisting those in need is unnecessary. Citing one passage from the Gospel will do: “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these members of My family, you did it to Me” (Matt. 25:40). However, this sensitivity does not emancipate us from the obligation to prudently and wisely consider the most appropriate means to carry out this ministry. While Paul encouraged the early Christian community to be sensitive to the needy, he also prudently admonished “if a man does not work, neither let him eat” (2 Thess. 3:10). With all its emphasis on love as the fundamental virtue, Christianity has never accepted that a moral responsibility exists to help those who could, but would not, help themselves.

This appears to be the general attitude of the American public. Polls indicate that Americans tend to prefer social programs that promote self-support, not dependency. Yet when the former Michigan Governor John Engler acted to fulfill his campaign promise to reduce the size of government and eliminated 80,000 able-bodied general assistance recipients from the roll, his most vocal critics were welfare advocacy groups headed by prominent mainline Protestant and Roman Catholic religious leaders. Two lines of reasoning emerge in this religious defense of the welfare state. The first is a utilitarian one that contends such governmental transfers are actually effective in ameliorating poverty and minimizing crime. The second is that the moral integrity of a society is determined by the use of the state’s taxing and transfer apparatus to tend to the needs of the economically underprivileged.

The chief underlying weakness of both these arguments is that each indicates the religious community requires the government to intercede in the religious community’s legitimate concern to minister to those in need. The church then becomes functionally removed from its spiritual mandate to perform acts of charity, relegated to occupying the role of lobbyist. These assertions defending the welfare state also present a confused notion of morality. The moral status of those from whom Robin Hood stole was not elevated by the fact that their money was used to help the poor, assuming it really did end up helping them. For whatever noble end one may hope to achieve with the forced sharing of wealth, morality cannot be one of them. Forced morality is not morality, because free choice is a necessary precondition for virtue. This confused vision of morality has resulted in the disintegration of charity into entitlement and the collapse of justice into love.

Yet an awareness of the moral inferiority of the welfare state is slowly dawning within religious circles. To the dismay of religious welfare advocacy groups, in his latest social encyclical Pope John Paul II observed that “by intervening directly and depriving society of its responsibility, the Social Assistance State leads to a loss of human energies and an inordinate increase of public agencies, which are dominated more by bureaucratic ways of thinking than by concern for serving their clients.” The time has come for religious leaders to abandon their advocacy of governmental programs and reassume their rightful position as the primary ministers to the welfare of those in need.