Monday, May 15, 2006

My Politics: Faith's Place Therein (Part IX)

The next topic in this (interminable/fast-paced) series is poverty. It seems that separating politics and money is as hard as separating anything else from money. And the politics of poverty is always contentious. In general terms, conservatives want the private sector to take on alleviating poverty via charities, while liberals are more apt to seek government-led approaches. (Of course most people prefer a mix, just slanted one way or another.) There are, of course, pros and cons to each. The government, in theory if not always in practice, has more resources available and can help more people. Charities, usually, can be more efficient in distribution and local charities know their "clientele" better than distant beuracrats.

Part of the problem, though, is that instead of using rational analysis in deciding the optimal approach to reducing poverty (it won't ever go away completely) people let emotions get in the way. I know I do. The love of money is indeed the root of all evil. This love leads to one of two reactions: we want to tell others how to spend their money (i.e. tax everyone more) or we want to hoard our own money and not spend it (lower taxes, don't give to charity.) In both cases, the Biblical approach is being missed. While the secular arguments can be debated ad nauseum I'm going to focus on what I see as the Biblical approach to poverty, and its place in politics.

First of all, a society that treats the poor...um, poorly (sorry), is a society earning the judgment of God. The prophet Amos lists maltreatment of the poor by the comfortable as a great transgression. No political policy should ever exacerbate poverty.

Second, helping the poor is something all Christians should do; it's not just a matter of avoiding making the problem worse, we have to actively do something to help. This even goes back to the ancient Israelites, who were commanded by God to to provide an opportunity for the poor to have some portion of the harvest. Jesus demonstrated to the rich young ruler that giving to the poor was a way to show whom the rich young man was serving (either Jesus or money.) Jesus also said that helping those in need would be something that separates the righteous from the unrighteous.

Third, scripture doesn't say that the responsibility for caring for the poor is a government obligation. This is perhaps the most controversial statement. Well, okay, God did tell the Israelites to leave gleanings for the poor, but unless you think the U.S. should be a theocracy along those lines the analogy doesn't quite work. We are not to abdicate our responsibility to the poor by passing it off on the government, or on those "rich" folks we like to talk about taxing. No, our responsibilities are personal and very clear.

Now, this doesn't mean that I'm against government assistance for the poor. As noted above, there are some things that the state can do better than I can do due to larger size and reach. But I believe strongly that the need for governmental intervention should be minimal; the private sector, led by Christians, should do the heavy lifting. So, from this I tend to support policies that increase governmental efficiency (thereby leaving more money for the poor), tax deductions for charitable giving (which encourages charitable giving), and reduce corruption (a problem especially in some third world nations that keeps people poor while leaders live in luxury.)

Government is a blunt tool, not always so good for enforcing morality (not that we should give up the fight for a moral society, using politics when necessary.) Laws that redistribute wealth are as bad as hate speech laws - they mask symptoms, and the canny will always find a way around them. Better to speak to the hearts of others and convince them that giving is the right thing to do.

God bless!

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