Spotlight Exclusives

July 13, 2009: Religion and Poverty: Why the Evangelical Apathy to Governmental Assistance? By Dr. Scott Stearman, Senior Pastor, Kirkwood Baptist Church, Saint Louis

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Over the coming months, Spotlight will host a conversation that asks how and whether religious and faith communities should address the issue of poverty in America and explores the relationship between religion and public policy.

In 2005, thousands of families were affected by Medicaid cuts in the state of Missouri. These cuts, made at a time of relative financial health in the state, were by many accounts harmful to the poor who depend upon state aid. The justification was fiscal, but my concern is why there was no evangelical outcry over these cuts. Why do some who follow the teachings of Jesus Christ have no sense of duty to call the government to do what they cannot do?

I۪d like to suggest that this common response, or “non-response,” to the need of the poor, is based on perhaps two false assumptions: first, the defeatist interpretation of an often-quoted verse from Matthew 26 (“You always have the poor with you”); and second, the notion that “the church” is capable of meeting social needs if the government takes care of security needs.

It is one of the many ironies of scripture that the often-quoted verse from Matthew 26 follows, by a mere 10 verses, Jesus۪ discussion of the final judgment and the separation of “the sheep and the goats.” In this story (not a typical parable), Jesus says that in the final days when the Lord returns, people will be judged based on what they did to the “least of these.”

The text makes two points clear: (1) Jesus identifies with the “least of these;” and, (2) righteousness is at least partially based on a spirit of concern for those unfortunate (whether by choice or circumstance) with whom Jesus is identifying. I don۪t know how many evangelicals look to Matthew 26 to justify their limited engagement in a structural answer to poverty, but I do sense that some do.

And moreover, I am certain that many believe that our “fallen world” makes poverty and its effects inescapable. Many think we can do something, but never truly meet the needs of the poor.

Yet I believe this ideology ignores Matthew 25 and what we۪ve learned in the 2,000 years since: that a symbiotic relationship between education and economic development lifts a great many of “leasts of these” out of the miserable grip of poverty.

But of course it isn۪t just a verse or phrase that supports the apathetic look towards governmental assistance. It is also the idea that the church۪s role is to assist the needs of the poor, and while the government should create a secure environment, the complex needs of human beings are best met by the church, or, in broader lingo, by faith-based organizations.

Growing up in a conservative church in conservative Oklahoma (in the 70s), I often heard that Social Security was the church۪s role. Typically it was couched this way in a hortatory sermon: “If the church was doing its job, we wouldn۪t need Social Security.” The message was explicitly religious (“we ought to be doing more, following Jesus better”) and implicitly political (“the government has overstepped its place, we should vote for conservatives”).

Of course, the idea of conservative churches doing more for the widow, orphan, and poor is noble. But the idea of churches making up for Social Security is ridiculous. The combined budget of all faith-based organizations is a fraction of our meager social spending.

But before I am guilty of creating a straw man, let me hasten to say that most evangelicals are more sophisticated today. There is the recognition that Social Security and Medicare “have their place.” But there is still a resistance to augmenting government support to have greater impact.

I think the idea that the government should minimize its social engagement and that the church should do more is fed by the recognition of past bureaucratic failures and the significance of faith, hope, and love to healthy human beings.

This is indeed where evangelicals have something to say. Past welfare programs have often failed, or as some put it, only succeeded in creating dependency. Mass efforts, like project housing, created as many problems as they solved. And faith-based organizations have a better success rate in the social transformation business.

However, it is a simple and empirically verifiable fact that faith-based organizations can۪t meet the social needs of the entire U.S. population. This isn۪t the result of the lack of faith or the lack of effort. The resources are not there. And if we really are concerned about needs, and not just the feel-good result of meeting a segment of those needs, then we۪ll do what it takes to get the job done, including calling on societal resources to do what you can۪t via appropriate political (i.e. nonpartisan) engagement.

It is my hope that Baptists specifically, and evangelicals generally, will hear the call of Martin Luther King as he preached in 1962 at Ebenezer Baptist Church: “Any religion that professes to be concerned about the souls of men and not concerned about the city government that damns the soul, the economic conditions that corrupt the soul, the slum conditions, the social evils that cripple the soul, is a dry, dead, do-nothing religion in need of new blood.”

Scott Stearman is the senior pastor of Kirkwood Baptist Church in Kirkwood, Missouri. He also serves on the ethics commission for the Baptist World Alliance and the Board of Directors of International Baptist Church Ministries, where he was formerly President of the Board of Directors.

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