I am in the midst of a series on America as a Christian nation the last post in the series was on the origins of the mythos that America is a Christian Nation (here), in this post I want to begin looking at what it would actually mean for America to be a Christian Nation. This idea came home for me when I reflected on Marvin Olasky’s book The Tragedy of American Compassion. Olasky’s main point is that in the 19th century the Christian church was the center of charity in America, but through the 20th century the government began to take over this role and it has created a dependent class in America. Olasky’s point is that churches are better able to take care of people and the government should cede charity work to the churches. What I noticed about the book when I read it in 2001 was that it aligned very well with the Republican Party platform, which of course strengthens the ties between conservative Christians and the GOP. But this point also fundamentally undermines the concept of America as a Christian nation. Many conservative Christians will stand against social welfare programs as big government interference, yet fail to recognize that these programs were originally supported by Christians for very Christian reasons. American Christians throughout the 19th and early 20th centuries partitioned the government to intervene in the lives of the needy precisely because these Christians recognized the magnitude of the need. So my question today is- how does a Christian nation respond to the poor and needy?
Let me begin with this, Olasky does have a point, it is true that 1) Christians do often expect the government to help the poor and so neglect their responsibilities & 2) the government often fails to actually change the lives of the needy in this country and does inadvertently create a dependent class of people. Those truths acknowledged, we must ask whether or not this reality exempts the government from charitable work in a Christian nation? To answer this question we should acknowledge what the Bible says about helping the poor and needy.
The concept of America as a Christian nation is built upon the Old Testament notion that God makes covenants with select nations to carry out God’s plans for the world. The model for America is Old Testament Israel and and the heroes of Israel’s story are used as parallels for the heroes of America’s story. We heard this frequently in 2016 as Donald Trump was compared to the Persian king Cyrus who allowed the Israelites to return home from exile; the belief was that Mr. Trump, though not a Christian or a poor Christian, will allow Christianity to flourish as Cyrus allowed the Jews to flourish. If it is true that Old Testament Israel provides a blueprint for Christian America, then there must be a corollary between Old Testament torah and modern American law and government. [It is easy here to lampoon how the Old Testament purity codes should fit into America but that is to fail to understand the purity codes and makes one look foolish]. If America is a parallel to Old Testament Israel let us look at the Old Testament for guidance on our social welfare programs. The Bible commands God’s people to take care of those in need over 150 times, this list of the needy includes: widows, orphans, the poor, the destitute, refugees and other immigrants, & the sick. The simple fact is that God expects a society in covenant with God to care for other members of society who lack the means to care for themselves. God’s expectation for Israel, and thus for any Christian nation, was for the society as a whole to care for and provide for every person within the boundaries of the community. Reading the Scriptures it is abundantly clear that if we want to claim “America is a Christian nation” we must then support policies which help lead people out of poverty and which care for those who are live in need. The prophet Isaiah directly connects the failure of Israel’s government to care for the needy and the judgment of God.
See how the faithful city has become a prostitute! She once was full of justice; righteousness used to dwell in her— but now murderers! Your silver has become dross, your choice wine is diluted with water. Your rulers are rebels, partners with thieves; they all love bribes and chase after gifts. They do not defend the cause of the fatherless; the widow’s case does not come before them. Isaiah 1:21-23
Woe to those who make unjust laws, to those who issue oppressive decrees, to deprive the poor of their rights and withhold justice from the oppressed of my people, making widows their prey and robbing the fatherless. What will you do on the day of reckoning, when disaster comes from afar? To whom will you run for help? Where will you leave your riches? Nothing will remain but to cringe among the captives or fall among the slain. Yet for all this, his anger is not turned away, his hand is still upraised. Isaiah 10:1-4
While it is tempting to shoehorn Christianity into a doctrine of limited government by saying that taking care of the poor is solely the concern of the church, or to point out how much our current model is failing, these options are inadequate. It is obvious to anyone who stops to think about the realities facing this country that the church is insufficient to handle the charitable need in this country. This is my biggest problem with Olasky’s thesis he does not adequately address the differences in society between the 19th century and today. Even if the American church does have the financial means to take care of helping the needy of America find housing, food, clothing, & and other material goods on a consistent basis, it is impossible for the church to do so. The American church is simply too fractured to produce an infrastructure capable of meeting the needs of America. The logistics necessary for connecting these churches would be impossible to establish (ask any local ministerial association). Second, even if the churches were able to take care of the above needs, they could not provide for healthcare for the needy, particularly since the group who relies on the government for healthcare is far larger than those in need of rent or groceries and the costs are far higher. The only institution with the resources and logistical framework large enough to do this is the American government. But further if America is a Christian nation then our government is precisely the tool that extends the reach of the church, it is the entity which allows for the distribution of resources which otherwise would be impossible.
I agree with Olasky that our current government systems are inadequate and create issues within society, it is further true that churches should be at the center of charitable efforts in this country. But to claim we are a Christian nation is to claim we have an obligation to care for the vulnerable. Any Christian who makes this claim must then support politicians and platforms that take social welfare seriously. We do not have to support the current system but if we do not we must advocate for reform. Yet, this is not the path taken by many who stand behind “America The Christian Nation”; what often happens in churches who make this claim is government failures are used to further the Republican platform of limiting social welfare programs without any attempt to lobby the church to increase its own social awareness. This is precisely where those who make the claim that America is a Christian nation begin to show a level of cognitive dissonance. They want America to represent a Christian light to the world while forgetting that our Christian light is rooted in “loving our neighbor as ourselves.” A Christian nation must be concerned with furthering the public good according to Biblical principles, we can all agree on that, and one of the Biblical principles that must be upheld is care for the needy. This is justice as defined by the Bible, there is no arguing that such a concept is important to God, the only debate is how are we going to achieve justice.