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Church and State

November 11, 2014

We Christians have always been confused about separation of church and state.  For that matter, so have non-Christians.

There are issues where our non-Christian friends clearly want the church to keep its hands off state matters while Christians lobby to keep the state involved.  Same sex marriage comes to mind.  One side sees the church as trying, through the state, to impose its values on others.  The other begs, lately for the most part without success, that the state enforce traditional marriage.

Then a new issue arises and we switch sides.  The Affordable Care Act is an example.  All of a sudden, Christians who were pleading with the state to regulate marriage are horrified that they might regulate health care.  I am sure, with a moment’s thought, you could think of many other issues where the two camps happily switch sides.

Yes, I know, both parties can give lucid reasons why, in this particular issue, it is necessary to change sides.  One side is primarily for government regulation but, of course, on this issue it needs to be hands off.  The other is primarily against government regulation but, of course, on this issue we need the state to step in.  But the point is that nobody is always for, or against, government control and regulation.  Both sides could be summed up as wanting the government in when we want them in and out when we want them out.

Frankly, I am not all that concerned about the flip-flopping foibles of non-Christians.  But there is one issue that I get uneasy about with the stance many in the evangelical church take and that is care for the poor and needy.  Almost to a person the conservative branch of evangelicalism tends to see government involvement in feeding and clothing the poor as bad.  It is, they say, encouraging dependence.  This is better left to the church.  In fact, if the government would butt out we’d do it better.

There is some truth to the fact that feeding the poor encourages dependence.  This would be true of course no matter who feeds them.  The assumption that many, including many evangelicals, make that really sticks in my craw is that the poor want to be dependent; that as soon as we feed, clothe and house them they will immediately stop trying to do things for themselves and ride the government gravy train.  Only someone who has never experienced how dehumanizing it is to receive government assistance could think that.

But the problem is deeper.  People who are upset about government aid to the poor, sooner or later, will oppose any aid to the poor.  As someone said about private aid to the poor, “The people feeding them are enablers, and they enable the homeless by making their lives easier…Hunger is a big motivator. Are people more likely to seek help when they’re hungry or when they’re fed and happy?  Feeding people on the streets is sanctioning homelessness…Whatever discourages feeding people on the streets is a positive thing.”

It doesn’t sound very Christ-like does it?  I am all for the church helping the poor, the needy, the hungry.  I confess I don’t grasp why others, including governmental bodies, can’t do the same.  What I don’t understand is how anyone, let alone a Christian, could call refusing to help them “a positive thing.”

The efficiency and efficacy of governmental programs is a worthy debate.  But if the state is doing more for “the least of these” than we are the solution is to do more ourselves, not to ask them to do less.


From → Christianity

One Comment
  1. Here is an article I wrote, and recently rewrote, that discusses this topic. Would love to hear your thoughts:

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