May 06, 2005

Charity or the Common Good?

Before I start my inaugural post, I just want to say that I’ve been following all of the blogs by the editors of SRS, and SRS itself, and I’m honored to be invited to join this group of very talented and compassionate bloggers.


I’m somewhat obsessed with the culture wars -- more of an observer than a participant these last few years. Maybe it’s age, maybe it’s family, but I don’t get as fired up as I used to. And maybe that puts me in more of a position to step back and observe a bit. With that in mind, here’s what I’ve been observing in recent months about the so-called “moral values” debate.

Because of a (badly designed) exit-poll question, there was a tremendous amount of media saturation about how Republicans had captured the “morality” vote, and that this was what led to their decisive victory in the 2004 elections.

Shortly thereafter, certain liberal segments of society came back with their own “morality” arguments. Isn’t poverty a moral issue? Isn’t taking care of society’s most vulnerable a moral issue? Leaders of mainline Protestant denominations used
biblical imagery to denounce the recent Bush budget.

The response from conservatives was swift and, quite honestly, somewhat compelling: What exactly is moral about coerced charity? How can more money to government bureaucracy take the place of genuine Christian charity?

I’m not saying that I buy these arguments. But they have a point. I’ve read that even Dorothy Day had no use for government programs (she referred to the government as “Holy Mother state”.)

Amy White, a local conservative columnist for the St. Louis Post Dispatch, wrote exactly this sentiment in her
column yesterday. It was titled “It’s up to us to help the needy”, the print version carried the subtitle “The government can’t afford to protect everybody” [Funny, I thought that, in a democracy, “us” is the “government”]. It is, of course, an argument for individual acts of magnanimity and private charity. She concludes, “It will be harder than a tax increase. But perhaps it will do more good”.

Forgive my skepticism that the motivation behind opposition to tax increases to fund programs like Medicaid is that they are “too easy”. Not to mention the fact that government aid and charity are not mutually exclusive.

But I don’t believe these programs were conceived as charity. The New Deal that launched or set the stage for most of the components of our social safety net was initiated after the Great Depression. The memory of the Depression persisted for a long time. The memory was one that saw the faces of the poor and said, “It could be me”. Now we live in a more prosperous society and middle class people are less likely to think that “It could be me”. Maybe we’re deluding ourselves, or maybe not, but self-interest is no longer a sufficient motivation for support of a social safety net.

Of course, the gospels say that we should see not only ourselves in the faces of the poor, but that we should see Christ in the faces of the poor. Unfortunately, the gospel is too radical to be legislated. You can’t coerce people into laying down their lives for their friends.

So how do we convince the electorate that the care of the most vulnerable among us is a moral priority? Or, at the very least, that utilizing the democratic process to work toward a more just society is not a cheap substitute for genuine Christian Caritas?


It’s now been 24 hours since I started this essay; the reason for that is that I don’t know how to end it. Maybe you can help write the ending. Because I think we need to reframe the debate, and I don’t know how to do that.

We need convince people that meeting people’s basic needs, as a society, is not the same as coerced charity. In my view, there is no such thing as independent “free markets” with minds of our own. We create markets. And when people are victimized by markets, we have a responsibility to prevent, or at least try to undo the damage. This is as basic as asking the owner of the tanker to clean up the oil slick.

In any event, government will never obviate the need for genuine charity. But that’s a lame excuse for failing to take care of the vulnerable.