Budgetary myths that Christians should reject, Part 2:

Poverty is incredibly specific. It affects specific men, women, and children-not just the amorphous (and thus easily dismissed) “poor.”

“Welfare is the Church’s responsibility, not the government’s”

Government was intended to secure the rights and freedoms of the people; it wasn’t intended to be all things to all people. When I look at the fact that we need to strengthen law enforcement, government does that. But then what I’m doing is going to the charity side, the private sector side, to take care of those who are in need. It’s not that Republicans don’t care–Republicans just don’t think government should pay for it, and there’re other ways to accomplish these things.



  • Which churches/religious institutions/private charities should be included? Are you comfortable with services being provided by Catholics? By Mormons? By Muslims? By atheists? By Wiccans?
  • Which “churches” are legitimately part of “the Church”? Who gets to decide who is in and who is out?
  • Which poor should be included? By what criteria should they be identified, and who gets to determine who qualifies and who doesn’t? Would there be an appeals process if a deserving candidate got turned down by a stricter part of the private charity coalition?
  • What extent of care should be provided, and with what standards of care?
  • Who ensures that individual churches do not care for fewer than their allotted percentage of the poor people in their community, or that they don’t skimp when even when they do care for all of those in their reach?
  • Who decides which church cares for which poor people?
  • Even if tithing capacity were sufficient to cover the costs of the above programs (which it does not appear to be), why should caring for the poor involve the sacrifice of money that would be used to spread the Gospel, educate believers, or make it easier for believers to worship God rather than the money that a tobacco company CEO or a casino owner (for example) might-in light of a lighter tax burden-use to buy a second yacht?


In an interview last month with Christianity Today’s Sarah Pulliam Bailey, South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley was asked “How would you respond to Christian relief organizations that have expressed concern over the government cutting funding to programs that aid the world’s poor?” Her response is noteworthy:

A less sophisticated but clearer example of this general idea is found in Bob Nance’s 1986 DOS game “Christian Text Adventure,” which contains the following fictitious newspaper article:

(API) Congress today unanimously voted to abandon the Welfare program. “Since Christians across the nation have begun to tithe again, churches have had the funds to provide food and medical care to ALL the needy people in their communities”, said Congressman John Stennis, III of Mississippi. “It is no longer necessary for us to tax the population in order to provide these services, therefore, there will be widespread cuts in income tax.”

Both Haley and Nance make an interesting argument: it isn’t that conservative Christians don’t care about the poor, but rather that government just needs to get out of the way (and cut taxes) so Christians can pay for all needed social services through their tithes. Haley’s critics–including many affiliated with the very nonprofit and religious aid agencies she is expecting to take up the slack for the government–charge that this is a cop-out, and that private charities and churches lack the resources to take on the state’s part of the job too.

In a white paper released Friday by Eastvold Strategies, I took a stab at testing this claim by figuring out how much money would be generated annually if all regular churchgoers tithed a full ten percent and then comparing this to the cost of selected social welfare programs that might arguably be tackled by the Church instead.

I estimated the ideal annual tithe (if active churchgoers each donated ten percent of their income) as somewhere between $255 billion and $354 billion, and the cost of the programs that would need to be covered at slightly more than $1,060 billion (a full discussion of my methodology and listing of the programs counted can be found in the paper).

Currently, the average cost per American for these programs comes to $3,458.65. Limiting this to active churchgoers, the annual cost would be between $10,982.09 and $16,473.13 per regular congregant. The share of this cost for an average church of 75 members would thus be between $823,656.55 and $1.24 million per year–which is a daunting figure even for affluent congregations.

For the argument that churches, not government, should be performing social services to be anything more than a cop-out, its advocates must provide specific answers to each of the following questions:

Poverty is incredibly specific. It affects specific men, women, and children-not just the amorphous (and thus easily dismissed) “poor.” If anyone had the time, resources, and intestinal fortitude to measure it, there would be a specific number of meals missed per day, a specific number of deaths each year from treatable conditions left to fester because of inadequate care, etc. To effectively address it, any proposed solutions must be equally specific.

Unless a specific proposal can be brought to the table that satisfactorily answers these questions while explaining how the cost of these programs will be borne, proposals in this vein must be dismissed as bad-faith attempts at buck-passing.

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