Nearly Half of All Christians Blame Poverty on the Poor

Christians (especially white evangelicals) are the religious group most likely to blame a person’s poverty on their own lack of “effort.” As if people are poor because they choose to be.

Americans without organized religion are on the other side of the spectrum, with most blaming difficult circumstances rather than someone’s innate qualities.

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That’s what we learned in a recent poll conducted by the Washington Post and the Kaiser Family Foundation. In it, adults were asked the following question:

Which is generally more often to blame if a person is poor: lack of effort on their own part, or difficult circumstances beyond their control?

When I read the question, I assumed Christians would understand that some aspects of our life are beyond our control and have compassion for the destitute. After all, the Bible is very clear on this: “it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.”

I was wrong. It turns out a remarkably high 46 percent of all Christians said that a lack of effort is generally to blame for a person being poor. According to the Washington Post:

The gulf widens further among specific Christian groups: 53 percent of white evangelical Protestants blamed lack of effort while 41 percent blamed circumstances, and 50 percent of Catholics blamed lack of effort while 45 percent blamed circumstances.

Albert Mohler, president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, explained the (conflicting) logic that guides some Christians to feel this way.

There’s a strong Christian impulse to understand poverty as deeply rooted in morality — often, as the Bible makes clear, in unwillingness to work, in bad financial decisions or in broken family structures… The Christian worldview is saying that all poverty is due to sin, though that doesn’t necessarily mean the sin of the person in poverty. In the Garden of Eden, there would have been no poverty. In a fallen world, there is poverty.”

When your worldview stems from a work of fiction, it’s not surprising that the conclusions you reach are also out of touch with reality.

No wonder non-believers were generally more likely to blame poverty on difficult circumstances:

In contrast, by more than 2 to 1, Americans who are atheist, agnostic or have no particular affiliation said difficult circumstances are more to blame when a person is poor than lack of effort (65 percent to 31 percent).

No surprise there. In fact, white evangelicals were 3.2 times more likely than the non-religious to blame poverty on lack of effort.

As the Post points out, this is a political question as much as it’s a religious or ethical one.

Among Democrats, 26 percent blamed a lack of effort and 72 percent blamed circumstances. Among Republicans, 63 percent blamed lack of effort and 32 percent blamed circumstances… A statistical analysis of the data showed that political partisanship is the most important factor in views on the causes of poverty, but religious identity stands out as one of several important demographic factors.

The results may not be very surprising, but it suggests that for all the good things religious people do to help poverty-stricken people (with soup kitchens, shelters, etc), in the back of their minds, many of them believe they’re helping people who made bad decisions rather than people who are stuck in bad situations out of their control.

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