From May 25, 2011, “Franklin Graham goes the Full Olasky“:
Robert Parham says “‘Let the Churches Do It’ Is a Deceptive Myth” [EthicsDaily link now defunct]. He quotes Franklin Graham, among others, as a promoter of this deceptive myth. Graham said:
A hundred years ago, the safety net, the social safety net, in the country, was provided by the church. If you didn’t have a job, you’d go to your local church and ask the pastor if he knew somebody that could hire him. If you were hungry, you went to the local church and told them, ‘I can’t feed my family.’ And the church would help you. That’s not being done. The government took that. And took it away from the church.
That’s got all the hallmarks of Marvin Olasky’s bogus mythmaking:
- Laughably false and easily disproved claims about the Golden Age of the past? Check.
- Attempt to spin the church’s abandoning its responsibility as a case of government usurpation? Check.
- Ridiculously inflated claims about the scale, capacity and expertise of faith-based assistance? Check.
- Deliberate exclusion of the opinions of those actually providing that assistance, both today and “a hundred years ago”? Check.
- Fundamental confusion that imagines all duties and obligations as mutually exclusive? Check.
Yep. Graham is five for five. That’s the Full Olasky right there.
Parham then turns to Wayne Flynt to explain what this would mean, for example, for Alabama:
When Flynt started making speeches about a just tax system in Alabama, he was accused of wanting government to solve all the problems.
“When people insisted that I was a socialist, that I wanted government to solve all the problems, I would offer this alternative,” said Flynt. “OK, I accept your argument. There are 10,000 communities of faith – Muslim, Jewish, Baptist, Baha’i, Buddhist, Shintoist – in Alabama… Let’s divide 10,000 communities of faith into the 740,000 [poor] people.”
He asked, “How many does your church get?”
The retired Auburn history professor pointed out that most of those faith communities had about 100 members. That meant that each faith community would get between 50 and 100 poor people to look after.
The “deceptive myth” Parham is addressing was most influentially promoted in a deceptive, mythmaking book by Olasky called The Tragedy of American Compassion.
It’s a profoundly misled and misleading work that follows the basic outline above, portraying America before the Roosevelts as a paradise in which generous churches sufficiently cared for the poor with generosity and tough love and no one ever went hungry except lazy people who deserved it. For a useful counterpoint, see Norris Magnuson’s Salvation in the Slums: Evangelical Social Work 1865-1920. Magnuson covers the very same ground, but he provides an honest assessment of the actual scope of the poverty and deprivation of the time — most of which remained beyond the reach of the laudable, but vastly inadequate work being done by the churches.
More importantly, Magnuson cites the same primary sources as Olasky, but he does so in full and in context. That illuminates how selective and misleading Olasky’s use of those sources is. The devout believers Olasky cites to support his claim that the government has no role in helping the poor are nearly all revealed, in Magnuson’s book, to have been advocating and pleading for the larger government role that Olasky is arguing against.
Olasky is a partisan ideologue, but that’s precisely why I don’t think his mendacious book is evidence that he is lying. I think it’s a sad case study in what happens if one is, primarily, a partisan ideologue and the way that can blind one to anything one doesn’t wish to see. The tragedy of The Tragedy of American Compassion isn’t that Marvin Olasky is telling lies, it’s that he’s repeating lies he sincerely believes. (Call them “deceptive myths” if you’d prefer to be more euphemistically polite.) That and he’s trapped in an either-or framework of mutually exclusive responsibilities which prevents him from imagining that both the state and the church are responsible for those in need and that these mutual responsibilities are complementary, not competitive. …