I’m always slightly nonplussed by the postures of the American right, and one of the items flagged on on my regular alerts took me into a different world: an article in Conservative Review entitled, Is God in favor of a welfare state? First, I should say something about Conservative Review. The positions they adopt are not what you’d get from an academic book on Conservatism; they advocate a confection of Tea Party, Republicanism and neoliberal ideas, such as
- “Americans should be free to conduct business free from government intervention or control.”
- “Congress should work to devolve federal spending and control of education to the state level.”
- “the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed.”
- “Americans must be allowed to purchase health insurance on a free and open market.”
The article on God’s view of the welfare state talks a fair bit about the Bible. It argues:
you cannot make a valid argument that God supports a welfare state, redistribution scheme imposed by a secular government without either distorting, or outright ignoring, His Word.
I’m grateful for the correction. I might otherwise have been confused, for example, by the suggestion that the Bible told us to protect the needy.
For the poor shall never cease out of the land: therefore I command thee, saying, Thou shalt open thine hand wide to thy brother, to thy poor, and to thy needy, in the land. (Deut 15:11)
I’m not a Christian myself, but Christians seem to be pretty hot on redistribution. The early Christians went so far as to hold property in common:
And the multitude of believers had but one heart and one soul. Neither did any one say that ought of the things which he possessed was his own: but all things were common unto them. (Acts 4:32)
Admittedly, on the strict construction of the words, the Bible doesn’t say anything about the welfare state. It doesn’t say much about modern statecraft, sewers or telecommunications either. But it does say quite a lot about moral responsibility and social organisation – rather more, as it happens, than it has to say about the Creation, which should tell you something about God’s priorities.
Many religions have developed strong communal institutions founded on that. Jews have formal mechanisms for the management and distribution of charity; Lutherans support the principle of a common chest; Catholics teach the central value of solidarity; Islam has zakat. Apparently they’re all wrong.
There is absolutely no wealth redistribution, coerced and implemented by the state, either advocated or modeled anywhere in the Bible.
That contention is backed up by the claim that the organisation of biblical Israel was entirely theocratic and ordained by God, so that it doesn’t count as advocating or modelling a system. I’m not sure I follow the reasoning there. Besides, it wasn’t either exclusively theocratic, or ordained by God: God expressed his dislike of the people’s request to install a king, but decided that the issue was up to them (1 Samuel 8). Absolutely no wealth redistribution? Try the Jubilee (Leviticus 25), when debts and claims were cancelled and people in servitude were freed. Nothing in a premodern society compromised liberty as fundamentally as debt. That’s coupled with the injunction not to oppress each other in trade (Lev 25:14) No coercion of resources by the state? The Jewish tradition was that every nation had a duty, commanded of Noah, to establish a system of laws, and understood that people would have to comply with it – an important doctrine for a people with the experience of subjection or exile. Jesus, who would have known that tradition, was more direct about it:
[They asked] Is it lawful to give tribute to Caesar, or not? … And Jesus, answering, said ‘Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s …’ (Mark 12:14,17)
But perhaps I’m reading the wrong sort of Bible.