President Bush, European Christian Democrats, and a Way Forward on Poverty

by Ron Sider

With his endorsement of much of President George W. Bush's Faith-Based Initiative during his presidential campaign and his subsequent actions as President, Barack Obama has cemented the Faith-Based Initiative as a bipartisan consensus in American politics. But the liberal-conservative battles over President Bush's initiative and the inherent weaknesses of President Bush's vision produced a Faith-Based Initiative which was fundamentally inadequate for overcoming American poverty.

A brilliant new book by Lew Daly—God's Economy: Faith-Based Initiatives and the Caring State—( item_code=WW&netp_id=794143&event=ESRCN&view=details) places this whole debate over the Faith-Based Initiative in a much broader context and shows us how its weaknesses could be corrected.

The core of Daly's argument is that President Bush's Faith-Based Initiative transcended earlier debates between liberals and conservatives about anti-poverty programs—conservatives wanted to end government responsibility by privatizing welfare programs and liberals wanted to expand government-run programs. Building on ideas that originated in European Christian Democratic circles, President Bush (unlike President Reagan libertarians) retained a major role for government in combating poverty, but greatly elevated the role of faith-based organizations as the delivery systems. Unfortunately, President Bush's uncritical embrace of a largely unrestrained market economy prevented him from understanding another key aspect of European Christian Democracy—i.e., not only an all-powerful state, but also an unrestrained market can and does destroy families and communities. As a result, his Faith-Based Initiative was fundamentally inadequate for overcoming American poverty.

It is helpful to understand a little of the European ideas that Daly believes were influential.

In the 19th century strong national governments, often with a vigorous anti-religious bias, threatened to take over many of the traditional roles of the church in education and care for the poor. In response, Dutch Calvinists led by Abraham Kuyper developed the theory of "sphere sovereignty"—i.e., there are many societal institutions (especially, family and church) that God has established as independent realms that rightly largely control their own spheres. Instead of becoming all-powerful and ever-present, government should be limited and support these other institutions. But Kuyper also realized that an unrestricted market economy was just as great a danger to family, church and other community institutions as was an all-powerful government.

The practical implication of this social theory was the vision that government rightly both places limits on market capitalism and funds universal education and economic programs to empower the poor. Furthermore, a great deal of the government funding for these programs should flow through a variety of non-governmental organizations. Churches and other religious organizations should be as free as other groups to run schools and social-service agencies using government funds. (Using the principle of subsidiarity, Catholics developed similar ideas.) Especially in Holland and Germany, these ideas, promoted by Christian Democratic political parties, profoundly shaped policies in education and social welfare. As a result, these countries have substantial less poverty than the U.S.

Daly shows how these ideas—mediated especially by James Skillen and Stanley Carlson-Thies of the Center for Public Justice—( influenced George Bush. Contrary to liberal critics who argued that President Bush wanted to abandon all governmental responsibility to alleviate poverty, Bush argued that government had an important role in overcoming poverty. But he insisted that the organizations delivering social services using government funds should be greatly expanded. He insisted on a "level playing field" that no longer discriminated against faith-based organizations in the distribution of government funds. That, Daly argues, produced a major, positive shift in American anti-poverty programs.

Unfortunately, President Bush failed to grasp another crucial aspect of European Christian Democrats. Bush uncritically embraced the view that there should be very few restrictions on the market economy. The vast majority of his tax cuts went to the richest 25 percent instead of empowering the poorer segments of society, and he failed largely to expand effective programs to empower the poor. In spite of President Bush's new, significant Faith-Based Initiative, the number of Americans in poverty steadily increased during his presidency.

Why is all this history important now? Because understanding what President Bush got right and wrong helps us see how to do it better. President Bush was right in rejecting the dominant Reagan-Republican push to abandon governmental responsibility to alleviate poverty. (Liberal critics who said that was the real goal were wrong.) He was also right to embrace a much wider role for non-governmental (including religious) organizations in the delivery of government-funded anti-poverty programs [and liberal critics were wrong in charging that protection of the freedom of religious organizations (especially their right to hire staff who share their faith commitments) was "discrimination."] Tragically, Pres. Bush failed to provide enough funding to combat poverty and he failed to see how an unrestrained market economy threatens families and communities just as much as an all-powerful government.  (Liberal critics were on target here.)

The way forward, therefore, is to strengthen, not weaken, the role of a wide variety of non-governmental agencies in the delivery of government-funded anti-poverty programs. That includes adequately protecting the religious identity of faith-based organizations. By itself, however, that is not enough. The state must act to place effective restraints on markets in order to reduce their negative impact on families and communities. It must also expand funding for effective programs that reduce poverty. The common good trumps unrestrained private economic self-interest. To embrace that whole agenda, both liberals and conservatives will have to abandon one-sided views and partisan bickering. But this is the way to reduce poverty. Hopefully large numbers of Christians and others of goodwill in both parties will insist that both Democrats and Republicans adopt this more holistic agenda for the common good.

Ron Sider is the founder and president of Evangelicals for Social Action and professor of Theology, Holistic Ministry and Public Policy at Palmer Theological Seminary in Wynnewood, PA.

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