Published by the Freedom From Religion Foundation, Inc. FFRF.org

Sixth place — Grad student essay contest: Ben Stokes

Vol. 36 No. 09 November 2019
Ben Stokes                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                               

Christianity and welfare

FFRF awarded Ben $1,000.

By Ben Stokes

While some sects of Christianity preach generosity and compassion for the disadvantaged, others weigh more heavily on the “prosperity gospel.” This rationale espouses that those who work hard and put their faith in the Lord flourish, whereas the slothful and unrepentant do not. This can be seen in the parable of the talents in Matthew 25:14-30, where a master gives three of his slaves varying amounts of talents, or property, to do with as they will while he is away. Two of them put their talents to work (in other words, they invest), while the third stows his talent away. The first two earn their master more talents and receive praise, while the latter is admonished as wicked and lazy.

The prosperity gospel, most clearly seen in evangelical and Mormon followings, largely rejects governmental remedies for impoverished communities in favor of faith and travail. Both groups are staunchly against welfare programs. In their eyes, using the welfare system creates a “mentality of dependency.” This prejudice perpetuates the myth that hard work and gumption alone cultivate success, while ignoring the harsh reality of systemic barriers.

Many evangelicals and Mormons further condemn the poor as eager for “handouts,” contributing to the stigma that they are not hard-working. A poll by the Washington Post and the Kaiser Family Foundation found that, compared to the nonreligious, white evangelicals were three times more likely to blame poverty on a lack of effort. Yet, empirical evidence from the Labor Center at University of California-Berkeley shows the contrary: The impoverished are often victims of circumstance and will do everything they can to improve their situation. However, most cannot simply claw their way out. Those struggling face many barriers, including health care costs, housing costs, transportation costs, education, adequate nutrition and childcare in order to be able to hold a job. All of these disadvantages could be overcome with the implementation of proper governmental policies. Yet, many Christians would rather focus on charity and eliminate these programs altogether.

If charities are the supposed solution to human misfortune and suffering, then it’s important to examine how donations to charities and religious entities play out in our communities. According to Christianity Today, from 2015 to 2016 there was a 2.2 percent rise in cash contributions, equating to a total of $12.6 billion, to evangelical ministries. At the same time, these very ministries decreased funding to education by 8.3 percent, rehab by 5.4 percent, community development by 2.6 percent, and relief and development by 1.2 percent. The areas with the largest increases in funding were literature and publishing (13.2 percent), adoption (11.4 percent), and camps and conferences (10.1 percent). An additional study by The Giving Institute noted that 32 percent of all charitable donations in 2015 went to churches.

Together, the aforementioned statistics indicate that much of the funding churches receive directly benefits the religious institutions themselves, rather than those vulnerable in the community. How, then, does this form of charity suffice to provide for those in need?

Regardless of efficacy, believing that giving to charity is the only way to help the less fortunate ought to correlate with increases in charitable donations, but it does not. In a study done by Nonprofits Source, Christians who donate give 2.5 percent of their income to charity. On the other hand, research by economists at Texas A&M University found that 61 percent of American households, not accounting for religion, gave 3.7 percent of their income to charity. These statistics suggest that adhering to a Christian belief system, including but not limited to concepts of charitability, does not ensure higher rates of donations.

Upon closer inspection, those who say they support charity over governmental interventions do not practice what they preach. Conservative Christian groups say they support charity and promote self-reliance in an effort to help those in poverty. However, these remedial avenues ultimately fail to adequately support the millions of impoverished and undernourished adults and children in this country. In truth, the antiquated ideology of pulling oneself up by the bootstraps serves only to demonize those who struggle to provide for themselves and their families as deserving of this fate because they are lazy and unrighteous. The true laziness, it seems, is in the hearts and minds of those whose words and actions charade as charity, but in reality, do little more than provide a false sense of superiority.

Ben, 29, is from Hillsboro, Ore., and attends George Washington University, where he is working on his doctorate of physical therapy. He was raised as a Mormon. “Once I reached the age of reason, things didn’t quite line up,” he writes. “With an open mind, I began evaluating the things around me and found them to be lacking. I no longer find fulfillment in blind faith, but instead in helping those around me.”