Whether it is secular political liberals or the liberal-dominated hierarchies of the established churches, the compulsion to hand-out other people’s money no strings attached is a powerful one.
In the case of the church, ‘cheerful’ giving and charity ought to be second nature wherever genuine need is apparent. All too readily church leaders are able to chirp up the apparently unchallengeable dictum: it is our ‘Christian duty to help the poor’.
But there’s the rub. Just who are ‘the poor’ about whom the Bible so regularly speaks? Certainly the Bible often means the poverty-stricken. But far from always. As I have had cause to point out elsewhere, innumerable references to “the poor” in the Bible – as closer study of the context reveals only too plainly – are to the “poor in spirit”, not the materially poor.
In short, those who show spiritual humility towards God and his teachings. (For the record, it is an issue that the left-wing U.S. church leader Jim Wallis, famously a “spiritual advisor” to Bill Clinton, spectacularly fails to grasp throughout his much-vaunted opus God’s Politics, the ‘Bible’ for many US Democrats).
No one suggests, however, that this detracts in any way from the moral need to aid, where we can, the destitute who are unable to help, or find it difficult to help, themselves. The trouble is, however, Christian and church teaching at this point is far more morally nuanced than liberal church leaders are prepared to admit.
This week, Roman Catholic leader Vincent Nichols entered the public debate with an outright attack on the coalition government’s austerity measures when it comes to welfare reform. Nichols pulled no punches describing them as a “disgrace” for leaving people “facing hunger and destitution”. The attack follows on the heels of a similar attack by the Church of England bishops last year.
Anyone reading the interview with the Catholic prelate ought to realise immediately that Nichols fails to present an iota of evidence for his claim. More significantly, it once again reveals a church leadership entirely failing to engage with the wider issues affecting the economics of social welfare in the UK. And by taking this antagonistic, anti-intellectual tack, he does “the poor” and the “destitute” no favours at all.
Channel 4’s recent documentary series ‘Benefits Street’ has shocked the nation. Its revelations of how the current welfare system, apart from allowing, even encouraging rampant abuse, actually traps many in a spiral of welfare dependency they would be only too pleased to escape.
Far from setting out to reveal welfare dependents as merely ‘scroungers’ as the left has sought to demonise it, the programme has shown plainly how the welfare system pro-actively removes major incentives to find work. Nichols ignores all of this.
And there’s more. The scandal of a broken welfare system that Works and Pensions Secretary Iain Duncan-Smith – a practising Roman Catholic – wants to make fairer is actually an issue that has risen high on the political agenda. In short, it is the already hard-pressed UK taxpayer who ultimately is responsible for stumping up the money to pay the ever-spiralling welfare bill.
Are they not entitled to more accountability? Nichols does not appear to think so. Not only is Vincent Nichols’ attack short on evidence and long on rhetoric for his central claim, but he is also apparently unable to articulate how other Christian teachings directly affect this whole issue. The fact is, the Bible and church teaching through the ages has always majored on the importance of self-reliance, personal responsibility and a strong work ethic. But these are not matters Nichols appears to concern himself with.
There is no question that on the Catholic Church’s concern for some social issues in the UK: abortion, gay marriage etc., his Church takes a bold ‘conservative’ position. Indeed, the Catholic leadership has spoken out on these difficult issues more forthrightly than my own Church of England which has remained shamefully silent.
However both the Anglican and Roman Catholic Church hierarchies in the UK appear to have found what they believe is a far easier target in government economic reforms. For both, it seems, the “We’re all in this together” belt-tightening require to get us, living within our means – another Christian teaching by the way – somehow does not apply to welfare claimants.
Instead, both the Anglican and Catholic Church hierarchies have fallen back on ill-thought-through left-wing positions that seek instead to foster an entitlement culture and an unfettered growing welfare dependency. Thus it becomes all too easy to employ a 30-second sound-bite mentality utilising trite Christian axioms to demonise those who disagree, target a government openly attempting to fix a patently broken system – and required to do so by a democratic electorate.
Instead, Nichols’ position and that of his Church now simply looks naïve and unrealistic. Before entering the political fray, one might have hoped that a leading Catholic prelate might have employed more than empty rhetoric and a total disregard for greater democratic and economic accountability.
That he might also have thought beyond mere ‘sticking plaster’ hand-out temporary solutions – not to mention drawing on more morally-nuanced Christian teaching on the subject.
Peter Glover is the author of three books on Christianity and the church, including The Politics of Faith. He is a regular contributor to Breitbart London.