Obama and Charity

Continuing his lament over what he calls an "erosion of civility in the public square," President Obama chose the setting of this year's national prayer breakfast to admonish his ill-mannered opponents. "Surely you can question my policies," he said, "without questioning my faith."

However noble the spirit to rebel against a directive that so brazenly chills the content of political speech -- scolding those who "poison the well of public opinion" while seeking to purge from that well opinions not to the liking of the lords of decorum -- responding impulsively proves unnecessary.

It's unnecessary because Obama himself, in the same speech, raises the question for us, by linking his faith to his policies. "God's grace," he said, "is expressed through ... the efforts of our entire government."

The question, then, is whether Obama's faith in a tender, loving bureaucracy (aka entitlements) is consistent with his professed faith in Jesus Christ.

The answer is found quite readily in basic elements of Judeo-Christian charity. The Second Letter to the Corinthians, for example, reads: "Each one should give what he has decided in his heart to give, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver1."

"Under compulsion," of course, is precisely the way entitlements are funded. The words "each decided in his heart to give" hardly belong in the same sentence as "tax," unless you're defining "mutually exclusive." Surely entitlements have little to do with "cheerful givers." Elected officials act rather as cheerful takers, as they decide how much to take.

Though Obama is fond of quoting scripture about "the least of these" to justify his policy on entitlements, he's missing a vital part of the equation. Christ's desire to help those in material need never exceeds his desire to help those who are afflicted spiritually. When Christ speaks of helping the poor, he places primary emphasis not on the poor, but on the prospective giver.

Hence, Jesus says, "It is more blessed to give than to receive." The words reflect his deep knowledge of the need to love and be loved through free-will giving. Christ's perspective on giving also points to other reasons why entitlements and Christian charity are incompatible -- reasons that are rarely if ever considered by either side of the debate.

First, taxes taken to fund entitlements serve to obstruct the above-quoted "more blessed[ness]" promised by Christ to those who give. With respect to trillions of conscripted dollars, individuals may no longer experience the transformative process of "deciding in their hearts" whether and how much to give.

Second, in addition to diminishing resources available for private giving, entitlements also deplete charitable impulses. A tax is levied, as it were, on the will to give. As the government takeover of the caring business spreads, individual incentives to care diminish. With government's encroachment on the province of church and charity, the imperative to "love thy neighbor" seems no longer so imperative. Conscience, left to operate freely, may lead one to have compassion on the afflicted; but under a regime of entitlements, it grows anemic.  

When asked to make a donation for the poor, Ebenezer Scrooge retorts, "I help to support [public programs]: they cost enough.'' The rationale for his refusal shows well what happens when we try to legislate love. It ends in humbug.

At the prayer breakfast, President Obama contended that personal sacrifice is waning in America. "We've become numb," he alleged, to "slow-moving tragedies of children without food ... and families without health care." For such "day-to-day" poverty, as distinguished from what he calls "spectacular tragedy," according to Obama -- in a charge that may seem to question your faith -- we are "complacent." So government is needed.

A more likely reason for any numbness (especially his own) is the very thing Obama promotes: entitlements. His imagined bureaucracy of "God's grace" encourages people to center their lives on Self and increasingly become spectators to the plight of others.  

After observing that public programs obviate private charity, Scrooge adds, "It's enough for a man to understand his own business, and not to interfere with other people's." I daresay Obama's entitlement policies cultivate, and spring from, this kind of recoiling from people in need. In opposition to Christian charity, entitlements contribute to the Scroogification of society.

At best, entitlements are based not on faith, but on fear -- fear that love and charity are not enough. Yet for people to give more, government must tax less. Now, there's a policy that really would require faith...even faith in the miracle of Scrooge on Christmas morning.

Roger Banks is an attorney in Washington, D.C. pursuing his ambition to become a poor, starving author.