The Overlooked Schism

The core divisions among religious Americans, and particularly Christians, are no longer defined by theological issues. The splits are political. The friendly (or at least usually friendly) arguments among believers over back fences and at kitchen tables or backyard barbeques tend not to focus on the Virgin Birth, the real presence of Jesus in the Eucharist, infant baptism, or the nature of the Trinity. More often, they are about issues such as abortion and gay marriage—and about attitudes toward government.

This has led to a peculiar kind of ecumenism. Historically, the defining religious divisions in our politics have been between Protestants and Catholics and between Christians and Jews. (Muslims have arrived to our shores in significant numbers only relatively recently.) In largely homogenous Protestant communities, there were also fierce feuds among denominations, particularly between Methodists and Baptists in smaller Southern towns. As in so many things in our history, racial divisions affected all groups. And many Protestant denominations split along regional lines around the issues of the Civil War. But on the whole, social and theological differences between denominations and faith traditions mattered a great deal.

Those old divisions have largely passed away. Now, conservative Catholics, Protestants, and Jews tend to ally together against liberal Catholics, Protestants, and Jews. As Grant Wacker, a professor of church history at Duke Divinity School, has said: "One of the most remarkable changes of the 20th century is the virtual evaporation of hostility between Protestants and Catholics. I don't think it's because Baptists have come to have a great respect for Tridentine theology. It's because they see Catholics as allies against graver problems. There's a large reconfiguration going on now." Wacker was speaking mostly of the conservative side of politics, but his words apply to moderates and liberals as well.

It's common to talk about these divisions in relation to gay rights and abortion, and those differences are real. The gay rights issue in particular has led to great contention within many of our Protestant denominations. Less prominent in media accounts, but at least as important, is the sharp difference among believers over government's role in dealing with major social challenges, including the four themes of this special issue: poverty, the environment, public health, and disaster relief. The split over government is the Overlooked Schism.

The argument is not, for the most part, about the individual obligation to charity toward the least among us nor, in principle at least, about the biblical call to justice. The Old and New Testaments are abundantly clear in demonstrating what the Catholic Church has called "a preferential option for the poor." Isaiah speaks of undoing the heavy burdens and letting the oppressed go free. And as Jim Wallis has long argued, to ignore Jesus' preaching about the poor is to eviscerate the gospel message.

But there is a powerful dispute over what modern government, as against individuals, should do to lift up the poor. There is contention over the relative importance of social and individual responsibility. If religious progressives tend to criticize government for being insufficiently generous toward the poor, religious conservatives argue that too much government assistance promotes dependency.


TAKE, FOR EXAMPLE, President George W. Bush's strong words about the poor in his first inaugural address. He said: "In the quiet of the American conscience, we know that deep persistent poverty is unworthy of our nation's promise. And whatever our views of its cause, we can agree that children at risk are not at fault." So far he has everybody around the table with him, seated from left to right.

Then Bush said this: "Abandonment and abuse are not acts of God, they are failures of love. And the proliferation of prisons, however necessary, is no substitute for hope and order in our souls."

Now given his record on law and order issues, it's moving for Bush even to bring up the proliferation of prisons as a problem. But what's important is where he locates the cause of these social difficulties: abandonment and abuse are the problems for these poor children; hope and order in our souls is the solution to the problem of criminality.

Bush also declared: "Compassion is the work of a nation, not just a government. And some needs and hurts are so deep they will only respond to a mentor's touch or a pastor's prayer. Church and charity, synagogue and mosque lend our communities their humanity, and they will have an honored place in our plans and in our laws."

Again, there is much that religious people of various philosophical persuasions would applaud, but, whatever it is, it is not exactly the old social gospel or the New Deal.

For many progressives, the emphasis lies elsewhere. "It takes a village," the title of Hillary Rodham Clinton's book, comes from Africa, but it well could arise out of the social justice tradition in Methodism, and the religious progressive tradition generally. Clinton's view of the village encompasses not just families and churches but also government itself. She has spoken often of the government's obligations to universal health care, education, family leave, income supplements, and child care.

This divide between individual and social responsibility is a relatively recent phenomenon in our politics. The Bush emphasis on self-improvement and self-control was once intimately linked to the cause of social reform itself. Many of those who favored the prohibition of alcohol in the last century did not see it as an alternative to social reconstruction. On the contrary, it was a vital movement for social reconstruction that encompassed women's rights and economic independence, reform of trade agreements and governing structures, protection of local community values, as well as reform of individuals.

This link between self-improvement and social improvement was visible in the early trade union movement, which put heavy emphasis on education and self-help, even as it also preached organizing and solidarity. It was also powerful in the civil rights movement, and especially in the preaching of Martin Luther King Jr. In his moving book Radical Equations: Math Literacy and Civil Rights (co-authored by Charles E. Cobb Jr.), the legendary civil rights leader Robert Moses captured the magic of that moment. "The civil rights movement of the 1960s," he wrote, "was less about challenges and protests against white power than feeling our way toward our own power and possibilities—really a series of challenges by ourselves, and our communities, to ourselves." This was a movement that placed demands on society and on individuals.


TO UNDERSTAND the current divisions in our religious traditions, it's essential to confront the new divide between those who stress personal conversion and those who seek social and economic transformation. Two causes that were often allies in our nation's politics now often face off against each other as adversaries.

A few years ago, I was fortunate to edit a volume called Lifting Up the Poor, in which two of the nation's leading voices on welfare policy debated the religious underpinnings of their disagreements. In an especially thoughtful and searching way, they hit upon the essentials of so many of those back fence debates among religious believers.

Mary Jo Bane, a liberal Catholic and an assistant secretary of Health and Human Services in the Clinton administration, supported a strong government role in social provision. Her view was rooted in a sensibility she described as "hopeful rather than despairing, trusting rather than suspicious, more generous than prudent, more communitarian than individualistic." While acknowledging that the scriptures "do not enlighten us much on the questions of who is obligated to provide what for whom under what conditions," she was unabashed in endorsing communal provision.

"My moral argument," she wrote, "asserts that the community is obligated to provide basic levels of subsistence, health care, and education to all its members. The obligation is based on the preciousness of every human being and on the belief that God's plan desires the flourishing of every person."

Lawrence M. Mead, a moderately conservative evangelical and a professor of politics at New York University, sees the gospel's call for salvation as restoring individuals to full moral agency. Economic poverty, as he sees is, is not the paramount concern of Christ's preaching. "There is no preference for the poor," he insists, "only a lively concern for them as well as other people in trouble. Jesus does help the needy and commands his followers to do so, but he has other concerns which are not economic, and he is not undemanding toward those he helps."

The key for Mead is to overcome a culture of poverty that he sees as a "defeatist culture." This culture has many effects. "Unwed pregnancy and drug addiction would appear to be self-defeating, irrational behaviors for those who adopt them," Mead writes. "The idea that people 'choose' these lifestyles attributes to them more power to control their lives than, inwardly, the seriously poor appear to have." Mead advocates an unashamedly "paternalistic" approach to the poor based on the idea that "if you receive some benefits, you accept some obligations in return."

Mead is not unconcerned about the poor and Bane is not unconcerned about personal responsibility. Yet note the difference in emphasis: Bane tends to emphasize the structural causes of poverty, Mead individual shortcomings rooted in a flawed culture.

This is the central divide among religious Americans over government's role in alleviating poverty (and a parallel analysis would find the same divide concerning public health, the environment, and disaster relief). It is a schism just as rooted in values as the more publicized debates over abortion and gay marriage. It has large implications for the poor. Progressives cannot ignore it, partly because more-conservative religious Americans who so often demonstrate abundant financial generosity toward the poor in their private lives ought to be the allies of their more moderate and liberal brothers and sisters in creating a more socially decent society.


What is required of progressives? The argument for personal responsibility cannot be ignored, and reforging the link between social and personal responsibility ought to be a battle cry of religious progressives. The poor suffer from high rates of teen pregnancy, fatherless families, and family breakup and they suffer from unjust social structures, large changes in the economy that produce greater inequality, and—in the case of African Americans and Latinos—racism. There is no reason for progressives to be silent about either half of that sentence, and no good reason for conservatives to deny the second half. By speaking out for personal responsibility, religious progressives can challenge their conservative friends to get serious about social responsibility.

But religious progressives also need to challenge the core conservative contention that government help for the less fortunate inevitably produces "dependency." Our nation moved closer to "equality of opportunity" because of extensive government efforts to offer individuals opportunities to develop their own capacities (and to offer minorities and women protection against discrimination). As legal philosopher Stephen Holmes has pointed out, Adam Smith, the intellectual father of the free market, favored a publicly financed, compulsory system of elementary education. After World War II the government's investment in the college education of millions through the GI Bill simultaneously opened new opportunities for individuals and promoted an explosive period of general economic growth. As Holmes put it: "Far from being a road to serfdom, government intervention was meant to enhance individual autonomy. Publicly financed schooling, as [John Stuart] Mill wrote, is 'help toward doing without help.'"

Progressives also need to challenge a core conservative view that private and religious charity is sufficient to the task of alleviating poverty. That is simply not true. In an important 1997 article in Commentary magazine—hardly a bastion of liberalism—William Bennett and John DiIulio made the crucial calculations: "If all of America's grant-making private foundations gave away all of their income and all of their assets, they could cover only a year's worth of current government expenditures on social welfare." What would happen the next year?

They cited a study by Princeton's Julian Walpole of 125,000 charities, each with receipts of $25,000 a year or more. Among them, they raised and spent $350 billion annually. That sounds like a lot until you realize that this is only one-seventh of what is spent each year by federal, state, and local governments.

Bennett and DiIulio, neither of them enthusiasts of the old welfare state, concluded: "It is unlikely that Americans will donate much more than their present 2 percent of annual household income, or that corporate giving will take up any significant proportion of the slack in the event of future government reductions." The title of their article was "What Good Is Government?" Their answer was clear.

But religious progressives also need to engage in a dialogue with their conservative brothers and sisters on the most basic questions related to values and virtues. Religious conservatives and liberals share an aversion to excessive materialism. They agree that the market should not be the only arbiter of values. They agree that everything cannot and should not be bought and sold.

We do not, for example, believe that justice in the courts or votes and public offices should be bought and sold. We do not now (though many Americans once did) believe that human beings should be bought and sold. But these do not exhaust the instances in which free people might decide to limit the writ of money and the supremacy of the market. As political philosopher Michael Walzer has argued, one of the central issues confronting democratic societies concerns which rights and privileges should not be put up for sale.

As an abstract proposition, we reject the notion that a wealthy person should be able to buy extra years of life that a poor person cannot, since life itself ought not be bought and sold. Yet the availability of health care affects longevity, and by making health care a purely market transaction, we come close to selling life and death. This was the primary argument for Medicare and remains the central moral claim made by advocates of national health insurance. Similarly, we do not believe that children should be deprived of access to food, medicine, or education just because their parents are poor—or, for that matter, irresponsible. As Holmes said: "Why should children be hopelessly snared in a web of underprivilege into which they were born through no fault of their own?"

THE RELATIONSHIP between the moral and economic crises in our society can be seen most powerfully in families where the need to earn enough income forces both parents to spend increasing amounts of time outside the home. One of the great achievements of the last century was "the family wage," which allowed the vast majority of workers to provide their families with both a decent living and the parental time to give their children a decent upbringing. The family wage was not simply a product of the marketplace. It was secured through a combination of economic growth, social legislation, and unionization. If the marketplace becomes not simply the main arbiter of income, as it will inevitably be, but the only judge of living standards, then all social factors, including the need to strengthen families and improve the care of children, become entirely irrelevant in the world of work.

The moral crisis so many conservatives talk about thus grows not simply from the "countercultural" or "permissive" ideas that developed in the 1960s. Its roots lie deeper, in a society that threatens to allow market values to crowd out all other values. The result is a steady erosion of the bonds of solidarity, morality, and trust. This affects the values put forward by the popular culture, the organization of family life, and the aspirations of the next generation—all questions of vital concern to religious conservatives.

My friend the late Father Philip Murnion regularly offered his friends in the Catholic social justice community a powerful insight from the time he spent as a child on welfare after his father died. In his day, Murnion said, poor children could count on three basic forms of support: some money from government, love and nurturing within the family, and moral guidance from churches and neighbors who lived in relatively safe and orderly communities. Now, he argued, poor children are under threat in all three spheres: Government help is in danger; many of the poorest children live in difficult (and at times dangerous) family situations; and the moral order and physical safety of many neighborhoods has collapsed.

Social justice requires economic support from government, a concern for family life, and serious efforts to strengthen community institutions and to restore public order. Religious progressives may find their vocation in insisting that our society needs to grapple with each of these issues. At the heart of their arguments should be two principles: Compassion is good, but justice is better. And while government certainly cannot solve all problems, what government does—and fails to do—still matters enormously.

E.J. Dionne Jr. is a syndicated columnist and senior fellow at The Brookings Institution in Washington, D.C.

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