Caring for people who are poor has not been, in theory at least, a controversial concept in Christianity. Historically, some form of providing for those lacking the basic necessities of life has been a central tenet—if not always a central practice—of the church. Contemporary churches are no different: Christians from across the spectrum of political beliefs generally agree that we ought to respond to people living in poverty with concern and assistance.
As both E.J. Dionne and Ronald Sider write elsewhere in this issue, however, the preferred means by which people of faith should respond has been controversial. Many conservative Christians emphasize private approaches as the preferred solutions to poverty: individual and congregational charity, community projects, and the salubrious effects of a thriving business sector and individual hard work. They will often emphasize the role of individual responsibility (or rather, lack thereof) in creating poverty, and decry the dependency that many government domestic aid programs are believed to create.
Toward the other end of the spectrum, Christians with more progressive leanings also volunteer at community food pantries and encourage generous giving by congregants, but tend to view the role of government antipoverty programs with less suspicion than many conservatives. They believe there are structural and systemic issues inherent in creating the common good that only government is equipped to address. They believe that scriptures and doctrine call Christians not just to mercy and charity (which are absolutely vital) but also to justice for all people. To achieve justice requires tackling large infrastructure questions (and macro-economic questions) that by necessity involve government.