Marking the 50th anniversary of the War on Poverty, prominent Republicans like Marco Rubio, Rand Paul, and Paul Ryan have unashamedly toed the typical GOP line against welfare. In a now-infamous video, Marco Rubio asks, “After 50 years, isn’t it time to declare big government’s war on poverty a failure?” While offering no immediate policy solutions to support his vague platitudes, he nevertheless embraces the conservative agenda to relentlessly cut funding to the social safety net.
It’s a popular sentiment among conservative Christians to think that social programs like food stamps or unemployment benefits could simply be eliminated and churches and charities would naturally fill the gap. Of course, it should be self-evident that this isn’t true, otherwise the church would already be doing it and we wouldn’t even be having this discussion. Even if it were possible (albeit unlikely) for the church to rise to the occasion, it’s a high risk to experiment such a cruel stress test when it seems inevitable that millions would probably become homeless, starve, or die in the process.
The problem for right-wing Christians who hold this belief is that it doesn’t reflect a Biblical attitude towards either the poor or charity. Today’s charities aren’t able to meet the overwhelming need because they’re any less efficient, but because charity alone has never been able to meet this need. The Mosaic Law prescribed a social safety net to assist the poor in several ways that went beyond charitable giving, like the cancellation of debts every seven years (Deuteronomy 15:1-6) or leaving remains in the field and on the vine for the poor to glean (Deuteronomy 24:19-22). While the Bible never intended for the poor to subsist solely on charity, Republicans expect today’s poor to do so without any fields to glean, while burdened with student loan debts that can’t be forgiven, not even in bankruptcy in most cases.
Gleaning, or collecting leftover crops, is a foreign concept to industrialized America, a custom that many Christians mistakenly assume was abandoned with the new covenant. But Jesus and his disciples were poor and gleaned for food (Matt. 12:1), and the custom continued much longer than most people today would think: it didn’t actually end until after wealthy English landowners succeeded in having it outlawed in 1788 (Steel v Houghton). Did Christians misinterpret the law all through church history for over 1700 years? It seems to me that this precedent in English common law is really the only reason why Christians today don’t believe gleaning is a right, not for any real exegetical reasons. For all their Biblical values talk, the right-wing Christian only really seems to care so far as it doesn’t conflict with modern conservative values. This conservative knee-jerk reaction to welfare is as modern a development as the private property laws that outlawed gleaning, and every bit just as unChristian.
Of course, we’re no longer an agrarian society, another reason why the custom of gleaning is no longer a practical solution to help the hungry now. However, the religious right loves empty talk about wanting to govern America with Biblical principles, so I challenge them to find a modern equivalent to gleaning. I no longer give them a free pass to claim things would magically be better if the country were run on their interpretation of Christian values (which conveniently, they never have to prove) while they reject any Biblically prescribed welfare system. Yet it seems all conservatives ever do is try to repeal programs that help the poor while not intending to replace it with anything. Even after I explain to them that charity couldn’t possibly be a replacement, I have never been able to get a conservative to propose any alternative. It seems they don’t even have bad ideas to offer.
We need more than the vague, empty rhetoric that characterizes the Republican party. People who don’t really have any specific idea what they’re doing cannot be trusted to decide public policy, and certainly not to eliminate the social safety net when they have nothing to offer in its place. The Republican base lets their leaders campaign purely on opposition, but that’s a loser strategy. They will always be losing elections and trying to undo their opponents policies if they can’t come up with workable ideas of their own. If not to help the poor, the GOP needs to do this for its own selfish libertarian sake, or else they’ll just become more unappealing and irrelevant.