Get the churches to do it . . . they’ll do anything!

It’s been a week or longer since the CNN/Tea Party Republican debate, and frankly there is little I can nor want to say about that event, for the candidates and the conversation seem so far removed from the world that I inhabit that it’s hard to imagine that we are in the same astral plane. However, as I’ve watched the comments and blog posts from afar, there was one moment that struck me that seems an ongoing trend in our world today.

These thoughts were triggered by the now infamous exchange between moderator Wolf Blitzer and Ron Paul in which Blitzer threw forth a hypothetical young man with no health insurance who finds himself on his death bed due to a medical crisis. Of course Blitzer was baiting the radical libertarian Paul in the hope that he could get Paul to day what few libertarians want to say aloud – that yes, the belief in personal responsibility likely means that those who fail to (or unable to) care for themselves will likely die. What shocked most commentators was the cheering from the audience which was willing to do just that .  . . not only speaking the truth behind that belief structure but also celebrating it. However Paul, a man who is rarely characterized as the most reasonable man in the room, refused to acknowledge that the consequences of a world in which everyone is responsible for themselves with no responsibility to another will likely mean some will be unable to care for themselves with fatal consequences.

Paul said:

No. I practiced medicine before we had Medicaid, in the early 1960s, when I got out of medical school. I practiced at Santa Rosa Hospital in San Antonio, and the churches took care of them. We never turned anybody away from the hospitals,” said Paul to additional applause. “And we’ve given up on this whole concept that we might take care of ourselves and assume responsibility for ourselves. Our neighbors, our friends, our churches would do it.


Of course Paul’s experience is likely correct, but it fails to recognize that the cost of medicine in the 1960’s was significantly less, and both our scientific and technological knowledge was relatively primitive compared to today’s. Back in the 1960’s, when I was born, the choices for healing were much fewer and the fatality rates were higher. There were fewer dilemmas like those experienced today where methods for bringing healing are available but for those without help are unaffordable.  It was a different world, and the thought of going back to that way of life is simply out of touch with reality.

What worried me more though is the mindset that the “…churches will pick up the slack.” To be fair, that sentiment is not original to Ron Paul. No, it has become the regular mantra from politicians of all stripes when they propose cuts in programs that help poor folks, or meet other social ills. Rather than acknowledging the truth that some will suffer due to these difficult decisions our political leaders are making, they instead pivot to the goodwill of communities of faith as the source of universal help to those in need, as if these communities have never ending resources that could come close to addressing the needs of the world.

Don’t get me wrong . . . I believe that church indeed have a responsibility to help meet the needs of our communities. We must be engaged in the work of care and justice that is rooted in the witness of our scriptures and traditions. But given that religious practice of all kinds is declining in our society, it simply doesn’t make sense that the religious will be able to care for the wide variety of needs present today. Suggesting that the churches will take care of the problem is simply a ploy that politicians use to avoid the personal responsibility that they are so big on promoting.

Take for a moment a real life example. I recently read a blog post which suggested that one of Ron Paul’s formers staffers had recently died at a young age of viral pneumonia. This staffer, according to the story, had no health insurance, and left his family with $400,000 in medical bills. Let’s suppose that this family was connected to my church, a church whose entire budget for the year is $150,000. Yes, we have been effective in some fundraising efforts and have seen God’s provision, but the fact is that aren’t unlimited dollars coming for us to do ministry in the community. We could undertake a special campaign to raise funds for this project – but in all honesty the best we could hope for would generally fall well short of the $400,000 owed. And this is a single individual. In Tennessee according to recent statistics, over 1 million folks are uninsured. While the gamble that is living without insurance will pay off for some, the law of averages suggests that even a small percentage of those folks will get sick, and the ability of the churches to address the big ticket expenses that go with modern American medicine is very limited at best.

But it’s not simply health care. In Nashville we have a 211 service where folks in financial crisis can call 211 to obtain information regarding assistance. The service is run by our local United Way, and is supposed to connect people in need with agencies (both governmental and non-profit) who can provide help. It’s a great ideal, but what has been shared with me again and again is that more often than not persons in need are told by the 211 operators that they only place they can find help is through the local churches – and they are encouraged to call congregations at random.

For the most part, that advice is true for after years of governmental budget cutting, there are very few agencies that can provide financial help beyond individual congregations, however in the time of economic distress that we face, congregations quickly become overwhelmed with the requests, and as the last faces on the totem pole, we bear the responsibility of speaking the truth – your community has abandoned you and there simply isn’t any assistance available.

Again, this is not a rant against the role of the church in helping others. No, this is simply a plea for our political leaders to speak the truth. If the political will doesn’t exist for supporting the poor and downtrodden, let’s simply say so. If we are seeing the triumph of Ayn Rand individualism which believes that the wealthy are morally more deserving and that the poor are morally corrupt and should be cast aside in the survival of the fittest world we’ve become, then let’s say so. Let’s not attempt to soften our moral decline, our lack of compassion, or our greed by suggesting that those who believe that love and care are to be the center of life together will take care of it.

Will the churches try? Absolutely.

Can we succeed? It’s hard to see how, but our hope in the resurrection means that nothing is impossible.

BUT, know that if you are going to move the responsibility of care to the churches, tithing is no longer optional.  You can pay the government or you can pay the churches, but ultimately someone has to pay.

4 thoughts on “Get the churches to do it . . . they’ll do anything!

  1. What people seem to forget is that churches’ money doesn’t fall like manna from heaven. It comes from the members. If they can’t afford to pay their own health insurance, how can they afford to donate enough to pay for medical costs for everyone else? Churches can take care of small, stop-gap things, like emergency food or counseling, but they can’t create money where there is none.

  2. While I agree with much of what you say, I feel like we’ve lost the philosophical for the practical. Practically speaking NGO’s can’t afford the vast gap between needs and the needy. The larger argument may be that we have stopped giving to churches because we expect the government to do what charity used to do. This relieves us of the pangs of responsibility to act on our own behalf. Since the enactment of the new deal we have witnessed a steady decline in the acts of community kindness that were simply considered a matter of social obligation to preceding generations. In my hometown no one went hungry if our church knew about them and this is true today. The welfare and food stamp offices are so poorly staffed and hampered by red tape that even in an era of dependence on the government many poor folks find themselves overwhelmed by the process. As you mentioned, the Nashville United Way has a help line. This is likely due to the fact that the agencies charged with helping our needy are failing at such a high rate that a private charity has to intervene (and use resources) just to help people navigate the waters.
    As with all political arguments there are two clear sides and most of the time they’re both wrong. Let’s agree to pray for clarity in what’s best for the needy and render unto Caesar that which is Caesars’… peace.

  3. Jay,
    I just posted (belatedly) my thoughts for Sunday and included a link to your piece –
    I am not sure if what is happening in the church is a triumph of Ayn Rand individualism or just plain selfishness. I doubt that many of those who feel that the church’s should be doing the work even know who Ayn Rand was. It does seem to me that those who want the Federal Government to get out of social programs do not give much to their church anyway (it escapes me but I seem to recall that the poor and middle classes give a greater portion of their income than do the upper class).

    If we stop to think about how John Wesley felt and what the real early church did, maybe we could turn this around.

    In peace,
    Dr. Tony

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