I got in late last night and missed Dr. Ben Carson’s appearance on the CNN GOP Town Hall. Earlier today I finally got a chance to see Carson’s answer to a question about faith and the welfare state. It has been making the rounds on social media:
I want to commend Jessica Fuller for this question. It is the best question on faith and politics that I have heard asked in this primary season. (And that includes the media and the moderators of debates).
I am partially sympathetic here with Carson. It is the responsibility of Christians to care for the poor at the local level through voluntary societies such as churches.
But we also live in a broken world. Sometimes voluntary societies fail. Sometimes the church fails.
Think about the Jim Crow South. Where was the white church during segregation? If you read Martin Luther King Jr’s. “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” or David Chappell’s treatment of the Civil Rights movement in Stone of Hope: Prophetic Religion and the Death of Jim Crow you have to come to grips with the fact that the white church did not do its job. And because it didn’t do its job, the government had to step in and desegregate. (This is also part of Mark Noll’s argument in God and Race in American Politics: A Short History).
I wonder if the same thing can be said for poverty in America. Would we need welfare programs if Christians were doing their job? I’m not sure, but it is certainly something to think about.
I also wonder why caring for the poor always has to be framed in a “big government” vs. “civil society” way. Yes, the welfare system needs reform. But why can’t government also be involved in this kind of work? Carson rattles off a bunch of problems with welfare. But there are also stories of success.
And then there are the historical problems with Carson’s comments..
First, Carson is right about the Constitution. The Constitution doesn’t say that it is the government’s job to take care of the poor. In fact, I am not sure the Constitution says anything about taking care of the poor.
Second, I am sure that the kind of moral community Carson is talking about here was present in the “old days of America.” I have even written about it. (Although I failed to mention the bear-attacks).
But one also has to be cautious when suggesting that back in the good old days everyone cared for one another and there was no self-interest. It is easy to romanticize this kind of community. Carson is very nostalgic for a world that only partially existed.
Third, Carson’s reference to Woodrow Wilson and progressivism comes straight out of the Glenn Beck playbook. In fact, when Beck and his writers attacked me a few years ago I had to deal with rabid Beck fans leaving messages on my office answering machine accusing me of being “Woodrow Wilson.” For Beck, Wilson’s racism is not a problem. He is a problem for his “big-government” solutions to social issues.
But putting all the blame on Wilson and the Progressive Era fails to recognize that one of the brightest moments in American history–Lincoln freeing the slaves and the Radical Republican Reconstruction plan to bring racial equality to the South in the wake of the Civil War– was an example of an active federal government try legislating morality.