Are there people in American who live in poverty because they don’t want to work, don’t work hard enough, or made bad choices with their money? Absolutely. I know a lot of people who fall into this category.
But poverty is also a structural problem. It is related to larger economic, racial, social, and cultural forces that have developed over time.
A recent Washington Post and Kaiser Family Foundation study has found that Christians are more likely than non-Christians “to view poverty as the result of individual failings, especially white evangelical Christians.”
Part of the reason this is true is related to what evangelical historian Mark Noll has called “the scandal of the evangelical mind.” In other words, evangelical anti-intellectualism has something to do with this. Evangelicals have failed to understand issues like poverty in terms of historical development and other larger structural issues. The failure to understand these issues in deeper and broader ways ultimately weakens evangelical attempts at trying to address these social problems.
Here is a taste of the Washington Post report on the study:
Helen Rhee, a historian who studies wealth and poverty in Christianity, attributed Christians’ diverging viewpoint first to scripture and second to a theological divide in the early 20th century. At the same time that fundamentalists were splitting from modernists over whether Christians should accept Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution, an academic split emerged: premillennialists versus postmillennialists.
The premillennialists think that the “Second Coming of Christ” is nearing, and with it the elevation of believers to heaven and the terrible tribulations of nonbelievers on earth promised in the Book of Revelation. The postmillennialists interpret Revelation differently, and believe that humans will achieve a blessed era of peace on earth, after which Christ will return.
As conservative evangelicals embraced premillennialism and more liberal Christians turned toward postmillennialism, their approach toward aiding the poor changed in accordance with their beliefs. The postmillennialists, who thought it was their responsibility to work toward a better epoch on earth, focused on dismantling harmful economic structures to create a more just world. The premillennialists, who thought the world might end imminently, wanted to save as many souls as possible to spare those individuals from the torment soon to come for nonbelievers.
To the premillennialists, Rhee said, “The world is already lost. Things are going to get worse and worse … The betterment of society is very intangible. You don’t know whether it’s going to happen or not. It’s a very difficult thing to do. You’ve got to just focus on what is important — that is, salvation of the soul. That is, preach the gospel. Evangelism.”
Saving an individual’s soul by correcting his personal behavior will do him far more good than fixing an economic structure, if the world is about to end anyway, Rhee explained. “They are being compassionate.”
That thinking has influenced Christian culture to this day. Mohler, a conservative evangelical, said, “There’s a rightful Christian impulse to consider poverty a moral issue … Evangelicals are absolutely right to look at the personal dimensions. No apology there.”
But he added that the sins that cause a person to be in poverty may be the sins of others, not of the person who is poor, and he said that conservative Christians need to acknowledge that more often. “I think conservative Christians often have a very inadequate understanding of the structural dimension of sin.”
Read the entire piece here.
Helen Rhee‘s argument about premillennialism has some validity. There is a reason why Noll has a whole chapter on dispensational premillennialism in The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind. But I think there is an even larger issue here about education, learning, and good Christian thinking.