Let The Churches Deal With Them

I just have one more thing to say about this whole “let the churches care for the poor” viewpoint which, let’s be honest, is not unique to Rep. Stephen Fincher, but is pretty pervasive among conservatives of all stripes.

Nothing is stopping any church from helping anyone. Please, churches, knock yourselves out. Feed as many people as you want: old, young, whatever. We need you to do this, we really do. Wasn’t that the whole point of Bush’s Office of Faith-Based Initiatives? Guess what, haters: the Mooslim Usurper Nobummer didn’t close that office, he expanded it. So yes, churches: feed us, house us, help us.

And indeed, the faith community is helping. Good grief, I’ve been part of more church-based programs helping the poor in this town than I can count: Room In The Inn, Rooftop, the Martha O’Bryan Center, Safe Haven Family Shelter, you name it. Here’s Nashvllle’s Downtown Presbyterian Church which feeds hundreds of homeless every week (much to the chagrin of local businesses,who don’t like having a soup kitchen on their doorstep). The Salvation Army has soup kitchens all across the country feeding the hungry (for which they are reimbursed by the government, I might add.)

But the need is great. There are not enough congregations doing enough of this work to help everyone. Every church-based effort I’ve been part of has had to ration the amount of help it provides because the need is simply greater than funds allow. At Rooftop, which provides temporary, one-time rental and mortgage assistance to keep people from being evicted, we routinely ran out of money and had to suspend services, sometimes for an entire month.

The need is great. Many churches are helping the poor. But many do not. C’mon, you know it’s true. Many church organizations prefer to spend their money on bullshit marketing efforts like the Scripturally-dubious I Am Second campaign, whose billboards have popped up all over town. Harold Camping’s Family Radio empire raked in millions of dollars in donations, money which could have been spent helping the hungry and needy. Instead, it went toward buying thousands of billboards across the country proclaiming a hilariously wrong prediction about the Second Coming.

No one can tell any faith community how to spend its money. And they don’t always spend it on the needy. Sometimes they spend it on ideological bullshit like this. How many kids could have been fed if the Mormons had channeled their $20 million somewhere other than the Prop 8 campaign?

Right-wingers are always telling us we don’t need the government to provide services, “charity” should take care of it for us. But what do right-wing billionaires spend their money on? Think tanks like the Heritage Foundation, American Enterprise Institute, and Cato Institute, whose sole purpose is to promote conservative ideology. Or phony conservative “foundations” like Citizens for a Sound Economy (now known as FreedomWorks) and Americans For Prosperity — political groups spreading the low-tax, low-regulation, free-market message. Maybe if Richard Mellon Scaife and the Koch brothers redirected the billions they spend on political power toward social welfare, the need wouldn’t be so great. Maybe if they walked their talk, their views might have more credibility. And yes, I know these and other billionaires spend a lot on charity, I’m not saying they don’t. But they spend at least as much, if not more, on political power.

And that’s the problem. The fact that so many billionaires would rather spend their fortunes on politics not people proves our point. The lure of power is great, is it not? Indeed, too often the lure of power is greater than the lure of helping your neighbor. I’m pretty sure Jesus and the Old Testament prophets knew this.

This is why we need government programs like SNAP: to fill in the holes left by human nature’s failure to always do the right thing. Charities and faith communities are doing a lot but they can’t do it all. Ask any social worker and they will tell you. Ask any secretary of an urban church, inundated with calls for help on a daily basis. They will tell you.

But this discussion is all big a waste time. Because people like Rep. Fincher don’t really care about the poor, do they? When I hear someone say, “let the churches deal with x, y, z problem,” what I’m really hearing is, “I don’t want to deal with x, y, z problem.” That’s really what it’s all about, isn’t it?

If only the poor would just go away. But they won’t, Rep. Fincher. They won’t just “go away.” They will always be with us, as Jesus said, as an eternal reminder of human failure — an eternal reminder of our sin, to use church parlance.

The poor will always be with us as long as we expect someone else to deal with the problem.


Filed under charities, poverty, religion, religious right

23 responses to “Let The Churches Deal With Them

  1. deep

    Awesome Beale! Thanks for this post, it pretty much answers the problem I mentioned on yesterday’s post.

  2. Politicians like that guy can say things like that because they’re in a Red State and they know people agree. I’ve come to a point where I don’t want to be called a Christian anymore. Oh, in fact, I’ve never called myself a Christian. I’m catholic. ( the Church has done bad things , but one thing they’ll never do is to disparage the poor.)

  3. Bitter Scribe

    Absolutely true, and it feeds into another annoying trope about conservatives and charity. Conservatives incessantly trumpet this or that study purporting to show that they give more “to charity” than liberals. I think that mostly translates as “to their churches.” IMO, giving to your church, whether it’s a pledge or a tithe or just putting bills in the basket, is more like paying a membership fee than giving to charity. You pay to sit among like-minded people for an hour or two each week and derive spiritual comfort.

    Nothing wrong with that, of course; churches have to pay their bills like anyone else. And as noted in this post, many of them do great things with that money besides. But don’t pretend that giving money to a church somehow makes up for government turning its back on poor people.

    • I don’t have problems with people giving to their churches, as you say, many do a lot of good. But a lot of churches spend their money on a LOT of things. New church buildings, youth trips, mission trips overseas, Vacation Bible School, evangelizing. And while there’s nothing wrong with any of that (well, I have a beef about evangelizing, but whatever…), the idea that a church donation somehow feeds hungry kids is completely false. In fact, the Salvation Army couldn’t operate its soup kitchens without taxpayer help. Hell, even Derek Dye The Abstinence Clown had his hand in the taxpayer till.

      Sometimes I wonder what would happen if we actually DID just eliminate all government funding for social welfare programs of all kinds, who would shriek the loudest: the religious organizations currently getting rich off Uncle Sam, or the people who rely on those services in the first place?

  4. satai

    One interesting item I once saw said that private donations for Hurricane Katrina was almost 2 billion.
    Sounds like a lot until one realizes the estimate to rebuilt/restore was around 10 billion.
    Private giving cannot cover it all.

    Some churches have huge ministries for sports(bowling alleys), singles, men, women, children, parking lot attendants, ushers, etc. but little or no organized ministries for food, shelter, clothing, and the other stuff Jesus demanded we do. Just check the website for a certain large church at OHB and 65 in Madison and see what the ministries listed cover.

    I realize individuals often do great stuff but the organization itself doesn’t.

  5. Ann

    Betsy at Tiny Cat Pants had an hysterical posting about the difference between Paul and Jesus.

  6. democommie

    I’m sure that OK’s congressional delegates won’t want any money from the gummint; seein’s how they voted agin the Sandy relief bill.

    Oh,wait. My bad.


    • GregH

      Oops! democommie – OK Senators Inhofe and Colburn beat you to the punch! The want the money for OK rebuilding, sure! But they only want it if they get cuts elsewhere to balance it out. In the reddest of red states, they know they are safe in being doctrinaire nincompoops.

      • The want the money for OK rebuilding, sure! But they only want it if they get cuts elsewhere to balance it out…

        Fine, let’s take it out of the oil and gas subsidies & tax breaks all of the OK energy companies are raking in. The science has confirmed that climate change is responsible for increasingly violent weather patterns, and the folks responsible for that are the oil and gas companies.

        But nooo. Right now we’ve got a “privatize gains, socialize losses” energy policy. Hey, it works for these guys!

        Seriously, we need to stop being shocked that violent weather wreaks havoc on states like Oklahoma and Texas, which are big oil and gas producing states. Connect the damn dots, people.

  7. hamletta

    Preach it, sister!

    I am that proverbial secretary at an urban church, and I get calls every day.

    We don’t have the staff (I’m half of it), much less the money, to help everyone who needs it. We kick in to community efforts like Rooftop, we do Room In the Inn, and we make sack lunches and hand out socks and underwear.

    It’s a drop in the bucket. A lot of our regulars are mentally ill and just cannot function.

    It’s heartbreaking.

  8. CB

    First of all, I agree with everything all of you have said. Yes, churches do good, and yes, there is too much need for them to mend all the holes in the safety net. Just too much.

    A number of years ago, I was a member of a large, fairly progressive Presbyterian congregation. I felt spiritually at home there, and belonged to a wonderful choir. I left after they had to resurrect the building fund, because the first go-around hadn’t raised enough for the extensive remodeling and expansion project. It was then that I knew that I was a bad fit socially with the doctors, lawyers and business persons who made up a good chunk of the membership. I was a single working mother of two teenage boys. That’s not intended to be a whine, though I know it kind of sounds that way. It was just the tipping point.

    There will always be a building fund, or marketing campaign or any of a number of projects that have nothing to do with God’s work, especially in well-heeled churches. Yes, they do good, they reach out, and they help. But they also have a driving need to wear their wealth, or so it seems to me. Where’s the scriptural precedent for that?

    • I have a really similar story. I too was an active member of a progressive Presbyterian church. Our church burned to the ground and we had to rebuild. After the fire we were told over and over again that “the church is the people, not the building.” There’s even a movement in church circles called the “emergent church,” which is envisioned as moving the church beyond the church walls into the community, helping neighbors, serving everyone, etc.

      But then we had to rebuild and we found out the church was, in fact, the building. We rebuilt too big for our ability to pay for it. And the first pool of money they dipped into was Outreach Funds, money we had committed to the community. They were always so proud of the fact that 20% of the money they brought in was committed to the community. But rather than admit their mistake and tell everyone, “we screwed up, we’re sorry, we can only give 10% this year,” they lied to themselves, redefining “outreach” as other things, so they could go on telling themselves they were still wonderful people who gave 20%. They still wanted to feel good about themselves, even when they’d screwed up. There was no reckoning over the poor decision, just “everything is still lollipops and rainbows and we’re still awesome.”

      And that’s when I realized I wasn’t a good fit for institutionalized religion. We left and haven’t set foot in a church since.

      Yes, there’s always a building fund, always an expansion project, always something that’s really completely unnecessary to a church supposedly interested in service.

  9. democommie

    The RCC has a special Sunday every year when its churches take up a collection for JUST the Vatican:


    because you never want to touch the principal.

    If churches were doing their job, most of them would be staffed by itinerant preachers depending on genuine charity instead of the institutionalized Ponzi schemes that are the “tithing” practices of most churches.

    • deep

      Totally random thought, but I always liked the Bishop in Les Miserables (the book; I never saw the musical). Even when Jean Val Jean stole from him, he said, “well I didn’t need those silver candlesticks anyway, you can have them.”

      If only ALL Bishops were like that, but alas, he was fictional.

  10. democommie


    Yeah, I’m pretty sure that Victor Hugo was not high on the list of invitees to the bishops’ dinner parties and such.

  11. Since we the people are the government here in the US, the old Testament prophets’ admonition to the Kings to take care of the poor, the widowed, and the orphaned falls on – – -guess who – – – we the people, acting for the common good through our government.

    • Yes, exactly. See The Morality of Taxes for a Biblical argument:

      In the theocratic state envisioned by the Hebrew prophets (or even, in their critique of every nation) the responsibilities of kings was clear: plead the cause of the fatherless and widow, demand justice for the poor. See, for example, Psalm 82:3-4: Defend the cause of the weak and fatherless, maintain the rights of the poor and oppressed. Rescue the weak and needy; deliver them from the hand of the wicked. Nations were judged by how well their rulers implemented these simple principles.

      In the United States of America, “we the people” (the voters and, yes, the taxpayers) are sovereign. Therefore “we, the people” are under divine judgment if we fail to use our sovereign power to take care of the elderly, the disabled, the orphan and widows of our world. “We, the people” as sovereign refers to our corporate role as king, which is to say, the government. It is laudable for individual persons to do what they can by means of “charity,” but “we, the people” are not just an aggregate of individual persons. We, together, are king, and as such are answerable to God for how well we rule.

      This is an argument the right-wing has used itself when arguing against things like abortion and marriage equality. It’s not enough to say, “if you don’t want an abortion then don’t have one.” They say the fact that abortion exists in this country is a moral stain on the nation. So they get the concept … when it’s convenient for them.

      • CB

        SB, I love that Biblical argument so much, I went back to the referenced post, and read the whole thing. There it is, founded on scripture, and as logical as anyone could wish it to be. I wasn’t reading your posts back in ’09, so extra thanks for sharing it.

      • It was based on a post by my friend The Reverend, who is a real, live preacher dude. You might enjoy his blog, The Search For Integrity. Don’t know how much he keeps it up these days but some of the older posts are classics.

  12. democommie

    “When I hear someone say, “let the churches deal with x, y, z problem,” what I’m really hearing is, “I don’t want to deal with x, y, z problem.” That’s really what it’s all about, isn’t it?”

    There is also the intended consequence of makin’ people beholdin’ to the churches and persuading them that GOD not their community or larger gummint is actually helping them.

    • The problem with that is when there’s a recession, people stop giving to their churches and other charities. Without people’s charitable giving, churches and other charities can’t do as much. So someone needs to step in.

      • democommie

        IOh, I agree totally. I don’t look at what they do as “giving” so much as “paying off” their impoverished recruits. And like good ol’ Corporatist MurKKKa, when you start to see less PROFIT you start unloading the people who helped to grow your company because, well, they’re surplus.