On Thursday, Julie Zauzmer of The Washington Post published a piece provocatively titled, “Christians are more than twice as likely to blame a person’s poverty on lack of effort.” This, of course, was meant to show the deep, abiding hypocrisy of those supposedly-forgiving, charitable Christians – why, they’re just selfish and greedy, even more so than the heathens they condemn!
There’s an obvious reason why Christians are more likely to attribute poverty to lack of effort than their secular counterparts: Christians nearly universally believe in free will and personal responsibility, as well as particular standards of behavior that result in financial success. The Brookings Institute has said that if people don’t get pregnant before marriage, graduate high school, and hold a job, they won’t live in permanent poverty in the United States (“of people of American adults who followed these three simple rules, only about 2% are in poverty and nearly 75% have joined the middle class”); Christians and other Bible-believers promote those standards every day to their children, and don’t blame the vagaries of “The System” for individual failures to abide by those standards.
That’s what Albert Mohler of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary told the Post, correctly:
There’s a strong Christian impulse to understand poverty as deeply rooted in morality — often, as the Bible makes clear, in unwillingness to work, in bad financial decisions or in broken family structures. The Christian worldview is saying that all poverty is due to sin, though that doesn’t necessarily mean the sin of the person in poverty. In the Garden of Eden, there would have been no poverty. In a fallen world, there is poverty.
The poll showed that 46% of Christians said lack of effort was tied to poverty, compared to just 29% of non-Christians; 53% of white evangelicals tied poverty to lack of effort, with just 41% blaming circumstance. By a two-to-one margin, atheists and agnostics blame “difficult circumstances” more than personal choice.
Actually, it’s tragic that the religious community is so split on the issue. Of course there are some individuals who are beset by tragic health problems or who have physical or mental disabilities that make it impossible for them to work. But the vast majority of people in the United States who are permanently poor are not permanently poor because of some vague “system.” Furthermore, it is entirely ineffective in incentivizing people to pursue behaviors that result in prosperity to blame society at large for poverty in a free country. Poverty has never been mitigated on a large scale by charity. It has been mitigated through freedom and positive personal decisionmaking.
So no, Christians aren’t uncharitable or mean. They give far more charity per capita than the non-religious. Christians are more likely to demand that individuals act in beneficial ways. And that’s both compassionate and useful.