The Social Gospel: a mandate for our whole society

Some while ago, I found myself (in the course of my editing work, which not infrequently involves trying to improve texts which adopt a theology I cringe at) trying to improve a book which basically argued against any attempt to implement the “social gospel” through government action. I won’t link to that; I really would prefer it if no-one read it. Yes, it was my job to do that (in the same way as once upon a time I found myself arguing cases in court which I thought should lose, and not infrequently winning them), but just as in those cases I feel somewhat guilty for doing it. The author, in the broadest terms, was advancing the case that it was the job of the church (not the state) to care for the hungry, the thirsty, the homeless, the sick and generally those without the most basic needs of human existence (Matt. 25:31-46), and that the state (in essence) took money from individuals under the threat of force, and therefore any such expenditure was immoral.

Morgan Guyton has an excellent piece countering the first of these arguments. That bites even harder in my country than in his, as weekly church attendance in the States is still fairly healthy at 20%+, while in my country it’s around 5%. However, I also have the benefit of having studied the history of England in the 19th and early 20th centuries at what I think equates to “college” level in the States.

If you go back to the dawn of the Industrial Revolution here, parishes cared for the needy within their parish. They didn’t always do it very well, but all parishes did it. The economy was largely rural, and there was a lot of social cohesion in farming communities anyhow; in towns and cities, there were masses of parishes, and there were also guilds which cared for the needy within their numbers. Tithing was ubiquitous up to Tudor times (and, with an established church, no-one was exempt), and then contributions via property rates were made under the Poor Laws. Then came the massive movement of workers away from the land and into cities, as the agricultural revolution axed the need for agricultual workers and the huge demand for cheap, mass-produced goods from England throughout the world (most of which didn’t catch up with industrialisation until significantly later) demanded masses of workers in the towns and cities. There was a hiccup for a while as mass production eliminated many skilled jobs, notably in the textile industries, but export led demand soon mopped up much of the surplus labour, albeit at a fraction of the skilled wages they had commanded.

In 1836, the new Poor Law dictated that relief should only be given within the system of workhouses which had been growing up in an attempt to stem the cost of caring for the poor. The workhouses were appalling places to find oneself, and my grandparents generation had, in general, a mortal fear of ending up “on the parish” as a result; they were organised round the principle that it should never be remotely attractive for someone to be in them (recent Conservative governments would regard that as “helping people to find work”…) and they magnificiently achieved that, except in a few isolated instances where those administering them thought, generally on good Christian principles, that caring for the needy should mean a little more than hard labour on starvation rations in prison-like surroundings. The system was also adorned with the bussing of people back to their “home parish” and by disqualification from voting for those receiving assistance in some cases, reminiscent of US disqualifications from assistance and voting both for “felons”. I regularly pass along a street called “Union Lane”, which now has several branches of the social welfare establishment spread along one side, which was named because before most of it was knocked down as being both supremely ugly and unfit for human habitation even by social workers, it was the site of the Union Workhouse. “Union” because it was operated by a union of several parishes rather than merely one. Some while ago I wrote about this, linking to a programme by Ian Hislop criticising the renaissance of the thinking which led to this, which is now available on You Tube (and not via the link I then gave); it repays another viewing.

The Liberal and then Labour governments of the first half of the 20th century rightly thought this system was barbaric, erratic and inadequate, and steadily dismantled it, culminating in the National Insurance Act of 1911, the 1946 National Health Service Act and the 1948 National Assistance Act which gave us a welfare state.

My point is that history shows that even in a country with around 90% church attendance and around 98% nominal Christianity, the charity of churches and their members failed miserably to meet the need – even in an age when, frankly, the payments to the church were backed up not only by immense moral pressure but also with force. No objections were made to the transition from relying on tithes to the Poor Law rates on the basis that this was effectively “demanding money with menaces”, which is what many conservatives seem to regard taxation as being (generally unless it’s to pay for inflated militaries or bailouts for companies…); the idea wasn’t something which could sensibly be thought  in those days.


Because by and large, people recognised that they were part of a community, and they were organising that community in accordance with Christian principles to care for the needy. It helped, perhaps, that not only was that community overwhelmingly Christian in at least nominal belief and in actual attendance, but the flavour of Christianity which the vast majority espoused was the established religion; it was so enmeshed with the state that the two could not be separated. In case any readers from the US should be under any misconception, the nation (in its communal aspect of parliament) controlled the church, rather than vice versa; it was nothing like a theocracy, at least from the mid 1700s onwards.

Separation of church and state is, of course, a principle dear to American hearts; their national myth is, after all, that the Pilgrim Fathers were escaping religious persecution in England (though in fact they were escaping religious tolerance in Holland and looking to set up their own near-theocracy in the New World), and insofar as that means that no-one should be discriminated against on the basis of religion, I agree with it. However, I think that separation is probably impractical and definitely problematic in theory.

Impractical because the example of the United States, the first country to espouse separation of church and state officially, is that it is more religiously oriented than any of the European democracies which still have, at least nominally, a state church. Much has been written recently about the co-option of Christianity into a sort of national religion of empire in the States, and there are disturbing suggestions that some politicians on the right in the States espouse a form of Christian Dominionism. Vladika Lazar Puhalo wrote: “We must remember that America is not actually a Christian nation because the religion of America is America, it is not Christ. Jesus Christ is a sort of misused ‘front’ for American self-worship, which often crosses the border into a nationalist idolatry.”

Problematic in theory because any politician needs to take with them into office their morality and ethics, and where those are founded in Christianity, saying that there must be separation of church and state starts looking like “leave your morality at the door when you enter government”. As this seems to be an extremely powerful drive in any event, judging by the crop of politicians both sides of the Atlantic at the moment, the last thing it needs is a theoretical underpinning. I can speak personally here, as someone who stood for elected office multiple times and who was elected as a local councillor over rather more than 20 years; I consider it right that, as a Christian, I looked to bring Christian principles into my expression of the will of the community as a whole. That would have been the case even if the majority here were not culturally inculcated into Christian principles even if only a small minority actually practice Christianity in any formal sense; if I could get elected, I would be elected precisely for my moral and ethical principles (together with their expression in my manifesto), and I would expect the same to apply to any Muslim, Jewish or other religious candidate (and, incidentally, having studied most of the great religions, a candidate espousing any of them would not as a result be debarred from attracting my vote – though anyone espousing Christian Dominionism certainly would!) No, we desperately need moral politicians, and I would prefer my candidate to have some religious or philosophical underpinnings for morality (there is no need for God to figure in those – humanism will do very nicely).

I need to stress this aspect of community. The right, and particularly the Libertarian strand of the right, consider that any infringement upon individual freedom is anathema. To them, government is intrinsically a bad thing, as it takes from the individual, under the threat of force, and applies the resulting taxes to something they would not want to buy for themselves. Notably, this is things like food and drink, medical attention and housing for their neighbour. If they are Christians, they will acknowledge that they are obliged to care for their neighbour, and will argue themselves blind that no-one should usurp their God-given right to fail to do that. Morgan Guyton has rightly pointed out that in the States that is happening now, and I have outlined some social history in England which comes to the same conclusion.

I do not consider that this fantasy of the Libertarians is warranted. None of us springs fully armed from our father’s brow; “it takes a village to raise a child” is a proverb hailing from Nigeria, but is very true – most of us are unable to fend for ourselves until aged well into double figures, and in a modern world full functioning may need to wait until at least our 20s. We are social animals, and John Locke’s “no man is an island” is as true now as it was when he wrote it. We all arrive at adulthood on the basis of a collossal amount of other people’s time and money, and, as we cannot sensibly pay those who spent so lavishly, fairness indicates that we should “pay it forward”. The article I link to, by the way, understates the parental contribution substantially and fails utterly to account for the whole societal infrastructure in which we are brought up. A reasonable estimate would probably indicate that our society had contributed substantially more than did our parents – and unless we elect to go and “live off the grid”, we continue to benefit from that. Much of that infrastructure is provided or at least contributed to by government. Thus, even if “government” were a dictatorship (as another part of the American founding myth wrongly thought King George was), it is very sensibly arguable that we grow up in debt to it, and should honour that debt (an argument made in huge detail several centuries ago by Thomas Hobbes – though he preferred a respresentative system – treating it as a “civil contract”).

But government is not a dictatorship on either side of the Atlantic; both the USA and the UK are democracies, though the USA is a republican democracy and the UK is technically a constitutional monarchy; both are, assuming their democracies work, ruled by the people for the people. I will grant that neither of those democracies works anything like perfectly at the moment, but that does not entirely delegitimate the government.

It is a source of continual surprise to me that so many conservatives have this view of government. One would have thought that obedience to government (involving both regard for authority and group loyalty, both conservative moral values) would have had some impact. Romans 13:1-2 would also indicate strongly that this should be a value which Christians should take seriously, though I confess that as a liberal it is not a value which I would ever place above fairness or care.

Perhaps, though, this conservative impulse involves defining the group to which they are loyal to exclude, for example, the poor? The poor, after all, are inclined to be smelly and messy, which excites conservative values of purity, and may well not be good church-goers (assuming they are allowed and welcomed in church, which is far from being the case). I do not think we can be good Christians and exclude anyone from “our community” or “our people”, however; Jesus reached out to the poor, the sick, the ritually unclean, the morally dubious, the foreigner, the member of an heretical religion and the enemy soldier of the occupying power. Oh, and women and children, of course… Frankly, I think that if you are excited by a purity instinct, you should consider that the poor are smelly and messy and disruptive largely precisely because they are poor, and purity can as well be satisfied by giving them sufficient that they are not poor any more. Give to someone sufficient to raise them from the lowest, mere subsistence level of Maslow’s hierarchy and they will usually stop being smelly, messy and disruptive – and if they don’t, it’s probably because they’re ill, and require another element of basic care.

Given that we cannot in conscience exclude anyone from our community, I fail to see why conservatives are not moved by the fact that the presence of poor and marginalised people reflects upon all members of the community – the adage that a community is only as rich as its poorest member seems to have no traction.

But, of course, a primary conservative value which Jonathan Haidt does not identify is the reverence for private property. I questioned whether this was something which had a sound foundation some time ago; I fancy that the controlling texts should probably be “The earth is the LORD’s, and everything in it, the world, and all who live in it” (Ps. 24:1) and “Give unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s” (Mark 12:17), even if I did not argue that the fundamental sin which might just be original is in fact self-centredness and that the pursuit of profit (possessions) is the foundation of following Satan. And no, I am not a paragon of virtue in this respect; I have not sold everything I have and given it to the poor – or even half of it. Recognising, however, that I probably should have done this, I really am in no position to complain that I am taxed to provide for the community at large; if that taxation provided reasonably adequately for everyone in my community, I could feel less guilty about keeping possessions other than those I was actually using at the time – but it does not, so I will consistently vote for parties which want to tax more and provide more benefits – and I will feel good about paying the resulting tax bill.

There is, however, one value shared by liberals and conservatives alike, fairness, which leads to difficulties here. To the conservative, it is fair that he who works should not have to support he who does not work. The sentiment is summed up in a rhyme I learned many years ago (and for those who don’t remember pounds, shilling and pence, a sixpence was half of a shilling)
“What is a communist?
One who has yearnings
to share equal profits
from unequal earnings.
Be he idler or  bungler
or both, he is willing
to fork out his sixpence
and pocket your shilling”.
I feel that too, and indeed when I originally learned it, I agreed with it wholeheartedly (I hadn’t spent so many years reading the gospels then…). But I find that although there are always going to be those among us who want to freeload (just as there will always be the poor, although that statement should not excuse us from trying to eliminate poverty), most people want to work, and they want to work at something which seems useful. Although the parable of the vineyard is often used to justify huge discrepancy in rewards for work (and I’ll return to that in a moment), I think it should better be read as indicating that if you do work as much as you are able to (and that is what the later workers in the vineyard were doing) you should still receive a living wage.

To the liberal sensibility (and, I think, to at least some conservatives) fairness also demands that there should not be absolutely collossal differences in what people can earn from a day’s work. That is not to say that there should be no difference at all (or that the Marxist maxim of “from each according to his abilities to each according to his needs” should be strictly adhered to, just that it is difficult-to-impossible for most of us to see fairness where one person “earns” in an hour what another couldn’t earn in years.

There seems to be, among at least some conservatives, a trusting faith that “the market” means that a person is paid what they are worth, without examining whether there is any foundation for that. I really can’t see that that is well-founded when (for instance) a trainee salesman can earn many times what a qualified nurse earns, given that he’s selling a reasonably high-value product. “The market” seems to have little or sometimes no regard for how long people have to train in order to be able to do the job, how many years experience they have doing it, how dangerous or unpleasant it is or any of a number of other factors which a normal person might think should lead to higher wages.

Equally, there seems to be a persistent belief that everyone can educate themselves into a position where they can succeed. This seems particularly prevalent among Americans, coupled with the “work hard and you’ll succeed” myth. That just plain isn’t true either, and it’s getting less true as the jobs which haven’t been automated require more and more training and ability in order to do them. An increasing percentage of people just don’t have the capacity to be trained to the point at which they can command serious wages (as the skill level of the jobs increases) and things are made worse by the advances in technology making old jobs redundant and providing new jobs which require retraining; these days, a “job for life” is increasingly a thing of the past, and people should expect to have to retrain every few years for an entirely new occupation. From what I can see, the majority of people just can’t do that, however hard they work at it.

As Christians, we should not assume that wealth means that we are worthy of that wealth. Allan Bevere writes:- “Indeed, if blessedness is conditional, then those in positions of wealth and power need to be concerned that their situation is a result of a certain character that results in being cursed. Thus, wealth and power are not the result of blessing; they are the result of a character disobedient to the covenant. While Matthew does not explicitly mention the character of those who are cursed, in Jesus’ Jewish context it is clearly implied. Luke makes the curses, the woes, explicit in his Sermon on the Plain” (Luke 6:22-26)

I need, however, to return to the concept of community. There has been a regrettable tendency in Christianity to focus on the individual; reformed and evangelical theology in particular think in terms of individual salvation; you are saved irrespective of the situation of other members of your family, or other members of your community. I think this is possibly very seriously flawed in the light of the Biblical witness.

In the Hebrew Scriptures, particularly those charting, from a theological standpoint, the history of Israel, there is a regular pattern of ascribing success or failure of the whole people of Israel to how they have acted in respect of God’s commandments. A paradigmatic example of this is found in Isaiah 1:1-17, which ends with the words:- Wash and make yourselves clean. Take your evil deeds out of my sight; stop doing wrong. Learn to do right; seek justice. Defend the oppressed. Take up the cause of the fatherless; plead the case of the widow”.

It is the people as a whole who are condemned by the Prophet, and it is the people as a whole who are suffering as a result – and their wrongdoing is precisely the communal lack of care for the oppressed and marginalised, in this case symbolised by the widow and the orphan (though they tend to be emblematic, the categories included in the Biblical injunctions to provide are not restricted to widows and orphans, but include the poor, the sick, the imprisoned, the homeless and the foreigner). I have near certainty that among the people there will have been a few who adhered to all those injunctions, who were even charitable paragons of virtue – but, as I outlined earlier, their efforts were not enough. You need the whole society to be observant.

Now, I do not myself have a concept of God as one who will bring down on us foreign invasion, famine, plague or other natural disaster as a result of our communal failure to provide for those unable to provide adequately for themselves; I don’t think that God acts in the world in that way. But I do endorse the Prophet’s vision that our communal failure to provide for the least among us is a stain on our whole society. My own vision is that Jesus’ words in Matthew 25:37-40 need to be taken literally; we are failing to provide for Jesus himself inasmuch as we fail to provide for every one of the needy around us.

And we have to do that as a society, not just as a little group of people who have the same beliefs.

In the words of John Donne:-

“Any man’s death diminishes me,
Because I am involved in mankind,
And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls;
It tolls for thee.  “



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