Acton Commentary

Isaiah and the Welfare State


I recently received an email from a state legislator who is being pressured to endorse something called the Isaiah Platform in advance of the Nov. 2 election. The Isaiah Platform is an outreach effort of Call to Renewal, a faith-based activist group headquartered in Washington. The group says it aims to “increase awareness about the needs of people living in poverty in their own community and inspire, encourage, motivate and engage them in a renewed commitment to seek justice.”

The legislator was troubled. She did not understand how the Isaiah Platform statement could be so radically at odds with an understanding of faith and society that I presented in a lecture a while ago. Those backing the Isaiah Platform are from various mainline Protestant denominations; I am an ordained pastor in the Christian Reformed Church in North America. How could religious leaders have such polar opposite views of the role of the government, the church, and civil society in addressing the issue of poverty?

The Isaiah Platform supporters and I agree that we should all raise the awareness of the needs of poor people in their own communities. We both want to inspire, encourage, motivate and engage people in a renewed commitment to seek justice. No Christian could deny that such matters are essential to the faith. Where we differ - and in a very big way - is in the means and process of how best to address poverty.

The difficulties start to become apparent once we begin to dig a little deeper into Call to Renewal's program for change. The first point of the Isaiah platform, which takes its name from the Old Testament prophet who spoke about the importance of justice within the covenant nation of Israel, states that “all tax policies and spending proposals should be evaluated with a publicly available analysis of how they assist people in overcoming poverty and strengthening families and communities.”

For Call to Renewal, the primary and perhaps solely effective means of combating poverty becomes the welfare state. What it touts as a way to “motivate” and “engage” people to a “renewed commitment to seek justice” turns into a wholesale endorsement of government programs - with the moral authority of the church applied as a lever. Indeed, people of faith are being asked to join in this call to action: “I covenant to raise the Isaiah Platform in the public debate and to ask all candidates for public office to propose and support policies that would accomplish these goals.” What a shortsighted perspective!

The legislator who approached me was concerned that Call to Renewal is favoring candidates who have pledged to make the biggest commitment to the expansion of public welfare. What alarmed her, and rightly so, was the lack of any real discernment about the proper role of government with respect to the issues of poverty and charity. What is the role of the churches in their communities? What is the role of the community? What is the role of the families involved? What is the responsibility of the individual? Of course, none of this is addressed.

Instead of viewing government as the only solution to problems of poverty, Call to Renewal would do far better to learn the truth behind the principle of subsidiarity: the government has a legitimate and important role in fighting poverty, but it is the last line of defense and never the first.

To assign the problem of poverty solely to the government radically short changes the person in need. The poor, in surrendering them to the care of the government, are increasingly estranged from the family, church, charity, or local community who would benefit greatly by becoming involved in the life of someone who requires real help. There is a mutual benefit in all of these relationships that form the firmest foundations of civil society. In these relationships, we can care for the poor and, more important, see the whole person and experience the dignity that is inherent in the human soul.

Call to Renewal's Isaiah Platform is only one example of compassionate people using a kind of soft socialism combined with moral language and biblical quotations to become promoters of a heavy agenda of government solutions, the same solutions that have failed the poor the world over. Unfortunately, in the end, Call to Renewal's platform looks less like something Isaiah might endorse and more like partisan politics.