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Conservatives and Poverty

In a recent Mars Hill Audio Journal discussion, Ken Myers interviewed the church historian Peter Brown on the early church’s approach to wealth and poverty. (Brown is also author of the masterful 1967 biography, Augustine of Hippo.)

According to Myers, while those in ancient Rome did participate in alms giving, in Roman and Greek culture there wasn’t the compassion for the poor that was present in Jewish and Christian understanding because “there was nothing like Yahweh’s love for the oppressed in their moral imagination.” For the pre-Christian cultures of antiquity, he observed, civic generosity involved a love for the city but not a love for the poor as such.

This is how Professor Brown put it in a lecture:

In directing so much attention to the care of the poor, Jews and Christians were not simply doing on a more extensive scale what pagans had already been doing in a less whole-hearted and well-organized manner. Far from it. It takes some effort of the historical imagination to realize that around the year 360 CE, love of the poor was a relatively novel and for many humane and public-spirited persons still a largely peripheral virtue. As for organized care of the poor, this was a practice that cut against deeply ingrained and still vigorous traditions of public giving from which direct charity to the poor was notably absent.

It is this Jewish and Christian understanding that eventually helped shift people’s attitudes. “Securing justice for the poor and upholding the cause of the needy,” in the words of the Psalms, became not just a private but also a public concern. Throughout the Scriptures, in fact, rulers are judged by whether the weak and the disadvantaged in society are cared for or exploited.

Which brings me to the here and now. According to a recent Washington Post story, next year, for the 50th anniversary of Lyndon Johnson’s “War on Poverty” crusade, Representative Paul Ryan “hopes to roll out an anti-poverty plan to rival his budgetary Roadmap for America’s Future in scope and ambition.”

A conservative plan to combat poverty would of course differ–and in my estimation should differ–from a liberal anti-poverty approach. But for the purposes of this post, I don’t want to examine the substantive policy differences, as salient as they are. Rather, I want to underscore the fact that focusing attention on those living in the shadows of American society is the responsibility of a great political party; and how to create greater opportunity and social mobility for those stuck on the bottom rungs of society should be part of any conservative governing vision.

To be sure, the problem of poverty is complicated, different in important respects from in the past, and defies simplistic partisan explanations. The solutions certainly extend beyond the actions of government. Indeed, misguided government policies have done a great deal to perpetuate inter-generational poverty. But it’s hard to argue that politics and government don’t have significant roles to play, direct and indirect, both in putting an end to failed policies and in supporting what works. And certainly the Republican Party has to do better than declaring utter indifference to the poor (which was the approach some otherwise very impressive individuals took in the 2012 presidential race). 

Helping those most in need should be considered more than a peripheral virtue; and like Jews and Christians of old, we should all make more room in our moral imaginations for the care of the poor. Certainly if we’re told that God identifies with the least of these, so should we.


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