Tonight I was listening to This American Life on NPR. The story I was listening to was about 2 middle class guys who became homeless in New York City and lived in the streets for a couple of years while becoming writers. While being asked about what it was like to be homeless, the men noted that there is no such thing as a hungry homeless person. This is because there are soup kitchens all over the city. Then they said something which I’ll just paraphrase:
“There are all these churches that run soup kitchens and they work hard to make good meals for people. Good meals. Fresh fruits and vegetables. Salmon, fresh whitefish, good meat. The federal food programs suck. The food is terrible, not fresh, poorly made and you get such small portions. But you go to the church soup kitchens and they’ve put a lot of effort into giving people a nice meal. And the way they treat you, the way they talk to you is totally different. They treat you like a real person. Not like the federal places. If it weren’t for the churches, homeless people would be starving to death all over the city.”
Now mind you, these are not fancy pants religious guys. The one guy had just finished complaining that being homeless had forced him to be celibate and he wasn’t cool with that. But the reality is that we fund federal programs meant to help the poor and more often than not they are wasteful, ineffective, inadequate and dehumanizing. It is Christians, churches and religious organizations who fill in the gaps. And they usually do it in a way that works.
If federal soup kitchens went away, the practical effect would probably be minimal. However, I guarantee that if Republicans tried to do away with funding for federally run soup kitchens, liberals would be in high dungeon about their heartlessness. They would insist that we would see people starving on the streets. Insist that the work of churches was inadequate and complain of supposed proselytizing. Blah, blah, blah.
While there are certainly heartless conservatives out there, as a general rule, conservatives and religious folk don’t oppose government spending on social programs because they don’t care about the needy. They oppose them because they know they are wasteful, inefficient and dehumanizing. They know that calling for the government to fund social programs isn’t the same as actually working to make sure people’s needs are met. They know that small, local organizations will be able to run rings around any federal program everyday of the week and twice on Sundays.
In Christian parlance, we’ve given to Caesar what belongs to God when we expect the government to show love, compassion and charity to the most needy. And that’s what liberals too often don’t get.