Evangelicals Support Poor Abroad But Not in U.S., Critic Says

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June 20, 2012; Source: Patheos

A graduate of Eastern Baptist Theological Seminary, Fred Clark is a former staff person with Evangelicals for Social Action. He describes its mission as “to get American evangelicals to share with and to advocate for the poor and the powerless.” Although Clark says he would routinely get negative reactions from evangelicals, he would point out that evangelicals did carry out social action as part of their missions, except that they were implementing this part of the evangelical mission overseas through missionaries.

He would point out that these missionaries weren’t just carrying out “rice-bowl” Christianity, providing food and assistance in order to evangelize, but “a great many of them are also doctors, nurses, teachers and agricultural scientists. They run schools, hospitals, clinics and co-ops. And while they may not emphasize this in their fundraising visits to supporting churches, most evangelical mission agencies have refined their missiology over the years and view this work of teaching, healing and feeding as an end in itself and not just a manipulative means or tool to some other purpose.”

Clark said that the argument rarely worked. “It’s a very odd thing, the way that American evangelicals’ social concern stops at the water’s edge — or, I guess, starts at the water’s edge,” he said. “For more than a century, evangelical churches in America have been giving generously, sometimes sacrificially, to support medical missionaries in other countries. Health care for poor people is something they’ve prayed for and donated to for generations — but only overseas….Somehow that commitment has never really translated into support for health care for the poor here in America. Not in any form. Here in America, evangelicals do not pray, give or vote for health care for the poor. Here in America, health care for the poor is something that evangelicals pray, give and vote against.”

Clark’s blog posting describes a U.S. nonprofit called Remote Area Medical (RAM) in southeastern Tennessee that provides care for uninsured Tennesseans. His summary of RAM makes it sound much like the evangelical-sponsored NGOs working in the developing world, except that RAM is in the U.S. and is secular in its origins. Addressing the problems of the uninsured, Clark points out that, “Most white evangelicals in America reflexively dislike the Affordable Care Act. They don’t know why, and can’t tell you why other than ‘SOCIALISM!!!’ or fear of contraceptive religious persecution or death panels or some other myth…White American evangelicals support health care for poor people overseas. And White American evangelicals adamantly oppose health care for poor people here in America.”

He concludes, “[T]his opposition is immoral and generally horrifying. And, again, given their historic support for medical missions abroad, it’s just deeply, deeply weird.”

We wish, based on his longtime experience in the evangelical world, that Clark had tried to explain why evangelicals make this water’s edge distinction on social policy. Just recently, Christian Broadcasting Network political correspondent David Brody wrote a book, The Teavangelicals, trying to explain how the Christian conservatives found themselves aligned with what was initially thought of as a secular, libertarian Tea Party movement. Brody lists five key “teavangelical” issues:

  1. Reclaiming the Country’s Judeo-Christian Heritage
  2. Reducing the Size and Scope of Government
  3. Returning to Fiscal Responsibility
  4. Reducing Taxes and Opposing Tax Increases
  5. Restoring Free-Market Principles

Unfortunately, like Clark (who is clearly Brody’s ideological opposite), Brody described what teavangelicals believe, but not why evangelicals have taken such a strident position against government aid to the poor, at least in their home nation. We would love to know more.—Rick Cohen

  • Sandra Greer

    You are too kind. Historically, the average churchgoing Evangelical gave, and gave hard, to bring salvation and enlightenment to the heathen. The fact that the missions themselves have become dedicated to providing health care and education is kept relatively quiet when fund-raising here, as you say: “And while they may not emphasize this in their fundraising visits to supporting churches, most evangelical mission agencies have refined their missiology over the years and view this work of teaching, healing and feeding as an end in itself and not just a manipulative means or tool to some other purpose.”

    So in their terms, and Tea Party terms, this is voluntary religious behavior. There aren’t any missions to Americans to bring salvation to the heathen. They don’t do it in the U.S. to some extent because of hidden, inherent racism, even though the majority of the poor actually are white and always have been. And they really never intended to heal the sick and educate the ignorant, just bring the Word.

    All of them distrust the Power of the government, which challenges the Power (that is what it is) of the organized religion. After all, giving to the missions is voluntary (if pressured socially); funding health care through any government is no longer voluntary once it is law.

    It is a failure of imagination in the Evangelical community that leads each individual to a kind of absolute individualism. Most tribal societies (including many American subcultures) place a great amount of importance on mutual help and support. This naturally leads to believing the government should take care of many human needs, as approved by citizens, through funding by all via taxes. When Evangelicals turn their backs on the poor, individually and as a group, they turn their backs on Jesus.

  • Sue

    I find this to be a bad article wrought with stereotyping, misnomers, and calling on references and terms that are polarizing and intentionally controversial.

    First, the title and opening paragraph is absolutely inaccurate. There are MANY, MANY, MANY, MANY churches, congregations, denominations and Christian non-profits who very much focus on the “poor and powerless”. (A statement in and of itself that is very disrespectful). As a matter of fact there are entire associations devoted to this cause, for example the CCDA http://www.ccda.org/ who is engaging some of the most avaunt guard thinkers of our generation on this issue. Also, look at shelters and soup kitchens in your cities — they probably have their roots in ‘Evangelical’ churches. Beyond that many common institutions that we take for granted have christian roots like Goodwill Industries that was developed by a Methodist Pastor and Habitat for Humanity founded by biblical scholar Clarence Jordan.

    Second, here is just a short list of Christian Health Ministries that are domestic (or in other words start BEFORE the ‘waters edge’). I found them simply by Googling. Maybe the author overlooked these by accident or maybe because of a pre-existing beef with Christianity felt to ignore them entirely. Either way here they are:

    Christian Community Health Fellowship (think tank to help solve current healthcare crisis) http://www.cchf.org/
    Christ Community Health Services: http://www.christcommunityhealth.org/
    United Church of Christ Health Ministry: http://www.ucc.org/health/
    Methodist Healthcare Ministries: http://www.mhm.org/
    Catholic Health Association of the United Sates http://www.chausa.org/
    Family Health Ministries http://familyhm.org/public/

  • Mary

    I am an evangelical Christian. I support three children in India and Peru who don’t even have the basics of clean water. I also support initiatives within the USA. Just because I oppose Obamacare does not mean I don’t support providing healthcare for the poor in the US. There are other aspects of the bill that I disagree with, such as requiring everyone to purchase insurance (which I believe violates the constitution,)and requiring religious organizations to violate their principles in providing certain benefits. There is no such thing as a free lunch. When I attended college in the early 80’s, it was so much less expensive. Then came all of the government student loans and grants, and people are grauating with enormous debt. I feel that these programs went too far and actually drove up the cost of education for EVERYONE, including the poor.
    It is incorrect to assume that opposition to poorly written legislation means that Christians don’t care about the healthcare provided to individuals within the US.

  • rick cohen

    Dear Mary: Thanks for your note. We published a newswire not too long ago that cited research saying that the availability of federal aid for student loans and grants did not drive up the cost of education in nonprofit colleges, but did have a positive correlation with rising tuition costs in private for-profit colleges. Regarding Fred Clark’s beliefs about evangelical positions on federal domestic policy issues such as health care, there is a vigorous debate to be had. Unfortunately, without the private mandate, it is hard to make health insurance work. Regarding that and the position of the religious institutions, while they may be craws in the throat for critics of national health insurance reform, the problem is that the critics aren’t quite so full-throated about their proposed alternatives. Thanks so much for your note.

  • rick cohen

    Dear Sue: thanks for your note. Remember, as I’m sure you know, this was a newswire about Fred Clark’s blog and his observations. We knew it would generate some discussion pro and con. Though I can’t speak for Clark at all, I think he was referring not to organizations that simply have Christian roots, because as you might guess, with your citations of the Catholic and Methodist exmamples in your list, many current nonprofits have their origins in religious organizations. I think he was referring to much more specifically identified evangelical denominations, suggesting that these denominations, in which he was active at one time apparently, are much more active with services overseas than here. He wasn’t critiquing all religious denominations, but suggesting there was a dichotomy in the way evangelical denominations approached these issues. It’s certainly an interesting debate. Maybe we can get Clark and a critic of Clark’s to write more expansively on this topic for NPQ. Thanks again for your comment.

  • Kat Dunkle

    This article is way off and very slanted. Evangelicals give more to the poor and do more in their communities one on one to help the poor than government has even considered. When the churches give…they give 100% and they give from their hearts….everytime the government steps in there is massive waste, cheating and all other forms of wrong doing. Very seldome is this the case with the church.
    The difference is that the government is trying to “force” some of us into distribution while they “exemt themselves” and the church relies on our free will. If the government program is so good and needs the cooperation of all then why are all government employees exempting themselves…why don’t they show us an example? Why are unions and other special interest groups exempt…They say it’s because they “already have good health care”. Oh really and who is paying for that?
    Come on! Be fair!

  • Jeremy Thompson

    Rick, you need more context to your Policy/Social Context article. I’m glad you asked.

    Here are two books that will get you started: The Tragedy of American Compassion by Marvin Olasky and What Makes Charity Work, ed. Myron Magnet. The best essays in the Magnet book are “How Dagger John Saved New York’s Irish” and “Behind the 100 Neediest Cases.”

    For a sociological context, I suggest you read Robert Nisbet’s Twilight of Authority. With the exception of Olasky, I don’t know that you could peg these writers as Evangelicals, but they form the intellectual tree from which the Evangelical apple is a species. Interestingly enough, the man with the most interesting personal story is Olasky, a former member of the Communist Party USA.

    Hope that helps.

  • Sue

    Rick, It would be great to hear more from this person, and it would be even better if he could give references and citations to his theories that give validity to his statement(s). Because as an Evangelical Christian who has worked in the non-profit sector for 5 years and is is working on obtaining my masters in Public Policy with emphasis on domestic poverty — I find his ideas to be grossly inaccurate and his choice of terminology poor.

  • jb wilson

    This article is pure bull shit.. American Christians give more and help more poor people in t heir on countries than they do all over the world.. I am shocked that this article having only one source made it to the innernet.. Franklin Graham’s ministry helps poor people in this country and health care is free to those who can’t afford the care.. Just go to the emergency room in you hospitals.. and check out health care.. Most of the people in this country who are bitching about health care and complaining to the main stream media about help for the poor are entitlement junkies..

  • Dusty

    I agree with Sue, Mary and Kat.

    Plus I think this article really misses a key distinction…..Most Christ followers I know both younger and older support helping the poor. They just prefer to do that thru the Church efforts (local church, para-church orgs, etc.) rather than thru a government. Thru the Church tends to be more efficient and more effective and, of course, done in Jesus name.

  • rick cohen

    Thanks for your note, Jeremy. I know the Olasky book. I once spoke on a panel with him many years ago and I know much of Nisbet’s work, but I don’t think I know the essays in Magnet’s book. I’ll certainly look. Thanks!

  • rick cohen

    Dear Dusty: thanks for your note. Without speaking for Fred Clark whose article I was describing, I think there is a lot of research that suggests that much of the giving to church efforts goes to church programs, not service programs. I don’t know of research that says that church programs are more efficient and effective, though I know there have been some vigorous debates pro and con around faith-based programs (not necessary church programs and not necessarily programs associated with evangelical denominations) particularly around AA and some prisoner re-entry programs. Thanks for your comments.

  • rick cohen

    Dear JB: Thanks for your comment, though I don’t think I buy into some of your commentary. The fact that 50 million people lack health insurance is a larger program than people “bitching” about health care. If it weren’t for Medicaid, Medicare, and various state programs such as the one designed by Mitt Romney in Massachusetts, there might be more people engaging in the behavior you call “bitching”, and for good reason. Hospital emergency rooms are hardly the answer to basic health care, as the hospitals–and the ER doctors–themselves will tell you. Most people of diverse political persuasions, it’s fair to say, see the current problems of health care coverage as a societal issue that has to be fixed, not because they’re “entitlement junkies”.

    The article had only one source because it is simply a commentary on the source article written by Fred Clark. It was a newswire, JB, a commentary on a news article, in which we raised questions, not that we made definitive judgments about Clark’s contentions.

    Thanks for your comments nonetheless.

  • rick cohen

    Dear Sue: i can only agree that I wish he–and so many others–would identify and use data to back up their claims. This one newswire has sparked, as you know, all kinds of assertions up, down, and sideways. In the case of people who say that the evangelicals don’t serve the poor in the U.S. versus those who say that they do and do so well, data would be a help. Part of that is the problem of data itself. Our sector’s data collection is pretty pathetic, which leaves people mostly to make assertions and little more, which is hugely disappointing (especially to me!). And then there’s the academic citation issue, in which some people think that if they can find someone else who made the same assertion, then citing that other person gives an assertion additional credibility. To me it’s just two people making an assertion rather than one. Thanks for your feedback Sue.

  • Mrs. C

    Most of you people who are bashing this article have probably had healthcare all your life. You’ve always been able to go for regular doctor and dental visits. If so you have no idea, what you’re talking about. If you’ve had that you’ve never been poor. I have never had a regular doctor for more than a few months my whole life because I’ve never had medical insurance my whole life. I have to pay doctor visits and it better not be something serious. It’s easy for people to throw stones when they don’t know what it’s like. As far as the people in the emergency rooms. They are there because they don’t have a regular doctor and they have no where else to go. Every poor person isn’t a con artist. Every poor person doesn’t have an entitlement mentality. This article is spot on and you’re angry because it shows you who you really are. Well lets talk about how the evangelicals help the poor. I am a Christian but I will speak the truth no matter who doesn’t like it. There are some wonderful efforts by many wonderful Christians in America to help the poor here. My message is not for them. My message is for Mr. & Mrs. Me and Mine. The people with the “let them eat cake” attitude. They don’t mind giving crumbs to the poor, but they are not willing to do the hard work of helping people. There should not be a poor person in your church who isn’t assisted, if truly poor. If no one in your church is poor then you should go into your community and find some people who need dental visits, medicine, utility assistance… There’s a lot that can be done, but it’s easier to assume that “they” asked to live like that; so “they” don’t need help. God have mercy on you.

  • Ann in Midwest

    Please review the work of World Relief, the arm of the National Association of Evangelicals that focuses on social action and social justice, as well as providing hands-on aid. One aspect of their work is to educate Evangelicals about the needs of the poor, then inspire and aid evangelical churches to become engaged with the poor in America who came as refugees and asylees. I have had the privilege of working with the poor in America, and am now, unfortunately, one of them. I despair over using government, corporate and private aid to obtain health care, but without ongoing health care, including prescription medications, I stand no chance of being gainfully employed. With the care I am able to work, and hope eventually to either find full-time employment with health insurance benefits, or to survive until ObamaCare is fully implemented.
    There are many goodhearted Evangelical Christians in America who quietly aid those in need in their congregation, neighborhood or community. Certainly there are more who need to have their eyes opened to the reality of the life of the working poor, the disabled, and the broken and to allow their Savior to work through them for the benefit of those in need close to home.

  • Nate Drye

    I love how articles just polarize and categorize people: from the poor to the religious. I mean, I get it… all evangelicals are narrow minded and hypocritical and all poor people are oppressed by them.

    No prayer, support, or voting in any form? Really?

    This is lazy journalism and is not in any way a clear picture of any people group, including the poor. Are there groups of evangelicals I am ashamed of? MOST DEFINITELY. Are they the loudest? MOST DEFINITELY. Do they need a spanking and a muzzle: YES. Are the issues raised in this article real? YES. Do these issues ring true across the face of evangelical America? NO. This guy needs to make new friends. There are plenty of churches and Christian organizations that value all of life, not just life inside our borders or outside.

    To polarize and demonize a group of people, whether the source is liberal or conservative or alien, is as narrow minded and polarizing as the justice being sought. I love Jesus but I hate his followers? Well, you must not love Jesus too much, then.

    Maybe I misread this article… I can’t imagine that anyone would lump and polarize a group of people and in turn issue the same judicious language they’re fighting to eradicate.