Robert K. VischerFebruary 26, 2007

Book cover
God and the Welfare Stateby Lew Daly

MIT Press. 136p $14.95

A wave of recent books has left the distinct impression that the harnessing of religious ideals to political power has ushered in a new Dark Ages in American public life. In God and the Welfare State, Lew Daly departs from the trend of near-hysterical claims by exploring the religious underpinnings of President George W. Bush’s faith-based initiative in terms that actually shed more light than heat. The book does not read as an indictment of Bush’s purported theocratic agenda for making it easier for religious organizations to secure public funding for social services. Rather, the book illuminates the gap between political rhetoric and policy reality. Religious leaders routinely (and rightfully) accuse Bush of failing to embody the prophetic concern for the poor that is found in his own faith tradition. Daly, who has studied religious ethics at Union Theological Seminary in New York City, offers nothing novel in this regard. What he does offer is a nuanced tracing of the two closely related Christian principles that are most clearly reflected in the president’s approach to poverty.

In the late 19th century, the Dutch Calvinist Abraham Kuyper coined the term sphere sovereignty for the proposition that the social order is rooted in divinely ordained structures that compose a natural’ community that is theologically and morally prior to the state. The family, churches, charitable groups and private schools are elements of this natural community and are as fully real as individual persons.

At around the same time, the Catholic Church began to articulate a vision of the social order that rejects the expansion of state power as the best means of securing human welfare, on one hand, while emphasizing the importance of community as an antidote to the alienation of individualism, on the other. One anchor of this framework is the principle of subsidiarity, which holds that it is unjust to assign to a greater and higher association what lesser and subordinate organizations can do.

Both sphere sovereignty and subsidiarity recognize the importance of voluntary associations as venues for real human community and bulwarks against overreaching by the state. The welfare state threatens associations’ relevance when it takes over functions traditionally entrusted to them. This danger resonates with Daly, and he appears to embrace the faith-based initiative’s premise that religious providers should be eligible for public funding on the same basis as secular providers.

The problem, in Daly’s view, is that President Bush’s faith-based initiative has been about helping the religious groups that provide social services, not the people who depend on them. He accuses Bush of ignoring the fact that subsidiarity and sphere sovereignty contemplate a society that includes a comprehensive system of social transfers to guarantee a living family wage in good times and bad. An authentic faith-based initiative thus would not presuppose a state that is weak or inactive, but rather one that is limited only in the sense that it does not usurp or constrain the traditional role of religion in society.

Daly enriches our understanding of the faith-based initiative by measuring the program against the Christian principles from which it emerges. At a time when critics fall too easily into caricature and ominous speculation about the role of religious belief in our public life, Daly treats faith as a resource that can bring greater depth to our vision of a just society. He is to be commended for not rejecting the public relevance of faith when he rejects the wisdom of its particular implementation by President Bush.

That is not to say that the substance of his analysis is unobjectionable. Daly may be correct that the president has failed to follow through on the religious underpinnings of his faith-based initiative. But in three distinct ways, Daly misreads the nature of that failure.

First, Daly’s suggestion that the president seeks only to help religious providers fails to engage fully the stated rationale for his program. Bush has long insisted that compassion often works best on a small and human scale, and subsidiarity and sphere sovereignty are premised on the belief that the state will usually not be as effective as local providers in meeting human needs. Religious providers in particular can be more effective in transforming lives by calling individuals into meaningful relationships.

Second, Daly misreads both principles in asserting that it is morally irrelevant if the church regains autonomy over its social services while poverty grows. Poverty’s growth should be of pressing concern to any Christian, but poverty’s growth does not negate the value of ensuring religious providers’ access to public funding. Christians care about how needs are met, not just whether they are met. If the state, for example, could ensure that all children eat nutritiously by bussing them to a central government warehouse for meals, the principles of subsidiarity and sphere sovereignty would call Christians to resist such a schemenot because children are parental property, but because their care should occur as part of a loving relationship. The same idea animates the faith-based initiative: the government should facilitate caregiving by those closest to the need.

Third, the fact that President Bush’s policies are shaped by principles like subsidiarity does not amount to a transfer of public authority to religion. Most of the book is refreshingly devoid of such accusations, but even a passing invocation of the theocracy mantra warrants close scrutiny. Like the rest of Catholic social thought, the principle of subsidiarity is accessible through the exercise of reason and does not require belief in divine revelation. Both sphere sovereignty and solidarity reflect the accumulated wisdom of a 2,000-year-old faith tradition. Our public discourse suffers when we marginalize such insights simply because of their religious origins.

God and the Welfare State provides further evidence that Christianity is not fully represented by either side in today’s polarized political culture. Daly is right to remind us that Christianity’s relentless concern for the poor requires more than the loosening of regulatory strings on religious social service providers. But he must be careful not to lose sight of the fact that the loosening of those strings is a good place to start.

The latest from america

The latest selection of the Catholic Book Club, this novel by Niall Williams is full of lively, dancing imagery sure to bring glee to the reader.
Kevin SpinaleFebruary 18, 2021
In 'Superpower Showdown,' Bob Davis and Lingling Wei describe a new Cold War as the United States and China figure out how to manage the repercussions of China’s rise, including U.S. protectionism and tensions over Taiwan, military strength and human rights.
John W. MillerFebruary 18, 2021
Frank J. Butler's new memoir details a life of devoted service in the Catholic Church in the United States over many decades.
Richard M. LiddyFebruary 18, 2021
"Writing means being overheard," writes Zadie Smith in her new book.
Renée Darline RodenFebruary 18, 2021