Social Safety Net or Coerced Compassion?

I don’t have plans for the tenth anniversary of 9/11. (Should we even be calling such a tragic date an anniversary). There will be countless reflections and ruminations about the impact that terrible day has had on society. I am sure I will have my own. While I work out my own thoughts on 9/11 ten years later, allow me to share my reflections, recorded one year ago, of my experiences on the weekend of 9/11/2010 attending Tea Party rallies in the nation’s capital. (I was only there as an observer.)


Having spent my 9/11 weekend partying with the Tea Party in Washington D.C. I can say without a doubt that any claim that the Tea Party is a purely secular movement concerned only with economic and political issues is highly dubious indeed. On the surface, the movement’s newly minted Contract from America, the fruit of Houston Tea Party activist Ryan Hecker’s endeavor to create a grassroots-generated call for governmental reform, addresses the Tea Party commitment to individual liberty, limited government, and economic freedom, seems to be purely secular and political. After all, one can hardly find explicitly religious rhetoric in the contract. This perhaps lends credit to the argument affirming the Tea Party Movement’s secularity. But published documents and professionally-vetted websites do not tell the whole story.

My weekend with the Tea Party revealed a movement whose masses were profoundly religious, Evangelical Christian to be sure, yet hostile to any religion outside of the Judeo-Christian tradition, particularly Islam. Neither of these two observations ought to be surprising. First, for many in the Tea Party, America is a God-ordained nation and should be unapologetic about it’s exceptionalism. Second, for many Tea Partiers, the proposed Park51 development in New York City, otherwise mislabeled as the “Ground Zero Mosque”, is “despicable”, as a retired New York firefighter described it for the assembled crowd at one of the two Tea Party rallies I attended that weekend. It would make sense, given the special date and the ongoing debate in the nation about the appropriateness of that Muslim community center and house of worship, that hostility towards Islam would be the sentiment of a people who absolutely believe that this is a nation founded by Christians with the Judeo-Christian tradition stamped into the nation’s founding documents and laws. What is at stake for this group is a changing America, more pluralistic in nature than they are comfortable, whose foundations for the rule of law are no longer justifiable simply by referencing familiar Judeo-Christian rhetoric.

I believe the political elites who are attempting to marshall the fervor of the grassroots, decentralized Tea Party movement know about this discomfort and use it to their advantage. While overtly religious rhetoric is missing from the secularized Contract from America, perhaps in an effort to add public legitimacy to the movement or broaden the Tea Party’s coalition, one would be mistaken to believe that religion played no role in the development of the Contract and has no basis in defending it. On the contrary, the speakers at both Tea Party rallies held in D.C. on the weekend of September 11th, deftly weaved Christian theological justifications for each of the three major principles of the movement (individual liberty, limited government, and economic freedom) and many of the ten points in the Contract’s explicit platform. There are many themes from that weekend worthy of further theological reflection, none more so than the theological justification given for supporting the repeal of most government social programs.

Sign at Tea Party Rally in Washington DC 9/10/2010 Reads, "Compassion is Voluntary, Not Compulsory!"

Sign at Tea Party Rally in Washington DC 9/10/2010 Reads, "Compassion is Voluntary, Not Compulsory!" - Picture by Jermaine M. McDonald

The sign pictured above, taken at the UNITE March on Washington, Saturday September 11th, encapsulates a theology that fits the Tea Party’s view of limited government. “Compassion is voluntary, not compulsory”. Another sign, not pictured, at the same rally suggested that charity is an individual choice, it cannot be mandated by the government. These statements presume a few things. First, that compassion and charity are logically equivalent. Second, that government social programs are the equivalent to charity. Third, that charity is an individual virtue and not a collective or group virtue. And fourth, that charity in the form of government social programs is morally unjustifiable because charity must be voluntarily given not externally coerced. We shall tackle these points one by one.

Compassion and Charity are logically equivalent. If the definition of charity is love, as in the King James translation of First Corinthians chapter thirteen, then perhaps the equating of charity and compassion makes some sense, though it might be more accurate to suggest that charity (love) inspires compassion. But charity as love is not what the Tea Party has in mind. Charity is the process of voluntarily giving help to those in need. The operative words are voluntary and help. Charity must be given out of the giver’s own volition, the motives of the giver is a secondary concern. Compassion, then is a response to an internal stirring which leads one to give. Thus, in the Tea Party equation, compassion, an internal stirring of emotion for someone in need, inspires charity, the voluntary giving of aid (primarily money) to that someone. Thus, compassion and charity are not equivalent, but they do go hand in hand.

Government social programs are the equivalent to charity. If charity is voluntarily giving aid to those in need, then indeed government social programs (i.e. social security, medicaid, unemployment benefits, and the like) are charity. But is it fair to reduce government social programs to simply charity? Might these programs be more than charity? Overlooked in the frame of social programs as charity is an analysis of the social benefits of social programs. We must ask, what social function do these programs serve? A consistent meme in Tea Party ideology is that social programs (or government charity) breed laziness and stifles ingenuity and social progress. “Instead of giving people my money, they need to receive my work ethic”. But if government charity breeds laziness, should we not also assume that individual charity breeds laziness as well? Thus the problem is not the desire to give aid to those in need, the problem from this perspective is that aid does not help. In this equation, not only should the government not give help, neither should individuals.

Charity is an individual virtue and not a collective or group virtue. But there is a difference between individual charity and group charity. The individual has the capacity to be compassionate, to “suffer with” someone in need. Can the same be said of the group? In his seminal work, Moral Man, Immoral Society, Reinhold Niebuhr doubted the capacity of society to embody virtuous ethics, believing that it was far easier for individuals to exhibit moral behavior than it was for groups, who eventually become more inclined to insure their own survival, to do the same. If the Tea Party had Niebuhr’s concern for societal excess trumping social justice, then I would perhaps give more credit to them for this reflection on the virtue of compassion. But the Tea Party does not question the government’s ability to give aid to those in society who could use help, the Tea Party believes that the government has no right or obligation to do so. This belief is rooted in the idea that compassion is an internal stirring of the individual’s heart and that it is the individual’s right and responsibility to decide who gets to receive the individual’s charity. The government does not have a heart or, rather, cannot be internally moved by a compassionate conscious. The theology suggests that God moves on the hearts of individuals, not institutions. And even if God does move on the “heart” of the government, it the right of individuals to show compassion on whomever they choose trumps the government’s right to show compassion.

Government social programs are morally unjustifiable because charity must be voluntarily given not externally coerced. The culmination of the Tea Party’s theology of compassion and charity is the belief that the government should not be in the social programs business. If compassion is an individual virtue and charity only rightfully derives from the individual’s compassion, then government charity in the form of social programs is not compassion at all, it is theft. If someone were stealing from you, would you not be angry?

Does this argument have merit? Is this theology of compassion viable? Ultimately, I say no. Missing from the Tea Party view on compassion is the role of justice. Compassion by choice implies that the individual has a right to determine who deserves charity, after all, the resources belong to the individual. This goes against a compassion ethic derived from the Good Samaritan narrative (I intentionally chose a popular Christian story because it is a shared authoritative text between myself and the overwhelmingly evangelical Christian Tea Party). Assuming the man who was robbed, beaten, and left for dead were Jewish, he certainly deserved assistance from his co-religionists, the priest and the rabbi. Yet a Samaritan man, an ancient enemy of the Jewish people gave aid despite the social barriers dictating that Samaritans and Jews did not interact with each other. Compassion does not ask one to help if the suffering deserve it, compassion demands that one helps just because there is suffering. In this regard, compassion is closer to justice than it is to charity. Further if the United States government is truly a government of the people, for the people, and by the people, and if compassion is a positive virtue that should exist in all people, would it not be correct to believe that the government of a compassionate people ought to reflect the people’s capacity to be compassionate?


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