Blogs > Cliopatria > Larry DeWitt: Review of Lew Daly's God and the Welfare State (MIT Press, 2006)

Nov 1, 2007 2:36 pm


Larry DeWitt: Review of Lew Daly's God and the Welfare State (MIT Press, 2006)



[Larry DeWitt is a doctoral student in public policy history at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. He is the principal editor of Social Security: A Documentary History (Congressional Quarterly Press, 2008).]

The reformers of the Progressive Era and New Deal were motivated and guided in part by the reformist impulses of those Christians identified with the Social Gospel tradition. A good example of this was Frances Perkins, Franklin Roosevelt's Secretary of Labor, and a principal political architect of the Social Security Act of 1935. In addition to being a labor legislation reformer, a consumer advocate, and a settlement house reformer, Perkins was motivated by her deep Social Gospel convictions. (Harry Hopkins is another example of a prominent New Dealer who could be counted among the Social Gospel's adherents.)

While the Social Gospel was a Protestant movement of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, it was, in a broader sense, a prominent part of much of modern Judeo-Christian social reform philosophy—shared beyond its Protestant practitioners. The Social Gospel tradition, in this context, was the simple insight that by joining forces with the secular state, and crafting state-based programs, the religiously-motivated reformers could give concrete embodiment to their moral values and their aspirations for a better world.

But the Social Gospel has fallen on hard times as of late. Most of the Christian-reformist action in recent years has been from the other end of the pew—from the moralistic evangelicals whose impulse is not to the social justice reforms of the Social Gospel, but rather, to moral reforms of what they view as a decadent culture. Hence, the need felt in some quarters to restore this missing tradition of religious-based social welfare reform. The Bush claim to be a “compassionate conservative” seemed to some to portend a renewal of the Social Gospel tradition, but the type of reform sponsored by the Bush Administration turned out to be something very different.

The Conservative Counter-Reformation

What Lew Daly has written about is the Bush Administration's faith-based initiative, and how radically it differs from more recent ideas of the relationship of church and welfare state. Daly—-who is a former pastor and a policy advocate, not a historian-—has managed to write a serviceable summary history of the Bush initiative in the first two-thirds of his book and a much less satisfactory policy prescription in the final third. It turns out that the faith-based initiative formally announced by President Bush in early 2001 was not just a give-away to an important voting constituency in the Republican coalition. It was an elaborate, historically grounded, theoretically rationalized, alternative model of the relationship of the church to the welfare state. It was a counter-Reformation in national social policy.

The advocates behind the initiative grounded their approach in two old theological ideas—the Dutch Calvinist idea of sphere sovereignty and the Catholic doctrine of subsidiarity—each of which was part of a 19th century movement to which the faith-based initiative looks for conceptual validation. Sphere sovereignty is the idea—promoted by Dutch statesman and theologian Abraham Kuyper and his Anti-Revolutionary Party—that the proper source of sovereignty in such spheres as education and social welfare lies with religious institutions, not with the state. The concept of subsidiarity emerged from the efforts of the Catholic Church to clarify the obligations of religious charity. In his 1891 papal encyclical, Rerum Novarum, Pope Leo XIII put the church on record as engaged on issues of economic and social justice. Liberal Catholics generally take Rerum Novarum to be their inspiration. But it was Pope Pius XI in a 1931 encyclical, Quadragesimo Anno, who articulated the conditions on the Church=s engagement with the state. Pius emphasized the concept of subsidiarity, by which he argued that the church, being more proximate to the people and more intimately involved in their welfare, had first call on responsibility for their social welfare. So the central idea here—of what I would call the Christian Revivalists—is that the church must reacquire its ancient power and authority over matters of social welfare.

Beginning in the late 1980s, a small core group of religiously motivated movement conservatives began formulating an alternative philosophy of social welfare, using these two earlier theological movements as their models and the sources of their rationalizing principles. By the time of the 1996 welfare reform debate, they were already exerting influence on policymakers. These activist scholars managed to get then-Senator John Ashcroft to insert a provision in the 1996 legislation authorizing “charitable choice,” which was the term of art at the foundation of what would become the faith-based initiative. Charitable choice permitted religious institutions to provide government-funded social welfare services without adopting secular principles of equal access or non-discrimination.

While Governor of Texas, George W. Bush sponsored the preparation of a 1996 report entitled Faith in Action, which was the state version of what Bush would federalize once he entered the White House. In the words of the report, Governor Bush's vision was that: “We must move beyond ‘devolution’ merely parsing duties between different levels of government and embrace genuine reform . . . . We must think anew about the relationship between government and non-government, and, ultimately, vest power beyond government back to individuals and social institutions.”

Bush's first major speech of his 2000 presidential campaign was entitled “The Duty of Hope” and its theme was his faith-based agenda. Once Bush assumed the presidency, this agenda was put vigorously into motion. Bush issued two quick executive orders: the first creating the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives and the second institutionalizing the policy shift by creating satellite offices in each of the five major domestic cabinet agencies responsible for social programs. More executive orders followed, inserting faith-based offices in other federal agencies.

As soon as Bush's faith-based initiative was announced in January 2001, conservatives rallied around the philosophical ideas on which it was based. George Will was quick to editorialize about the virtues of the concept of subsidiarity, and even Senator Jesse Helms called for reconfiguring the system of foreign aid based on his understanding of subsidiarity. Paul Weyrich of the Free Congress Foundation announced he supported subsidiarity as a guiding principle and John DiIulio, the born-again Catholic who Bush tapped to be the first head of the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives, said that the Administration's initiative was a “blue-print for applied subsidiarity.” Bush adviser Charles Colson saw the faith-based initiative as the triumph of the Calvinist view of sphere sovereignty.

What is particularly interesting about the Christian Revivalists is that they are not strict representatives of the more familiar cohorts of the Republican coalition. They are not even “values voters” per se. Daly's key insight is that these members of the Republican coalition—despite being Christian conservatives—are not principally concerned about social values issues. For the advocates behind the faith-based initiative, the purpose is to shift power from the state to the religious sector. It is not really about moral values as much as it is about the locus of political power. The faith-based initiative is after something quite different than a mere improvement in the moral climate.

Daly is calling attention to a counter-revolution in the ideals of Christian charity. No longer do religiously motivated reformers appeal to the ideals of the Social Gospel to inform their efforts. Now Christian reform—under the helpful policies of the Bush Administration—harkens back to 19th century revivalist movements. Those 19th century movements sought to prevent the enlargement of the state at the expense of the church. Now that this enlargement is essentially a fiat accompli, the modern Christian Revivalists want to restore the balance between church and state to something closer to that which prevailed before the Progressive Era.

Daly's Third Way

This book is too short, in crucial ways. For one thing, it lacks a convincing historical grounding in the Social Gospel tradition and its role in this history. But the biggest shortcoming of the book is that Daly's alternative “model” for religious-inspired reform is little more than the repeated observation that the teachings of the scriptures requires Christians and Jews to confront economic inequality by a direct moral condemnation of the institutions of wealth and privilege that embody those inequalities. Daly is not antithetical to the secular welfare state; nor is he necessarily opposed to church-based charity assuming a larger role in social welfare. But he wants to insist that whoever takes up this responsibility must do so in a way that effectively reduces the vast and rising economic inequalities in American society.

The core difference between Daly and the Christian Revivalists is that he sees the attack on institutions of political and economic power as part of Christian teaching, while the Revivalists effectively immunize these institutions from criticism by shifting responsibility for the problems of economic injustice to the churches and to private charity. In this way economic inequalities become not matters of public policy but matters of the relationship of the individual to a religious tradition.

But this kind of moral exhortation has proven to be of little practical effect, without some way to institutionalize the sentiments behind it. The genius of the Social Gospel reformers of the Progressive and New Deal eras was that they formed a partnership with the secular state in creating institutions which partially embodied their ideals. Daly seems bent on returning to an even older tradition of moral exhorters, who want to shame us into desired social change. Daly seems not to have learned the key lesson of the Social Gospel partners in the creation of the welfare state. Daly's efforts—although admirable enough—strike me as a pretty good reminder of the value of the idea of the modern secular welfare state and the need for it.

Daly’s book is, however, a reminder of how much is really at stake in the move of government policy toward faith-based initiatives. This slim, small-format, book can be read in an afternoon's sitting. It is certainly worth that much of our time.

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