The Common Good
September-October 1999

A Covenant to Care

by Fred Glennon | September-October 1999

Moving from a "welfare state" to a "welfare society."

In 1999, Presidential hopefuls Al Gore and George W. Bush and other politicians called for a revolution in welfare provision: expand the role faith-based organizations (FBOs) play in meeting needs and delivering services. Why the reformation? They contended it was because FBOs can do something that government programs cannot: They provide the spiritual and moral transformation that most welfare recipients require to become responsible, independent adults—independent from government support, independent from drugs and alcohol, and independent from the cycle of violence and abuse.

What happens then to government's role in welfare provision? The state becomes a "limited" partner, providing the funding and support for FBOs to do their miracle work, eliminating unnecessary bureaucratic red tape, and offering a strategic place at the policymaking table.

For most Christians, moving from a welfare state to a more caring welfare society makes sense of the biblical challenge to "love your neighbor as yourself." Christian social ethics provides further support in the Protestant emphasis on covenant community and the Catholic principle of "subsidiarity." The biblical vision of covenant community is one that fully values all persons, even the poor and powerless. This inclusivity is most clearly seen in those aspects of the biblical covenant that protect the marginalized and vulnerable members of society (for example, Exodus 22:21-27; Deuteronomy 24:17-22). Covenant also stresses mutual obligation and responsibility. Members of the community bind their lives together, entrust themselves to one other, and promise to care for each other. Therefore they have responsibilities to create a community in which all can thrive.

Bringing about such a community involves commitment to a common good, the basic conditions for human flourishing. Fostering the growth of community means that we are interested not only in our own good but also in the good of others. The good of each is intricately interwoven. To make this vision of community a reality, everyone in the community, individuals and institutions alike, must contribute. Members still have the freedom to pursue their own good but they do so responsibly, in ways that promote the good of others in the community as well.

The principle of subsidiarity in Catholic social thought encourages this dispersion of responsibility for the common good by prohibiting larger associations from usurping those tasks that lesser and subordinate organizations can do. On the one hand, this principle guarantees room for other social agents, such as FBOs, to contribute to individual and social welfare. These smaller groups can often enable individuals to participate more fully in meeting their own needs than state institutions. On the other hand, this principle requires that other groups make such a contribution. Social welfare is not the responsibility of the state alone, but the vocation of all social groups.

SHOULD THE WELFARE STATE disappear? Conservatives, even compassionate ones, who link advocacy for the expansion of the welfare society through nonprofit organizations and FBOs with calls for an end to all government involvement in welfare are mistaken. On the one hand, they make too great a claim for the competency of these associations which, historically, have not only been unable to respond to the challenge but often have been motivated by class or group interest. "All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God," the Bible reminds us. Nonprofit organizations, including FBOs, can be as tyrannical as government bureaucracies at times, restricting freedom for the sake of conformity and repressing minority opinion. The state must guarantee the minimum conditions and resources the poor need to protect them against such potential abuse.

Those who seek to eliminate all government welfare programs misunderstand the inclusive nature of the national covenant and the role of the state in securing its aims. Membership in the national covenant entails certain human as well as civil rights and responsibilities that are owed to one another— they are part of our social responsibility to each other. Poor people should not have to be a part of these smaller communities for the basic means to their well-being. They have a right to them by virtue of their membership in the more inclusive political community. The state, therefore, has a positive welfare role to play that cannot simply be transferred to other, less inclusive, communities; it is part of the state's moral purpose.

Does this mean that all welfare functions should go to the state? Clearly not. We should make every effort to become a caring, welfare society. FBOs have demonstrated that they are significant agents in empowering the poor and generating such a community. From the perspective of Christian social ethics, what we need is a society in which individuals and social groups work together to ensure the welfare of all, and a state that empowers others to realize this end and secures the basic conditions of justice for all.

Fred Glennon, the co-author of Introduction to the Study of Religion, was associate professor of religious studies at Le Moyne College in Syracuse, New York, when this article appeared.

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