Ross Douthat in his New York Times opinion column on Sunday asked this questions, “Do Churches fail the poor”? But why the euphemism? Why the “poor” and not “African Americans deep in the poverty cycle”?
If Douthat did mean the heart and soul of the “poor”, his observation presents no contest, of course they do.
Without debating the question whether his assertions that churches have been more concerned with women’s health and gay rights, or that churches real interest in poverty bent to keep their pews filled, the question is has the churches’ malfeasance worsened the poor’s lot? Or even more important, had churches focused differently, could they have been a key force to end poverty?
One can spend hours listing the real interests of organized religions. These institutions are creations of man (or woman) and in the end take on characteristics of any other social or bureaucratic collection of people. Churches may claim a “higher purpose” but when the cows are counted, churches are interested in whether they have collected more dollars than what they owe. Churches will create any beliefs or visions to fit the narrative that most likely will fulfill their quest for financial survival regardless of its impact (or lack there of) on the poor.
So where do the poor fit in?
The world is awash in pockets of poverty. No continent is without its poor. Some maintain poverty is a necessary bi-product of a free market. In this zero sum world view, everyone has a chance, the smarter do better and the less smart, not as well. At some point, some begin a life long process of losing.
These losers reproduce and the cycle becomes a little more set. The question is can this poverty cycle be broken, and if so, how?
The US poor, it is said, have such dysfunctional lives, they produce a following generation less able to complete than itself. Hmmm. This is a pretty dismal outlook.
Hmmm. I wonder how churches can break this cycle?
(Let’s be clear, the poor or poverty cohort is mainly African American. But all African Americans are not poor or stuck in a poverty cycle.)
The apparent perception is that churches, somehow, should be able to inspire the poor so they become winners. Alcoholics Anonymous, a quasi-faith based organization requires attendees to swear to a “higher authority” as the prerequisite to becoming sober. Do you think this would work with just substituting “poverty” for alcoholic?
Regrettably AA has a relatively low success rate ( despite what even those who get the “cure” think). But what is evident with those “cured” is (1) they want to be cured, and (2) they recognize they are responsible for their own cure.
America is based upon notions that upward economic mobility is available for all. Americans believe that the destitute can become better off if they try hard enough. Americans also generally believe that if they do better, their children will have a chance to do even better if they work hard. Both of these notions is hard to detect in the US poverty zones.
So, to the question, “do churches fail the poor”, the best answer is “we don’t know”. All we know is that churches have not enhanced the lot of those stuck in the poverty cycle.
“Fail the poor” implies that churches have either done nothing (when they knew what to do) or have done somethings (which turned out to be incorrect) and in either case, have not reduced poverty.
While the answer to the breaking poverty cycle is still unclear, it is hard to imagine any solution that does not run through education and skill development, a family unit with limited family size, and community support within the poverty cohort.
I wonder whether churches know how to teach math, english. plumbing, carpentry, nursing, etc? I also wonder whether churches would step up to real family planning and birth control? And lastly, just how far are churches (especially those with large African American presence) willing to push parishioners to help their brothers and sisters do what they should know better to do?