Institutionalising Christian compassion for the poor


Institutionalising Christian compassion for the poorBy linking his political commitment with his Christian convictions, Kevin Rudd, the new ALP leader, has certainly stirred up the commentariat. At a time when Labor appears to be drifting in a moral and political vacuum, any attempt to revitalise its ethical foundations is as welcome as it is rare. The message is hardly new. The rise of labour parties in the nineteenth century owed much more to working class Christianity (particularly Methodism and Catholicism) than it ever did to Marxism. Rudd’s declaration would have appeared commonplace to earlier generations, and hardly worthy of comment. That it has provoked a frenzy of comment indicates how secularised the left has become, and how ignorant of its own history.

How far invoking the Gospel will resolve Labor’s moral and political dilemmas is questionable. At the level of fundamental principles, Christian teachings can underpin key values espoused by the left, such as human dignity, economic cooperation and social justice. Secular progressives who placed their faith in historical evolution towards a socialist future, have been demoralised by the recent successes of global capitalism. Today, it is the right, not the left, that seems to have history on its side.

For some, religion offers a valuable, fixed mooring from which to withstand such hostile political currents. But it is by no means essential. After all, any genuine belief in social justice, whether religious or secular, should be sufficient to withstand political setbacks. Moreover, the left’s problems stem less from lack of moral conviction than from uncertainty about how to apply its principles in a global capitalist world. Here, Christianity has little concrete to offer and can, indeed, lead in unhelpful directions.

The socialist and social democratic approach to welfare has always been community-based, linking state welfare to the rights of citizenship. It has its origins in the union movement and friendly societies where enlightened self-interest encouraged people to share their resources for protection against hardship. Even when state support become the norm, targeting specific categories such as the unemployed or disabled, it was on the understanding that anyone might become unemployed or disabled one day, and might therefore be in need a helping hand. Mass hardship and unemployment in times of economic depression, together with shared experience of wartime deprivation, encouraged the view of welfare as mutual support, or institutionalised ‘mateship’.

Social democrats sought to distinguish welfare from charity, as represented by the hated Poor Laws. Charity implied grace and favour rather than entitlement, as well as a social gulf between a superior giver and a stigmatised recipient. For social democrats, state welfare was not just for the down-and-out but rather a guarantee of equal opportunity for all. In recent years, however, the charitable view has begun to return. With increasing prosperity and individual security, many citizens now see welfare as a residual safety net which they themselves, their families and friends, will never need to call on.

Institutionalising Christian compassion for the poorWelfare is now being justified more in terms of compassionate help for the long-term disadvantaged rather than as ‘social security’ for all citizens. Significantly, F. A. Hayek, the philosophical guru of market capitalism, who famously attacked social justice as a ‘mirage’, still gave a prominent role to charity, both public and private, as a means of redressing individual hardship.

In terms of attracting voter support, the universal, mutual-support view of welfare has always been much more effective than the charitable safety-net view. It treats all people as members of the mainstream with shared entitlements, and appeals to their enlightened self-interest. The charitable approach, on the other hand, though providing a sense of self-worth to donors, remains demeaning to the recipient.

Christian doctrine can support either model. However, the churches, historically, have been particularly associated with administering charity. It is no accident that the role of church institutions in state welfare is increasing as the charitable model returns to favour with governments.

In such a climate, those on the left need to be careful about defending state welfare on the basis of Christian compassion for the weak and the vulnerable. Certainly, many Christian socialists have been inspired by Christ’s concern for the poor and the weak, and have seen state-based policies of social justice as a way of institutionalising this concern on behalf of the community as whole. But Christian compassion for the vulnerable can easily slide into patronising assumptions of social and moral distance between those who give and those who receive.

The charitable approach may be more suited to forms of compassionate conservatism based on noblesse oblige (or, as in Hayek’s case, bourgeoisie oblige) than to social democracy. It casts the ordinary punter in a subservient role and fuels the charge that the progressive left are a condescending elite who set themselves above the rest.



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Existing comments

Mulgan's analysis is short on fact and big on generalisation. Where is the evidence that "Christian doctrine can supporteither model" when in fact there are more than just the two approaches to charity he identifies.
John I Fleming | 23 January 2007

greater state intervention in treating the disadvantaged needs different control and management that is not based on short term political advantage. thank you for this article
rose heard | 23 January 2007


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