The church is better at the welfare business than the state

21 February 2014

2:56 PM

21 February 2014

2:56 PM

Today I have a piece in the Times (£ obviously, you know that) about the power of the Christian Left, following the Anglican bishops’ letter in the Daily Mirror; the Spectator’s Isabel Hardman goes into detail in the Telegraph about how her congregation did a better job of caring for the poor than the state did.

That is what’s at the heart of the argument for Christian conservatism. State spending is effective when there is acute, widespread poverty, but once a country rises above a certain income there are diminishing returns, because the causes are less likely to be wider social and environmental forces. This is a good, or at any rate conservative, argument for spending on overseas aid, where the money really can make a huge difference.


There is a very strong Christian socialist tradition in Britain, and a great many people for whom the faith directs their sense of social justice. These are the men and women involved in the countless charities and community groups across the country, and they are also the traditional backbone of the Labour Party. Then there is the liberal Christian tradition, which is especially found in the hierarchy of all churches, and epitomised by Thought for the Day (I have now trained myself to jump up from the seat and switch off the radio within 1.5 seconds of hearing the phrase ‘and now for Thought for the Day’).

But while there is this social gospel tradition, it’s strange that the Church – which is really very good at welfare and the caring business – would like to see more of it carried out by the state, which does it rather less well, and is also a rival. If some crazy libertarians were to take control of government and reduce its size down to pre-First World War levels, we’d probably see a considerable rise in churchgoing. The bishops would become household names and teenagers would have posters of them in their bedrooms, whereas today they probably have rather less moral authority than, say, Peter Andre. Also the churches and their agencies would also be considerably less influenced by the culture and ideology of the state.

But if you’re in at the deep end of helping the poor, and the people you’re helping have come to rely on state aid, then of course you’re going to protest when that money is taken away. The bishops see and meet people who are really struggling, and when welfare reform makes them poorer still, their shepherd has to be speak up for them. It’s just a naturally asymmetrical argument, because it’s not like taxpayers groaning under the weight of a spendthrift government are going to go to their local bishop to complain (maybe they should, just to remind them that money doesn’t grow on trees).

There’s nothing wrong with the bishops calling for more spending, but it would have been nice if some of them had said something about the previous government borrowing money during fat years, even before the bailouts. After all getting yourself, and your children, into debt is not just an economic issue but a moral one; the whole point of the story in the gospel is that the father takes back the Prodigal Son out of love and forgiveness; he doesn’t then applaud him for his lifestyle and adopt his spending plans.

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Show comments
  • Trapnel

    Like The Great Gatsby’s Tom and Daisy, bleeding-heart Tories
    and do-gooders such as the Archbishop of Westminster inhabit a “vast carelessness” of conferences and think tanks from which they emerge to carelessly
    welfare things up before retreating back into it with no real awareness of what they
    have done and a certainty that the citizens whose lives they have welfared or would like to welfare ought to be grateful to them. Neither bishop nor politician emerge with credit.

  • Hegelguy

    When the church did dominate charity, as in the Victorian age, life for the masses was nasty, brutish, undignified and short. God (pun intended) help us if we go back to that.
    Good grief! What is this country coming to! Ten years ago if someone had told me articles of cool inhumanity like that of West would today be commonplace in the press, I would have chuckled and said the forecaster was pessimistic to the point of absurdity.

    Yet here it is, day by effing day, barbarism taking over right in front of our eyes.

    It’s frightening.

    And we think the Scots will want to stay in this doomed and blighted country when they have a good alternative.

    Madness. If I were anyone with an atom of sanity I would run a million miles from the likes of West, had I the choice.

  • saffrin

    Hmm, about time the church paid some taxes me thinks.
    Their bishops get a free ride in the House of Lords after all, of our so called part democracy and all that.

  • rtj1211

    The church will do nothing in the welfare business if it imposes its religion on people. Poverty is not a requirement to choose a religion, it is a tragedy. Simple as that.

    Stop trying to impose your christian beliefs on society. It’s nanny statism gone mad. It’s just that because it comes out of Ed West’s mouth, it’s called something different.

    Zero difference. You telling people how society should be run according to your prejudices.

  • mrsjosephinehydehartley

    “If some crazy libertarians were to take control of government and reduce its size down to pre-First World War levels, we’d probably see a considerable rise in churchgoing.”

    I honestly don’t think the size of a government had as much to do with the numbers of people going to church. Being able to remember what life was like before new technologies eg no more than three TV channels, not even breakfast TV because everything shut on Sundays

  • victor67

    “The Church is better at the welfare business ,than running the state”
    Only if you think that the best way to run a state is to make very rich people even richer. ie neo-liberalism.

  • Eyesee

    Question Time last night put the whole debate in perspective. Eventually a member of the audience said the problem was not fraud, a relatively minor issue, nor those who need some assistance, but the large group in the middle who maintain a fairly comfortable lifestyle on welfare, without the cramping of their style work would entail. Everyone (except Hammond of course) pretended not to understand what he was talking about, concentrated on agreeing fraud had to be stamped out and Dimmers quickly moved it on.

  • brossen99
    • HFC

      Having read the linked text I realise more acutely than ever that there are people for whom we should feel very sorry.