Three outspoken Americans recently fed the storyline that charity is the solution to solving social problems.
Some people believe "a narrative that says the solution to poverty and natural disasters is churches, charities or both. This narrative is rooted in an anti-government, anti-taxes belief system," Parham observes.
When Catholic scholars charged that House Speaker John Boehner's social service budget cuts were at odds with the Catholic Church's moral teachings about caring for the poor, Fox News host Bill O'Reilly jumped to Boehner's defense.
"All entitlements must be re-evaluated. There are ways to help the poor that don't bankrupt us, and Catholics are compelled to help the poor," said O'Reilly. "As you may know, 'The Factor' gives millions of dollars to charitable causes. We have set up BillOReilly.com to do that because we believe those who have should help the have-nots."
When CNN's Wolf Blitzer asked Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas) if he favored abolishing the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), Paul said he did.
"I think it's bad economics. I think it's bad morality. And it's bad constitutional law," said Paul, a Republican presidential hopeful.
"And if there's a disaster, like flooding or – or an earthquake or Hurricane Katrina, what's wrong with asking fellow Americans to help their – their – their fellow citizens?" asked Blitzer.
Paul answered that "Americans are very, very generous... The big problem is Americans are getting poor and they're not able to voluntarily come to the rescue."
The Texas congressman accused FEMA of preventing volunteers from being able to help disaster victims and criticized government "coercion and taxation."
When Franklin Graham was interviewed on ABC's "This Week with Christiane Amanpour" on Easter Sunday morning, she asked about what the church could do to fill the growing gap between the rich and the poor.
Graham replied: "A hundred years ago, the safety net, the social safety net, in the country, was provided by the church. If you didn't have a job, you'd go to your local church and ask the pastor if he knew somebody that could hire him. If you were hungry, you went to the local church and told them, 'I can't feed my family.' And the church would help you. That's not being done. The government took that. And took it away from the church."
The government "had more money to give and more programs to give and pretty soon the churches just backed off," said Graham.
O'Reilly, Paul and Graham represent a narrative that says the solution to poverty and natural disasters is churches, charities or both. This narrative is rooted in an anti-government, anti-taxes belief system.
The idea that churches can tackle national poverty, take care of those who are ill, and rebuild communities after natural disasters requires a spoonful of bad moral theology and a cup of dishonesty.
As commendable as O'Reilly's charitable efforts are, his millions of dollars in charity are a drop in the bucket of what is needed.
Take one example of a program to care for low-income Americans: WIC. WIC is a supplemental nutrition program for women, infants and children that feeds almost 9 million people each month. House Republicans proposed cuts of $747.2 million for the current fiscal year. It is simply dishonest to suggest that American charity can replace such a cut.
Paul, on the other hand, claims that supporting FEMA is bad morality. Of course, his moral vision is informed by a libertarian ideology, not biblical faith. Paul's libertarian morality values property rights over human rights. For a Christian, that's bad moral theology.
And Graham made a dubious historical claim about the church being the country's safety net and an erroneous claim about the government taking something special away from the church – care for the poor and vulnerable. Facts seldom get in the way of Graham's ideology.
In an extra on our documentary DVD on faith and taxes, "Sacred Texts, Social Duty," Wayne Flynt, a Baptist Sunday school teacher and two-time Pulitzer Prize nominee, addressed the myth of "let the churches and charity do it."
When Flynt started making speeches about a just tax system in Alabama, he was accused of wanting government to solve all the problems.
"When people insisted that I was a socialist, that I wanted government to solve all the problems, I would offer this alternative," said Flynt. "OK, I accept your argument. There are 10,000 communities of faith – Muslim, Jewish, Baptist, Baha'i, Buddhist, Shintoist – in Alabama... Let's divide 10,000 communities of faith into the 740,000 [poor] people."
He asked, "How many does your church get?"
The retired Auburn history professor pointed out that most of those faith communities had about 100 members. That meant that each faith community would get between 50 and 100 poor people to look after.
"Your private charity is going to be responsible for them. Do it. We won't have to have Medicaid, Medicare, Social Security, taxes of any kind... We can abolish taxes. We can abolish the IRS," said Flynt.
"And all you have to do is for your congregation to adopt 50 to 100 poor people, and mentor them, and love them, and educate them and nurture them," he said.
"And I'll guarantee you that if you do that, it will be closer to what Christ intended than Social Security, Medicaid, Medicare. And they will never do it," said Flynt. "They will never do it...[T]he churches will not do it."
It's time for some honesty in the pulpit and public square about the dishonest national discourse that churches and charities can take care of the poor, those in ill health and the ones suffering from natural disasters.
Robert Parham is executive editor of EthicsDaily.com and executive director of its parent organization, the Baptist Center for Ethics.