The Theology of the Welfare State

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Elijah came unto all the people, and said, How long halt ye between
two opinions? if the LORD be God, follow him: but if Baal, then
follow him. And the people answered him not a word (1 Kings 18:21).

people of Israel were hedging their bets. “There is no good reason
to commit prematurely, one way or the other.” They wanted empirical
evidence. They thought, but prudently did not say, that “a priorism
is for extremists.”

has been the attitude of the masses down though the ages. It is
no different today. They do not self-consciously act out of moral
principle. Anyway, they think they don’t. They insist on demonstrations
of a specific kind: power, not ethics. “We’re results-oriented around

priests of Baal agreed with the masses. So did King Ahab and his
wife Jezebel. That was why they agreed to a test of power on Mt.
Carmel. They thought their gods could not lose.

were wrong.


masses’ perceived source of law in any society is the god of that
society. This fact should be the starting point of all sociological
analysis. It rarely is.

to identify the voice of authority in any society — the supreme
representative agent of that society’s god — you must identify
that agency in which the masses place their greatest trust to care
for them in times of extraordinary need. The agency that brings
deliverance is the agency that speaks for God.

deliverance has been perceived as three-fold: deliverance from famine,
plague, and war. Historically, church and state have competed for
the allegiance of the masses as the primary deliverer.

can date the rise of the nation state: the late fifteenth century.
This launched the era in which the state began assuming credit,
both symbolic and financial, as the primary deliverer in all three
areas. The expansion of the nation-state into areas once reserved
for families and churches is the story of the rise of the welfare

the dawn of recorded history, kings and priests have maintained
a sometimes unstable alliance as co-deliverers. It is no different
in our day. But as science and medicine have increasingly been perceived
as the source of deliverance from famine and plague, ecclesiastical
agents have lost credibility as agents of deliverance. The agents
of the state, in the words of George Washington Plunkett of Tammany
Hall, have seen their opportunity and have taken it. The state has
asserted its primary authority for the care and feeding of the new
priests: scientists and physicians.

World War I, the family was the primary agency of healing on a day-to-basis
in the West. Families paid physicians and other healers when home
remedies failed. Next in line to pay for healing were voluntary
organizations, including the church and agencies funded by the church.
Finally, there was the civil government. This structure of responsibility
for healing began to change after World War I. The state began to
lay claim to the top position, just as it had before the war in
the field of education.

is therefore a deeply religious impulse behind the welfare state,
both ancient and modern: the desire to provide healing. Why is this
religious? Because healing is the means, not the end. Healing is
the means of becoming the masses’ primary representative of God
on earth. The state seeks to replace families, churches, and local
voluntary agencies as the unitary voice of authority. A state
that does not heal is a state that cannot attain this unitary authority

beginning in the early 1960s, American courts began to invoke previously
unsuspected legal principles that forbid public references to God
as the source of healing and deliverance. This leaves the state
as society’s replacement God: the divine right of the state.
The divine-rights doctrine means “no appeal beyond.”


silence ministerial opposition to the healer state, the United States
government began to pressure ministers of churches to join the Social
Security System. This began officially in 1958. Ministers had to
file a form to opt out of the system. At the time, Social Security
looked like a good deal: $38 a year on average,
or 1.5% on a maximum of $3,000 for a maximum of $45
. For this,
the government promised to pay an old-age pension. Ministers signed
up in droves.

of church-state separation, ordained ministers of any church or
similar ecclesiastical organization still possess the legal option,
at the time of filing their first post-ordination income tax return,
to file an application to opt out of the Social Security system.
This is part of the Internal Revenue Code, Section 1402(e)(1). Accompanying
this form must be

statement that either he is conscientiously opposed to, or because
of religious principles he is opposed to, the acceptance (with
respect to services performed by him as such minister, member,
or practitioner) of any public insurance which makes payments
in the event of death, disability, old age, or retirement or makes
payments toward the cost of, or provides services for, medical
care (including the benefits of any insurance system established
by the Social Security Act) and in the case of an individual described
in subparagraph (A), that he has informed the ordaining, commissioning,
or licensing body of the church or order that he is opposed to
such insurance. . . .

is a matter of law. The regulations are posted on-line.

around 1963, R. J. Rushdoony introduced me to a 1957 article by
a fellow Orthodox Presbyterian cleric, Francis Mahaffy. It was tiled
“A Clergyman’s Security.” It had been published in The Freeman.
Rushdoony encouraged me to go into the ministry. As part of his
counsel, he had me read the article.

Mahaffy argued that three of the Ten Commandments legislate against
the Social Security System, and by implication the entire welfare
state: thou shalt not kill, thou shalt not steal, and thou shalt
honor your parents. He called on other clergymen to take a stand
against the welfare state by staying out of the Social Security
System. His call was rarely heeded.

later attended a very conservative seminary for a year, but I decided
not to seek ordination. At no time during my year at seminary did
I hear anyone discuss the ministerial exemption from Social Security.
I have never heard of any seminary that has devoted so much as a
one-hour lecture to the subject of this exemption.

think there is a reason for this reticence. Rev. Mahaffy raised
the moral and spiritual issues of the Social Security system of
coercive wealth-redistribution. He challenged this coercion as a
Christian minister, basing his objection on provisions of the Ten
Commandments. The Ten Commandments still receive lip-service in
the seminaries, but not much beyond that. Surely, the course in
Christian ethics, if there is one, does not begin with the Ten Commandments.

argue as Mahaffy did raises the issue of the immorality of all aspects
of the modern welfare state. Seminary professors prefer to avoid
raising such issues. Such issues create dissention. This is also
why courses are not offered on the ethics of abortion. When it comes
to divisive moral issues, Bible-affirming seminary professors avoid
them in class and usually outside of class.

1980, I reprinted Rev. Mahaffy’s article in a newsletter aimed at
pastors, Tentmakers, published by my organization, the Institute
for Christian Economics. The article remains on-line in that newsletter format.


that year, a student group at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary
in Massachusetts invited me to speak. The student who called me
began his phone call: “Some students want you to come and speak
at Gordon-Conwell.” I replied: “The only way that you could get
me to come would be to set up a debate with Ron Sider.” His reply
was immediate: “We have arranged for you to debate Ron Sider.” If
I were not a Calvinist, I would call this an amazing coincidence.

was the author of what had become a best-seller, Rich
Christians in an Age of Hunger
(1977). The title told all
(as titles should). It was a tract for the times: a long diatribe
against Western capitalism as the primary cause of Third World poverty.
It had been co-published by InterVarsity Press (evangelical) and
the Paulist Press (Catholic). Such joint publishing projects are
extremely rare, for they imply a common theology. In this case,
the common theology was liberation theology, but without the AK-47s.

immediately hired David Chilton to write a reply to Sider’s book,
which I planned to have printed in time for the debate, which was
three months away, as I recall. Chilton wrote a masterpiece in short
order. I titled it: Productive
Christians in an Age of Guilt-Manipulators
. It soon became
the best-selling book in ICE’s 25-year history. It’s on line for free. I can honestly say that I have never read a book even
remotely as effective with respect to rhetoric, textual exegesis,
and economic theory.

of the book arrived the day before the debate. I sold them for $1
each. (A basic law of economics is this: “At a lower price, more
will be demanded.”) Sider was selling his closer to retail. That
was because he was not the publisher.

think a book’s cover should reveal the book’s thesis within five
seconds. So, the book’s cover was my suggestion: a man dressed in
a dark suit, suspended in mid-air with a noose around his neck,
which he was holding in his right hand. In his left hand was a Bible.

published a second edition in 1984, promising on its cover that
it responded to his critics. But nowhere in the book was any reference
to Chilton. I had Chilton update his book in response to Sider’s
response. His book got even better.

wrote a third edition in 1990, published by a different publisher,
which is the traditional mark of a book that is no longer selling
well. The Sider fad was fading side by side with the Soviet economy.
Again, there was no mention of Chilton.

in 1997, a new edition appeared, heralded as the 20th anniversary
edition. In it, Sider abandoned his anti-capitalist, guilt-manipulating
rhetoric. The book had turned into verbal oatmeal. He made eight
or nine policy recommendations, most of which had been recommended
by Chilton in 1981. But still, there was no mention of Chilton.
I commented on all this in a 1997 book review, “The Economic Re-Education
of Ronald J. Sider,” which I later included as
an appendix to my 4-volume economic commentary on Deuteronomy

Sider by 1997 resembled the one-time youthful college radical at
your 20th college reunion: a good salary, a TIAA-CREF retirement
portfolio, and brown leather patches on his tweed sports coat. He
still sings all the old radical songs. Anyway, he hums them. He
cannot remember most of the words. But a good time is had by all.


1981 debate was tape-recorded. It
is still offered for sale.
A few days ago, I listened to parts
of it for the first time in 24 years.

80 minutes into the debate — two-thirds into side 1 of tape 2 —
I devoted approximately 90 seconds to the economics of the Social
Security System. I told the students that they could legally opt
out of the system, along with United States government employees,
which was still true of Federal employees in 1981. I recommended
that they should not join.

listened to the debate only because in April of 2005, on a
blogsite run by a pair of Presbyterian brothers who are also ministers
the following appeared:

in 1983, North was invited to speak at Gordon-Conwell Theological
Seminary, the seminary where all three of the Bayly brothers — Tim,
David, and Nathan — received our Masters of Divinity. It was an
evening lecture and we don’t remember the announced subject. But
we do remember that North spent the evening attacking the financial
stability of Social Security and ranting about the stupidity of
any pastor who failed to opt out of it.

90-second spiel, which took place approximately 80 minutes into
a highly structured debate, had become “an evening lecture.” This
is not false witness or a conspiracy of ministers to fool the sheep.
Rather, it is the grim effect of age: the steady fading of memory
after age 45. As William Shatner said in a televised interview in
which he could not remember the name of Captain Kirk, “It’s the
second thing to go.” Thank God for Google — I mean this literally.
How many times it has saved me from going public with some scrambled

brothers had completely forgotten the event’s format. What had stuck
in their minds for a quarter century was the fact that I had warned
them what would happen to their income and their capital if they
joined Social Security. It stuck in their minds because it stuck
in their craws.

be specific: for the first nine years of Tim’s ministry he pastored
a yoked parish in rural Wisconsin. During that time his total
income (salary plus fair rental value of the manse owned by the
church that he lived in) averaged somewhere between $25,000 and
$30,000. Then for the past thirteen years, he’s ministered in
Bloomington, Indiana, and his salary has averaged about $57,000.
Federal tax law has determined that, in connection with Social
Security, the pastor is self-employed and must pay a little over
fifteen percent of all his income — including housing allowance
or fair rental value of any manse the church asks him to live
in — to Social Security.

the figures and you’ll see that opting out of Social Security
would have saved Tim around $151,650 — about $7,000 per year (and
he could have used it). Talk to financial planners and they’ll
tell you he could have taken just a small part of that total,
invested it privately, and realized a return much larger than
the return he’ll get from the Social Security system. So why didn’t
he opt out?

did not have to talk to financial planners. I went through the economics
of the program in 90 seconds. But they stayed in. Why? For religious

ask us if we have a theological objection to Social Security and
we’ll tell you we don’t. We have political objections, many financial
objections, U.S. Constitutional objections, and so on. But we
see no basis in Scripture for telling the federal government that
Scripture forbids our participation in Social Security.

truth be told, those friends and colleagues of ours who are pastors
and have opted out of Social Security have never yet made a theological
case to me of their conscientious objection based on Scripture,
so we’ve told them we think they are wrong to have opted out.
True, we can’t know their hearts, but we have a sneaking suspicion
that most pastors who have opted out have done so for the very
reasons Gary North said we ought to: namely, because Social Security
is an awful investment.

back, I (Tim) told my wife that I had no objection to being a
part of Social Security even if by the time I was ready to retire
there was nothing left for me. In other words, I don’t mind sending
the federal government money as my part of helping take care of
widows, orphans, retirees, and the feeble elderly.

is the heart of the matter
. They do not see anything wrong with
the morality of theft by ballot box. They believe in the welfare
state’s re-written version of the eighth commandment: Thou shalt
not steal, except by majority vote

also do not perceive that the welfare state operates in terms of
a theology, namely, that control over the delivery of healing, especially
in old age, is evidence of being the primary voice of authority
for the god of society. A state that does not both finance and control
society’s healers cannot plausibly present itself to the masses
as possessing this monopolistic voice of authority.

are not alone in the pulpit. A majority of their peers agree with

I gave my advice in 1981, every Siderite in the lecture hall could
not in good conscience have signed the IRS-required statement of
moral objection to Social Security. Sider believed in the healer
state. At the time, he was American evangelicalism’s most prominent
promoter of a Christian welfare state. His book was subtitled A
Biblical Study. He also believed that capitalism is morally
evil. Then, in 1997, he changed his mind about capitalism, sort
of. He got all fuzzy, though not particularly warm. By then, his
disciples of 1981 had forfeited their legal right to opt out of
the Social Security System.

pastors have paid a heavy financial price in terms of forfeited
taxes and compound growth on the investments they could not make.
The theology of the healer state imposes many unnecessary expenses
on its ministerial adherents. But at least the contribution-deficient
retirement funds of aging Siderite pastors are not my fault, nor
are they Francis Mahaffy’s.


had triggered the Baylys’s scrambled memory of the North-Sider
debate? It was an article that I posted on, “State, 1; Schiavo, 0.”
In that essay, I argued that euthanasia is a tempting way for the
welfare state to cut its Medicare expenses. I argued that the courts
will eventually decide in favor of the culture of death because
of the red ink of Medicare and Medicaid.

also argued that the pro-Schiavo activists were blind to the implications
of socialized medicine. They were gathering in Florida to defend
her life, but this was futile. Why? Because they were still on the
moral low ground. They were not yet ready to commit to calling on
churches and charitable organizations to fund the care of all those
just like her: everyone who is presently receiving Medicare or Medicaid
money. (Her
medication was being paid for by Medicaid
.) In short, they were
trying to get by on the cheap, both morally and economically. I


are no free lunches. This is the scarce resource issue.

say that Terri Schiavo has a right to life is to say that someone
else has a legal obligation to pay to keep her alive.

obligation to pay is an inescapable concept. It is never a matter
of “obligation to pay vs. no obligation to pay.” It is always
a question of “who has the obligation to pay and which jurisdiction
of civil government has the obligation to say who has the obligation
to pay.”

can carry a sign and gather with others for a photo opportunity.
The judicial issue is more controversial. If the civil law enforces
the right to life, it must also force someone to pay. I suggested
who should pay: private citizens who defend the right to life. Such
people did exist for her.

it’s not good enough to defend one person’s right to life just because
her case reaches the front pages and the evening news. The defenders
must in principle defend all people’s right to life, i.e., the right
to be kept alive by people who will pay to keep the person alive.
So, I wrote,

horror of the Schiavo case is that the state will not allow anyone
else to pay in order to stick the feeding tube back in. Police
are arresting people who attempt to give her water.

defenders were not just carrying signs. They were also implicitly
carrying ballots. They were (and remain) ready to call on the state
to put a gun in other people’s bellies and say, “Fork over your
money to keep this person alive.” There is also a secondary instruction:
“If the taxpayer resists or tries to get away, shoot him.”

is the implicit and inescapable moral assertion of the welfare state:
“Those who physically resist the state’s authority to heal through
economic compulsion must be shot.” State coercion is backed up by
the threat of death. The healing state is inherently a killer
. When you think “welfare state,” think “Dr. Stalin.”

who favors the compulsory welfare system must logically favor the
right of the politicians and bureaucrats to allocate the means of
sustaining life. This system of compulsory welfare creates widespread
dependence on the state, raises taxes on the public, and then is
overwhelmed by the costs. Then the inevitable takes place: the cutting
off the life-support system in the name of efficiency. This is triage
in action. I put it this way:

Schiavo is a representative figure for both sides. On the side
of Mrs. Schiavo stands a confused group of people who think the
state should remain the Good Samaritan. On the side of the courts
that have determined that she must die stands a much larger group
of people who hate private charity because it makes donors feel
good. These people want the state to control charity, so charity
must become compulsory. To keep the red-ink tsunami limited, they
now demand the right to cut off the losers from the state’s feeding
tube. To assert the final authority of the state in matters of
life and death, they insist that others not be allowed to pay
for a feeding tube with their own money.

economic and judicial analysis enraged the Bayly brothers. Their
blog is titled, Gary North’s Christ-Denying Cruelty Toward Terri
What had I said? This:

I want from the pro-Schiavo people is a signed public document:

the undersigned, assert the right of Terri Schiavo to live.
This means that someone must pay. We hereby pledge to pay for
her care until she dies.

Because we stand on moral principle against socialized medicine
and all taxpayer money going to keep people like Terri Schiavo
alive, we hereby also pledge to support every other victim like
her — every Alzheimer’s patient who can no longer feed himself,
every brain-dead victim of a stroke or accident, and every other
American in her condition — just as soon as the insurance money
runs out and her immediate family has declared bankruptcy. This
is a blank check. Representatives of victims may cash it at
any time.

called for moral consistency. I called for charity rather than compulsion.

their entire ministerial careers, the brothers Bayly have resented
this call. “Over the years we’ve changed our minds on a number of
things, but one thing we’ve viewed with consistency is the reformed
theologian Gary North. We do not trust him.”

would not have trusted Francis Mahaffy, either.

pastors share their theology. They just do not share their horror
of what the state did to Terri Schiavo. The Schiavo case was divisive,
so most pastors ignored it.

was not the stand-pat pastors who drew the fire of the Bayly brothers.
It was the underlying argument of my entire career: The welfare
state is modern man’s Baal


have devoted my career to a seemingly fruitless task: to develop
exegetically a biblical case against the welfare state. My marketing
challenge is this: the economists are uninterested in the Bible,
and the pastors are uninterested in economic theory. Even though
they can be downloaded for free, the 18
volumes of verse-by-verse exegesis
of my economic commentary
on the Bible will be read by very few people. All were published
after my debate with Ron Sider.

replace the welfare state, individuals and voluntary associations
must take over 100% of the state’s present welfare functions, in
addition to any others that the state has not yet asserted sovereignty
over. This program of responsibility-transferal would be very expensive
unless accompanied by comparable tax cuts, which politically is
not going to happen short of an economic collapse. Churches resist
such calls to social responsibility. (“The higher the price, the
less the amount demanded.”)

publicly call for a national revival. Yet a call for such a Christian
revival must be coupled with a call to replace the welfare state.
Any other kind of revival is morally ephemeral. It does not systematically
challenge the theology of the welfare state.

believe that most American pastors, if given a choice between (1)
a massive revival coupled with state-replacing social responsibility
by churches vs. (2) no revival but with the continuation of the
welfare state, would choose the second option. The reason I think
this is because most pastors are enrolled in the Social Security/Medicare
program when they are not legally required to join if they have
theological objections to it. They have adopted a theology that
accepts the welfare state.

healer state will become the killer state when its budget gets tight.
The bureaucrats will then defend euthanasia in the name of the fiscally
inescapable reduction in “the quality of life” — the same way they
defend abortion today. Conclusion:

insidious thing is that these people think they’re being kind
by killing. The totalitarian beast prides himself that in his
breast beats a tender heart.

was written by David Bayly, three months
after the Bayly family went after me on-line

figure. Suggestion: do this before the state pulls your plug.

30, 2005

North [send him mail] is the
author of Mises
on Money
. Visit
He is also the author of a free multi-volume series, An
Economic Commentary on the Bible

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