The Theology of the Welfare State

And 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).

The 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.”

Such 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 here.”

The 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.

They were wrong.


The 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.

Similarly, 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.

Historically, 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.

We 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 state.

From 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.

Until 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.

There 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.

Then, 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.”


To 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.

Because 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

a 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. . . .

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

Sometime 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.

Rev. 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.

I 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.

I 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.

To 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.

In 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.


Later 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.

Sider 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.

I 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.

Copies 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.

I 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.

Sider 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.

Sider 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.

Then, 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.

Ron 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.


Our 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.

About 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.

I 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:

Back 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.

My 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 recollection!

The 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.

To 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.

Do 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?

They 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 reasons.

Now 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.

And 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.

Years 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.

This 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.

They 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.

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

When 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.

Siderite 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.


What 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.

I 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 wrote:


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

To 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.

The 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.”

Anyone 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.

But 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,

The 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.

Schiavo’s 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.”

This 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 state. When you think “welfare state,” think “Dr. Stalin.”

He 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:

Terri 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.

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

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

We, 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.

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

For 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.”

They would not have trusted Francis Mahaffy, either.

Most 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.

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.


I 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.

To 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.”)

Pastors 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.

I 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.

The 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:

The 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.

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

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

July 30, 2005

Gary 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.

Copyright © 2005