The Two Kingdoms and Social Security
American churches blundered when they supported Roosevelt’s proposal for Social Security, according to Douglas E. Baker. In his essay, “The Theology of Social Security,” Baker concludes:
What is disturbing when reviewing the history of this time is how many Christian ministers defended the actions of government as fulfilling Holy Scripture’s mandates to care for the poor, provide for parents in their old age and give to those who ask of you.
With this shift of thinking, the state began to function in roles once reserved for the church—to the detriment of any who would question the legitimacy of the legislation on theological grounds. The same reception awaits those in the modern day who seek to resist any “progressive” social policy in any way for fear that they will be branded as uncaring or un-Christian in their ideas.
Has government power expanded to such a degree that the church now has no voice at all in the public square? Perhaps, but the modern era of public policy reveals just how much the government has gained and how much the church has lost.
The statement that caught my eye was “the state began to function in roles once reserved for the church.” Perhaps that’s true concerning the situation in the United States prior to Roosevelt’s tenure as president. But should one begin to ponder other times and other places, this simplistic assessment quickly becomes untenable. Consider, for example, Israel’s Old Testament laws concerning the poor. Here we have biblical commands concerning treatment of the poor, to be sure. Yet Luther would argue that such commands were given to Israel as a nation and are not timeless laws for the church. So, much in the Old Testament regarding the poor is, in fact, about government rather than about the church. In the New Testament, care for the poor seems to be focused on the church’s own poor rather than on the poor generally speaking. At the very same time, it was the Roman government that provided “bread and circuses” for the poor of Rome. If the motive was to keep the lower classes from rioting rather than charity, it makes little difference to the argument. In the Middle Ages, the church cared for the poor, but it did so out of the tithe, a tax levied on the populace. Thus the church’s “charitable” activity toward the poor was funded by the coercive collection of revenue. So does that qualify as church or government?
If government is understood as founded by God with certain responsibilities, as the Lutheran understanding of the two kingdoms has it, then there is no particular reason to conclude that Scripture speaks only or always to the responsibilities of the church when care for the poor is discussed. Perhaps such care is among those negotiable, rather than fixed, duties that are at some times best fulfilled by the church and at others by the government. Lutherans have always believed there is a line between church and government, but we have not always drawn that line in the same place.
Baker’s concluding suggestion that the issue is a zero-sum power game—it’s about what the government has gained and the church has lost—struck me as odd. I would suggest, rather, that this is an issue of which entity is best positioned to care for all those in need. Christians as citizens can discuss (rather than argue about) the answer to that question precisely because it is not an issue of the government somehow usurping what has always been the purview of the church.