Poll: Ideas on poverty shaped by religion

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Which is generally more often to blame if a person is poor: lack of effort on their own part, or difficult circumstances beyond their control?

The Washington Post and the Kaiser Family Foundation asked 1,686 American adults to answer that question — and found that religion is a significant predictor of how Americans perceive poverty.

Christians are much more likely than non-Christians to view poverty as the result of individual failings, especially white evangelical Christians.

“There’s a strong Christian impulse to understand poverty as deeply rooted in morality — often, as the Bible makes clear, in unwillingness to work, in bad financial decisions or in broken family structures,” said Albert Mohler, president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. “The Christian worldview is saying that all poverty is due to sin, though that doesn’t necessarily mean the sin of the person in poverty. In the Garden of Eden, there would have been no poverty. In a fallen world, there is poverty.”

In the poll, which was conducted from April 13 to May 1 and has a margin of sampling error of plus or minus 4 percentage points, 46 percent of all Christians said that a lack of effort is generally to blame for a person’s poverty, compared with 29 percent of all non-Christians. The gulf widens further among specific Christian groups: 53 percent of white evangelical Protestants blamed lack of effort while 41 percent blamed circumstances, and 50 percent of Catholics blamed lack of effort while 45 percent blamed circumstances. In contrast, by more than 2 to 1, Americans who are atheist, agnostic or have no particular affiliation said difficult circumstances are more to blame when a person is poor than lack of effort (65 percent to 31 percent).

Influence of politics

The question is, of course, not just an ethical one but a political one, and the partisan divide is sharp: Among Democrats, 26 percent blamed a lack of effort and 72 percent blamed circumstances. Among Republicans, 63 percent blamed lack of effort and 32 percent blamed circumstances.

A statistical analysis of the data showed that political partisanship is the most important factor in views on the causes of poverty, but religious identity stands out as one of several important demographic factors.

Theologians point to parts of the New Testament that shape Christians’ views on poverty, from the verse in Thessalonians that says, “The one who is unwilling to work shall not eat,” to Jesus’ exhortations to care for needy people including the sick and imprisoned, to the many interpretations of his statement quoted in Matthew, Mark and John, “The poor you will always have with you.”

Helen Rhee, a historian who studies wealth and poverty in Christianity, attributed Christians’ diverging viewpoint first to scripture and second to a theological divide in the early 20th century. At the same time that fundamentalists were splitting from modernists over whether Christians should accept Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution, an academic split emerged: premillennialists versus postmillennialists.

The premillennialists think that the “Second Coming of Christ” is nearing, and with it the elevation of believers to heaven and the terrible tribulations of nonbelievers on earth promised in the Book of Revelation. The postmillennialists interpret Revelation differently, and believe that humans will achieve a blessed era of peace on earth, after which Christ will return.

As conservative evangelicals embraced premillennialism and more liberal Christians turned toward postmillennialism, their approach toward the poor changed in accordance with their beliefs. The postmillennialists, who thought it was their responsibility to work toward a better epoch on earth, focused on dismantling harmful economic structures to create a more just world. The premillennialists, who thought the world might end imminently, wanted to save as many souls as possible to spare those individuals from the torment soon to come for nonbelievers.

To the premillennialists, Rhee said, “The world is already lost. Things are going to get worse and worse. . . . The betterment of society is very intangible. You don’t know whether it’s going to happen or not. It’s a very difficult thing to do. You’ve got to just focus on what is important – that is, salvation of the soul. That is, preach the gospel. Evangelism.”

Saving an individual’s soul by correcting his personal behavior will do him far more good than fixing an economic structure, if the world is about to end anyway, Rhee explained. “They are being compassionate.”

That thinking has influenced Christian culture to this day. Mohler, a conservative evangelical, said, “There’s a rightful Christian impulse to consider poverty a moral issue. . . . Evangelicals are absolutely right to look at the personal dimensions. No apology there.”

But he added that the sins that cause a person to be in poverty may be the sins of others, not of the person who is poor, and he said that conservative Christians need to acknowledge that more often. “I think conservative Christians often have a very inadequate understanding of the structural dimension of sin.”