Tithe and offering. Credit: Getty

July 18, 2018   4 mins

If the Bible is to be believed, God cares a lot about how people use money. In more than 2,000 verses, it teaches that we should use our resources to defend the poor and the oppressed, to give generously to those in need, and to invest wisely.

It also offers numerous warnings about God’s judgment on those who acquire wealth through immoral means, misuse their financial resources, or use their wealth to oppress, enslave, or abuse others. In fact, the Apostle Paul warns that “the love of money is the root of all evil” [1 Timothy 6:10] and Christ explains that “it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God” [Mark 10:25].

The American Church has been mostly silent on economic problems

Given these warnings, American clergy certainly have plenty to preach about.

In the United States, the historic gap between the ‘haves’ and the ‘have nots’ has recently grown much wider. According to the Pew Research Center, the wealth gap between the largely white, upper-income families and largely non-white, lower- and middle-class families grew after the Great Recession (2007-09) and is now at historic highs:

In 2016, the median wealth of white households was $171,000. That’s 10 times the wealth of black households ($17,100) – a larger gap than in 2007 – and eight times that of Hispanic households ($20,600), about the same gap as in 2007.

Additionally, big business executives in the ‘Age of Trump’ seem to be doing quite well. A new regulation requiring American corporations to publicly report executive-to-median-employee pay ratios revealed that the largest companies produced the worst income inequalities. Whereas small companies reported comparatively low median pay ratios and high median employee salaries, the largest corporations reported the opposite: employee salaries were low and the CEO-to-employee pay ratio was in excess of 250:1.

Rather than finding Trump’s predilection for opulence troubling, many of his religious advisers embrace a version of the ‘prosperity gospel’

Despite these concerns, the American Church has been mostly silent on economic problems, focusing instead on other social and cultural issues, such as racism, immigration, and criminal justice reform.

This lack of critique could be blamed, in part, on President Trump, who enjoys broad support from white Evangelicals. Rather than finding his predilection for opulence troubling, many of his religious advisers embrace a version of the ‘prosperity gospel’ that encourages Christians to seek out material blessings as a sign of God’s favour. One such adviser, Rodney Howard-Browne, pastor of The River at Tampa Bay, has a ministry dedicated to “raising up multi-millionaires and billionaires” for the purpose of funding its ministry programmes.

But, even among Evangelical leaders critical of President Trump, such as those who gathered at Wheaton College in April, discussions focused on systemic social ills, not economic inequalities.

This inattention could be due to a shared belief that American capitalism has done more good than harm. Akin to the aphorism that a “rising tide lifts all boats”, a free-market economy that rewards capital investors and incentivises entrepreneurial activity is thought to benefit everyone in society, not just corporate owners. Indeed, big businesses are among the largest job producers, resulting in steady, stable, and long-term growth.

Furthermore, some Christian scholars point out that this economic growth has caused domestic and international poverty rates to decline, life-expectancy rates to increase, and living conditions to substantially improve for all – not just those at the top. They argue that capitalism promotes moral behaviour by rewarding cooperation, honesty and integrity, and promotes human dignity by increasing opportunities for independence and self-reliance.

Many Judeo-Christian teachings also challenge the notion that the causes of poverty are exclusively the fault of systemic injustices. In Bible narratives, people are presumed to have full moral agency even in unfair, restrictive, and oppressive systems; therefore, no matter the circumstances, each person is obliged to work hard and live responsibly. The co-founder of Methodism, John Wesley, admonished the pious in his sermon, On the use of money, to “gain all you can” (without sinning, of course), “save all you can”, and “give all you can”, so that they might be found to be good stewards of God’s resources.

Accordingly, most churches address poverty issues by helping individual parishioners rather than attacking the capitalist system. Many such as Financial Peace University, offer programmes to help people save and spend responsibly. Larger congregations also have coordinated assistance programmes to provide food, financial grants, and other funds to church families in need.

Nevertheless, some church leaders have acknowledged that these efforts may not be enough. Government programmes for senior citizens, the disabled, the unemployed and the working poor are necessary even with charitable aid. Others have addressed systemic economic inequalities more directly. Sojourners, a Christian social justice advocacy organisation, has long lobbied for federal policies to better support those living in poverty.

More recently, its leaders have begun urging business executives to advance the common good, not just maximise profits. The National Latino Evangelical Coalition advocates for a federal living wage to help low-income workers. Even the more conservative-leaning National Association of Evangelicals has recently urged lawmakers to tackle the problem of ballooning national debt, so that government programmes for the poor remain solvent.

When united, the American Church can be a powerful prophetic voice for change, heard at the highest levels of government

Additionally, an ecumenical ‘Circle of Protection‘ has galvanised support for policies that tackle hunger and poverty, and expressed opposition to the recent federal tax reform bill because it effectively eliminated incentives for charitable giving, which, in turn, will probably hurt the poor.

When united, the American Church can be a powerful prophetic voice for change, heard at the highest levels of government. It helped to end the slave trade, usher in the Civil Rights era, and end abusive labour practices during the Industrial Revolution. We saw the unified Church in action most recently when congregations called upon the Trump administration to stop its vile practice of separating immigrant parents and children at the border. Within days, the President signed an executive order to end the practice.

Economic inequalities may have to grow far worse before political solutions become more palatable

But when it comes to market distortions, many churchgoers are reluctant to support government solutions because they perceive regulatory oversight to be an encroachment on freedom in general. Therefore, economic inequalities may have to grow far worse before political solutions become more palatable. Then, and perhaps only then, we will see a united Church overcoming denominational, cultural, and partisan differences to mobilise members on behalf of the poor.

Jennifer E. Walsh is Dean of the College of Liberal Sciences and Professor of Political Science at Azusa Pacific University in Southern California.