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Taxpayer-funded social safety nets should be a non-partisan issue, but unfortunately that idea has split along partisan lines in the USA. The Republican resistance to social safety nets correlates with White Christian Nationalist beliefs, which are at odds with mainstream Christianity. 

The comments to a December 2022 post at BCC about tithing eventually touched on the topic of taxpayer-funded social safety nets. A commenter replied to the issue in a way I thought accurately summarized the Christian nationalist beliefs with a twist of LDS teachings added:

Third point: You wish for higher taxes to fund “social safety nets” so that the need for charity will be eliminated severely tramples on personal agency in trying to make charity compulsory. It is equally as evil to make charity compulsory as it is to make church attendance compulsory or the Word of Wisdom compulsory. Compulsory charity, as practiced in the modern welfare state, does not contribute to our progress in learning celestial living. No one gets “celestial credits” for anything done due to compulsion (such as paying taxes except, perhaps, for personal honestly in their computation), so burdening our customary lives by governmental action makes it that much more challenging to find acts of charity to perform. Furthermore, there is some character defect in wishing for the government to perform the duties that we should perform for ourselves. Wishing that the government should perform our charitable duties for us is similar to wishing that the government do our repenting for us, our gospel study for us, and all other celestializing activities for us. The biggest problem with this is that we cannot learn to be celestialized beings without actually going through the learning experiences and practice of the commandments ourselves (called “obedience” in the scriptures) any more than one can become a concert musician or a champion athlete without the relevant practice.

The ideas in this comment are:

  1. The social safety net is a bad idea because it might interfere with the commenter’s opportunities to be charitable and thus qualify for celestial glory.
  2. A social safety net is compulsory charity and we should only have voluntary charity.
  3. A social safety net makes it harder to find opportunities to be charitable.
  4. There’s an implication that charity is enough to meet everyone’s needs – that if the government didn’t take care of the poor, individuals could step up and do it.

A recent survey conducted by the PRRI [fn 1] asked what Americans thought about the Bible’s injunction to care for the poor and then separated the survey results based on the respondent’s views of White Christian Nationalism. Two-thirds of WCNs believe that biblical obligations to the poor are more about charitable acts by individuals rather than the task of a just society. Americans as a whole are divided; 54% say biblical injunctions to care for the poor are about charitable acts by individuals, compared with 47% who believe they are primarily talking about our obligation to create a just society. See also the Salt Lake Tribune report on the survey

White Christian Nationalists generally believe that the laws of the United States should be based on Christian values, so many of the people opposing taxpayer-funded social safety nets oppose it based on their religious principles. In my opinion, this demonstrates the danger of basing laws that govern all of society on religious beliefs held only by a minority. (The PRRI survey estimated that only 10% of America’s population hold WCN beliefs and another 20% hold views that are sympathetic to WCN beliefs. This is just under one-third of the population. About 70% of Americans disagree with WCN beliefs.)

I am not a White Christian Nationalist and I don’t believe our laws should be based on Christian beliefs. I believe our laws should be based on secular and multi-cultural beliefs about the dignity and autonomy of every person. I also believe that the government has the ability and duty to spread resources to meet the basic needs of people who cannot meet their own needs. This isn’t charity; it’s just basic human decency and fairness. No, you don’t get “celestial credits” for supporting food stamps and homeless shelters because those are just basic decency, not anything extraordinary that qualifies you for the celestial kingdom. The idea that needs should be met by individual charity increases the suffering of the poor and needy and weakens American society. 

The Actual Needs of the Needy

The comment that I quoted above doesn’t focus at all on the needs of the needy. Instead, the comment is focused on the giver’s need to qualify for the Celestial Kingdom. It’s a selfish and self-centered view of the reason someone gives charity. Helping someone in need should be about meeting their needs, not about earning “celestial credits” for yourself.

The social safety net is designed for the big ticket items – food, housing and health care. The social safety net also helps with childcare and children’s education. Individual charity can’t meet those needs. Even if you want to, one person usually doesn’t have the financial resources or the time. That’s why non-governmental charities spend so much of their time soliciting donations and have to pay a salary to someone to run the charity. Caring for the poor and needy has to be a group effort if it’s going to be effective. Churches can run some charities, but even churches have limited resources and a limited area in which they can help.

I wish the survey could have asked White Christian Nationalists how much individual charity they were actually giving. Were they housing a homeless person? Were they feeding someone meals on a regular basis? Are they paying someone’s medical bills? The point is that most people don’t have the resources to meet someone else’s big-ticket basic needs. I’m not criticizing the BCC commenter for not being able to meet someone’s big-ticket basic needs, I’m criticizing the BCC commenter for arguing that the government shouldn’t use tax funds to do anything about those big-ticket basic needs.

Another advantage to social safety nets is they can be standardized and non-judgmental. Life can create some very tricky situations with complex emotional challenges that stand in the way of helping someone you know, especially when mental illness and trauma are involved. A general purpose shelter can be better at providing help because it doesn’t come with all the baggage of family relationships. 

Individual charity is a wonderful thing and I encourage everyone to do what they can. However, individual charitable efforts are typically small and limited by time and resources, which leads directly into the next point.

The Social Safety Net Does Not Interfere with Your Charity

Even if the government spends tax money on homeless shelters, transitional housing for the homeless, Medicaid, free preschool and food stamps, there is still plenty of opportunity for individual charity. Social safety net programs don’t usually help with temporary needs. If a family breadwinner lost their job, be their Secret Santa and drop off loads of Christmas gifts on their porch. If someone on food stamps has to have surgery, take in a meal. The fact that they have food stamps doesn’t mean that someone is there to cook for them while they recover from surgery. Offer to watch your neighbor’s children while she looks for a job, then when she finds a job, subsidized daycare can take over so you don’t have to provide full-time free childcare to your neighbor (unless you want to). Go volunteer at a school to help children practice reading.

Charity is a one-off, feel-good gift. That’s great. Go for it. I’ve certainly given charity. But I don’t want someone relying on me for their house payment, for their monthly food bill, or to pay for their doctor. I doubt there are many people out there who are rich enough and charitable enough to simply take over a poor person’s living expenses. If WCNs are doing this, I would like to hear about it.

The Independence and Dignity of the Needy

Being reliant on others is either humbling or humiliating, depending. Imagine needing to rely on the commenter who wrote the comment I quoted at the beginning of this post. Do you get the sense he sees needy-you as an equal? Or as a prop to help him on his way back to the celestial kingdom?

Government programs can be faceless and unfeeling, and sometimes that’s exactly what a needy person needs. Medicaid pays a medical bill without sending someone to lecture the sick person about how it’s their fault they’ve got a chronic illness and can’t work. Free preschool doesn’t come with a judgmental parent condemning a single mother for having gotten pregnant out of wedlock. A standardized government program can meet needs without judging the person who has those needs.

The idea that we should rely on our families for our basic needs is either wonderful or horrible, depending on your family. If you’re financially dependent on someone, they control you. Assuming families always want what’s best for you is terribly misguided. Imagine a father refusing to pay for his daughter’s mental health treatment because he believes she just needs to snap out of it. I know a woman who called her sister to ask for money to buy food for herself and her children until their next paycheck, and her sister responded with a lecture about money management and didn’t give her sister any money. What if a son tells his mother he won’t pay her heating bill unless she agrees to vote the way he wants her to vote?

A government-run social safety net has to be impartial. Family politics, especially when money is involved, can easily turn into oppression and manipulation. 

Receiving Charity

Have you ever been on the receiving end of someone’s Christlike charity? I have, and it’s a mixed blessing. You have to perform gratitude and joy so that the giver feels good about giving you help, because you know you’ll need more help later. You can’t criticize the help you received, or make suggestions about what you actually need. You know the charitable person is going to tell this story in a testimony meeting or a lesson at some point, and you hope you’re not there to hear it.

I remember one charitable gift – all of my children came home with new shoes from school. A store had donated new shoes to an elementary school in a low-income area and we got shoes even though no one asked if we needed shoes. The shoes had shoelaces, and were so cheaply made that they were obviously going to fall apart within a few weeks. My kids couldn’t tie shoelaces at the time, and I had learned that Walmart’s velcro shoes that cost $11 lasted longer than $35 shoes from a fancier shoe store, like the store making the donation.

The store got a tax write-off and a feel-good story reported in the media at Christmastime. We got three pairs of unusable and unneeded shoes. (I left them under the Christmas giving tree in the ward foyer and hoped someone who needed them would take them.)

Contrast the charity shoes to the social safety net of food stamps. Food stamps can be used for a wide variety of food, so the poor person can get food their family will actually eat and that they actually need. We weren’t on food stamps, but we had friends who were. Food stamps (a social safety net thing) are better than charity for the needy person because you get what you actually need.

Another charitable thought that people frequently directed our way was to buy my children toys at Christmas. It was really sweet of them, and I appreciated the thought. I also gushed and thanked them profusely. Everyone wants to buy children toys at Christmastime. I counted one memorable Christmas in which we got 12 train sets with 17 trains (several sets of families each separately selected us for their charitable giving project for the season and everything was a surprise, meaning I couldn’t communicate our actual needs). Meanwhile, I struggled to buy diapers. My children were thrilled beyond belief. I would have been happier with 4 train sets and a case of diapers. 

Just after Hurricane Katrina, I was on the other end of charitable efforts to help the victims. Relief agencies were going to start flying some hurricane refugees to other areas of the country, and my city was going to get a planeful of people who had lost everything. I volunteered to help sort donated clothing. A department store had donated a literal ton of clothing – it filled three rooms. Donated brand-new clothing sounded great! We knew our city was getting single men. I assumed we’d be sorting jeans, tennis shoes, and knit shirts. Nope. The store donated what it couldn’t sell. I had never seen so much plus-size lingerie in my life; the store must have donated the excess for every store within three states. The clothing that wasn’t lycra and spandex undies was mostly women’s clothing in chiffon and gauze fabrics – the summer clearance items donated in November.

Charity isn’t always usable, and it isn’t always what you actually need. 

The other reason charity is hard on the receiver is because it’s unpredictable and subject to somebody’s need for a warm fuzzy feeling. It is stressful beyond belief to be financially struggling. A surprise charitable gift doesn’t do anything for that stress. What alleviates stress is knowing that you can buy food every month. The social safety net is predictable. The poor person knows they will get a certain amount in food stamps every month. The poor person knows they will get a housing voucher every month. The poor person knows their child can get free preschool services, and their other children get free school lunch. It’s stressful enough being poor and unemployed without having to grovel for someone’s charity.

The social safety net is designed to meet the poor’s real needs in a reliable way. It doesn’t always work, but it’s better than hoping your neighbor will include the receipt for the train set so you can return it and buy diapers instead.


There is nothing about a social safety net that prevents an individual from being charitable. You can earn all the “celestial credits” you need even if the social safety net helps people with food, housing and health care. Government laws and programs should be based on respect for all people, even those who can’t provide for their own needs. If that’s no longer a Christian value, then so be it. Secularism is much kinder to the poor and needy than White Christian Nationalism.


  1. Have you ever been on the receiving end of charity from an individual or church? What was it like?
  2. Have you ever needed a social safety net program like food stamps or a housing voucher? What was it like?
  3. Should the focus of charity be on meeting the actual needs of the needy person or on the giver’s “celestial credits”?
  4. Do you want individual generosity to be the only source of help for the poor and needy? Why or why not?

[fn 1] PRRI (Public Religion Research Institute) is a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization dedicated to conducting independent research at the intersection of religion, culture, and public policy. I came across the survey after reading the Salt Lake Tribune’s story reporting that LDS faithful are more likely to sympathize with white Christian nationalist beliefs than the general US population.