|Paul and Percival Goodman, Communitas|
Yes, yes, I’m as shocked as anyone else about the girlfriend thing (actually, I am MUCH MORE SHOCKED), but the surprises don’t stop there. The woman I’m seeing is a pastor’s kid. A double pastor’s kid: both of her parents are Methodist ministers. Although she had an upbringing in which religion thoroughly permeated her family life, she is now fairly indifferent where dogma and liturgy are concerned. (When asked if she still considers herself a practicing Christian, she says she identifies as "sort of Quaker.")
But her father isn't only a very actively practicing Christian and a pastor, he's a Biblical Christian (a term he prefers to "fundamentalist") -- one of those folks who believe that the Bible is the Literal Word of God; a “teach the controversy” kind of person. As you can imagine, father and daughter disagree on a lot.
But she loves her father. And it’s not just out of sentimentality, nostalgia, or filial obligation: her dad is gentle, affable, funny, and really very erudite. He's a hard guy to dislike. Though his beliefs might be questionable, he can mount an admirably articulate argument on their behalf. This unrelenting reasonableness of his puts an even greater onus on his daughter to evade any conversational paths that seem to be heading towards religion or politics. (It's one thing to argue with a dolt who defends his point by repeating his point; it's another to argue with an accomplished scholar who can capably defend his position from every conceivable siege.)
But it sometimes happens. When it does, both she and her father walk away mutually unpersuaded, and then she has go outside and run something like six or eight miles before the steam generated during the exchange has been satisfactorily vented. (I’ve suggested it would be easier to just smoke six or eight cigarettes, but she will not be convinced by me, either.)
But there’s that damn reasonableness of his. Sometimes she walks away from one of these talks and wonders if the Christian conservative doesn’t have a point.
She tells me that she and her father got to talking about the social safety net during his recent visit. It it his belief that federally-funded welfare programs are unconstitutional and should be done away with.
If you lean liberal, as I (and the lady) do, this one of those propositions that immediately reaches past everything and starts slapping at the buttons on your OUTRAGE console. Your first instinct might be to immediately argue yes of course it’s constitutional are you crazy, and then immediately pull up Wikipedia to teach yourself what you’re certain you already know about the Constitution of the United States of America.
Instead, she found it more constructive to ask: “well, who’s going to take care of the sick and poor, then?”
“The church,” was his answer.
He elaborated after some probing. He objects to federally-subsidized welfare on the conviction that aid to the needy should not come from a distant, thinly-spread government agency. His view is that aid for "orphans and widows" in the community should come from the community itself (ideally, a community propped up and bound together by the church). This scheme imagines that if somebody in the community is ill and can't afford healthcare, the community passes the hat around until there’s enough to cover the hospital bill. If someone’s house down the street is knocked over and trampled during a buffalo stampede, folks up and down the block pitch in and help him rebuild, while the collection plate goes back around. If an old woman in the community has nobody to care for her and too few resources to provide for herself, people from church volunteer to make sure she is cared for and comfortable. Families take care of families; families that can't care for themselves are cared for by the community until they are capable of sustaining themselves.
Your response to this might be something like come on, get real; that’s totally unreasonable and there’s no chance that would work. You’re probably right.
But doesn’t that suck, though?
We’re admitting to living in a society where it is generally acknowledged that people cannot be counted on to care for each other. Not to generalize, but most of us probably don't even really know our neighbors, much less share with them a relationship of mutual responsibility for each other's well-being. Am I off-base for thinking it's a little perverse that a family in need can more reliably expect a helping hand from a government agency than from people on their own street?
I'm not saying I'd be thrilled about an immediate wholesale dismantling of federally-funded welfare programs. There are people who need help, and they might not get it any other way. But it's a system that isn't hard to game and abuse -- and even worse, it's predicated on the idea that it's just enough to toss money at a problem. A check in the mail helps buy food and keep a roof over the head of a man without a job, but it doesn't do much in the way of helping or encouraging him to take proactive action toward getting back on his feet, or giving him the support he might need to stay on his feet.
"Help from the neighbors" might not have the same instant appeal as "money in the mail." But what might aid from the community actually amount to? Say you've just been laid off. Imagine if, instead of only receiving a monthly check, you could count on your neighbors to invite you to share their meals and offer you rides. Imagine if you could expect everyone on your street to keep you in mind, to be on the lookout for for leads on your behalf, or to offer to pay you for any odd jobs that need to be done around their households in the meantime. Imagine if you could count on somebody in the neighborhood to take care of your kids while you go out for job interviews.
One of the presumptions of a welfare check is that a person can't count on such things, and will need money to pay for them.
In middle-class America, we only see this sort of community spirit when a hurricane rips through the town or a bomb goes off. Why should we only feel responsible for each other after a disaster strikes?
Again: I'm not suggesting that the government should have no role whatsoever in providing financial help to those who need it. But I can't help wondering if the sustained dissolution of communitas (I'm apt to place the blame for this on capitalism, but that's another conversation altogether) hasn't created a vacuum that bureaucratic coin-tossing can't reasonably be expected to fill. And I much prefer the minister's vision of a communal safety net of shared responsibility, and I wish our society was one in which such a thing were feasible.