My Problem with Tim Keller

I usually like to read a couple of books at one time, and I have found it to be a healthy practice.  It is, however, problematic when you find that reading multiple books allows you to procrastinate from reading one book in particular.  In my case, that particular book is always some Dostoyevsky novel.  Right now, it is The Devils.    At any rate, I do admit that such heavy stuff is hard reading for the dinner hour.  So last night I pulled Tim Keller’s The Reason for God off the shelf.  I got the book a year ago and already possessing a deep apprecation for Keller’s work, I thought it time to peruse the bestseller.

I only have one problem, and it is a simple one.  In fact, it may not even be a significant one.  Keller is focused on social justice, a worthy cause with an unfortunate name.  (Never mind that social justice was a term co-opted by the radical left in the late 1960s and 1970s).  Early in the book, Keller notes that Democrats have not been concerned enough about the social effects of loose morals and sexual autonomy.  True enough, as even some liberals have noted, Caitlin Flanagan among them.  He then says that Republicans have not been concerned enough with the plight of the poor.  It is at this point that I put my took on the table and bang my head against the wall.

This statement is simply not true.  Republicans, a great many of them are evangelicals, tend to give more to charity than Democrats.  To the extent that there is a secular Republican wing, I do not what kind of giving takes place, but for the coalescence of Republicans and evangelicals, giving tends to be quite high.  Keller is simply wrong to assert that Republicans have not shown enough concern.  What Republicans have done, though with increasingly fervor, unfortunately, is assert that state-based solutions (particularly those at the federal level) are bad for the economy, and would do very little to help the poor.  That is a far different thing from being indifferent to the suffering of the poor in America and around the world.

Keller goes on say that he looks for something of a “Christian third-way.”  The problem is that the third way always end up going towards one of the original ways.  That is because either you believe in a market run by the state or by the individual.  There is very little middle ground.  While we have all seen the excesses of the free market, the truth is that a market dictated by virtue (found chiefly in the Christian faith and tradition) is a market that works.  A market dictated solely by greed will implode of course, and Keller would do well the avoid thinking that somehow the government can do more to help the poor than can individual initiative.

Arthur Brooks, one of the leading researchers in charitable giving, notes that as people begin to see the government as a source for charity (which is a standard position of the American left), they tend to be less charitable themselves.  In a sense, it is hard to blame them, for if one’s taxes go up twelve percent, it is easy to reduce charitable giving by a comparable measure.  On the other hand, Christians are not let off the hook so easily, for we have a Biblical command to give as a response to Christ’s grace.  But here’s the rub: if Christians take that command and vote for a left-leaning, big-government style charity in the vein of Europe and Canada, what then of the non-believing public?  They are already far less likely to engage in charitable giving, and many would argue that the most innovative thinking about charity and aid comes from the grassroots, private sector.  If Christians lead the way for a welfare state, Christians might continue to give.  But it seems highly likely that there secular neighbors would not.

I respect Tim Keller like no other; his work for the Gospel is a marvel.  But he should know better from history and economics that what he argues here is a straw man of huge porportions.   He may be ministering in a city and to a country that is increasingly urbane and liberal, but he should not be so quick to buy into progressive preconceptions.  As he does, he may find a political situation more untenable than the one we already have.

For more on Arthur Brooks, see this piece.


One Response

  1. Something you point out in this post is, I think, even more important than the concerns over the consequences of “government charity” on amounts given to charity. Namely, that private charities are on the cutting edge of what works with charity. UN grain trucks aren’t a bad thing, but private micro-loans, to take one example, are much better at “teaching a man to fish,” so to speak.

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