Give Me the Simple Life (Gwen Moritz Editor's Note)

by Gwen Moritz  on Monday, Aug. 4, 2014 12:00 am  

Mike Huckabee (Photo by Christopher Halloran / Shutterstock.com)

“If Christians would give a dime of each dollar in tithes to fund assistance to the needy, the government wouldn’t need to be a big charity.”

Lord, give me a simple life, the kind I see other people living.

The other day, Mike Huckabee — whom many of us remember as a pragmatic if rather showboaty governor — posted the words above on Facebook as part of a longer treatise on how Christians in the United States should consider the problem of children arriving on our Southern border from crime-ridden slums in Central America.

Instead of blurring the lines between church and state, as has been his practice in recent years (when he no longer had any governmental responsibilities and restraints), Huckabee suddenly drew a hard line between the two. Government’s job is to protect Americans, he wrote, while the church’s job is to provide for the poor and helpless.

Then he made his suggestion that a tenth of the tithes that Christians give would be enough to get government — in context, I assume he means our federal government — out of the charity business.

Setting aside the fact that Huckabee has not to my knowledge suggested that churches reduce other spending to the point that they would have that dime left to take over the “charity” role of the government, his math is a mess. A simplistic mess.

In “The Annual Report on Philanthropy” released last month, Giving USA reported that total charitable giving in the U.S. rose by 3.9 percent (1.5 percent when adjusted for inflation) in 2013, to a total of $335.2 billion. Religious organizations received the largest piece of that, but that was less than a third — $105.5 billion. (Down very slightly from 2012.)

If those religious organizations set aside 10 cents of every dollar, as Huckabee said, that would be about $10.5 billion a year — a big number, but nothing like the cost of the federal government’s social safety net. Food stamps alone cost $75 billion a year (after last year’s $5 billion cut).

Now, we could then debate whether the federal government is spending entirely too much on food stamps. Even if we reduced that figure by half, churches would then have to set aside 35 cents for every dollar received (not Huckabee’s dime) to replace those meals — and to make sure they somehow find all the hungry people legitimately in need, something even the government has not been able to do. (Hey, before cutting food stamps by half, would someone please run that idea by the folks at Wal-Mart corporate?)

Of course, if we paid less in taxes, Christians and other people of good will would have more money with which to be generous to the poor. And some would. But some would not. I know this because current tax policy already rewards charitable giving and mortgage interest with identical deductions, and yet I have never heard anyone talking about making bigger church contributions in order to save on taxes the way I’ve heard people justify paying an extra dollar in mortgage interest in order to reduce their tax bills by 35 cents. (Perhaps preachers didn’t market this as effectively as Realtors.)

In other words, Huckabee just pulled a number out of thin air to make a very complicated issue — our imperfect social safety net — sound simple. And a guy who spent a decade as governor of one of the poorest states in the country surely knows better.

The problem of illegal immigration — even before that army of scared, destitute minors was amassing on our border — was more complicated than just deport and build a wall. And Mike Huckabee used to know that, too. In fact, his well-documented compassion toward the children of undocumented immigrants living in Arkansas is one of the things that won’t play well with the hardline conservative “base” if he ever makes a serious run for the presidency.

 

 

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