Why do US evangelicals think poor people are lazy – and what does the Bible really say?


A new report in the Washington Post says the majority of evangelicals think that poverty is down to a lack of effort on behalf of an individual. The research shows, 'Christians, especially white evangelical Christians, are much more likely than non-Christians to view poverty as the result of individual failings.'

The piece goes on to explain various academics theories as to why this might be. Why, exactly, does white evangelical culture lend itself to this conclusion – that poverty, rather than being structural, or the fault of circumstances, is primarily the fault of the person in poverty themselves and their own fecklessness?

The article highlights one of the key scriptures that explain this attitude. 2 Thessalonians 3:10 reads: 'For even when we were with you, we gave you this command: Anyone unwilling to work should not eat.'

I've heard this verse expounded by preachers who seem to take it as the basis of the entire evangelical analysis for poverty. At the extreme end of this theology we have the likes of megachurch pastor John Hagee who said a few years ago, 'Get your nasty self off the couch, and go get a job! America has rewarded laziness and we've called it welfare.' He then quotes the Thessalonians passage and claims it as 'God's position'.

While Hagee has thousands of people in his church following these teachings, he's also representative of a strand of conservative politics that intersects with evangelical Christianity. Rep Stephen Fincher (R, Tennessee) used this passage to justify cutting $4 billion from the food stamps programme, for example.

Let's leave aside the fact that the passage is being deliberately taken out of context (it's actually talking about those in the Church who gave up working because they were anticipating the imminent second coming). Even if it was written about people today, it's descriptive, not prescriptive. If you don't work, it's going to be difficult to eat.

There's a wider picture here, though. Some evangelicals in America seem to have a pathological hatred of the state and of welfare provision which makes those of us in the UK scratch our heads. What's going on here? I think there are three reasons that this happens.

First, America is the home of capitalism. In his classic work, sociologist Max Weber examined the 'Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism.' Nowhere is this symbiotic relationship between free enterprise and Protestant culture more evident than in America. But for all the creativity and entrepreneurialism this has generated, it has also fostered an overly simplistic understanding of how the world works.

The American dream supposes that anyone, if they work hard enough, can become whatever they want to be. It simply isn't true. We're all bound by structures and quirks of circumstance.

Second, American evangelicalism is overly individualistic. A (correct) emphasis on not relying on being born into a Christian family and making sure you are personally in a relationship with God, has tipped over into something else. American evangelicalism emphasises that personal relationship above all else.

Into this environment, is it any wonder that the structural causes of poverty are given short shrift? Hagee's injunction for people to get off their couch and look for work is, of course, correct. But the thought doesn't seem to occur to him that there may not be enough jobs to go around, or that without education and qualifications not all jobs are available to all people.

A final reason for the findings is more related to how we read the Bible.

The Thessalonians verse, taken in isolation and interpreted without any historical context, looks like it supports the stance taken by the majority of those surveyed. A so-called 'flat reading' of Scripture implies that every verse in the Bible is of equal importance, and that proof texts can simply be pulled out to support a political argument.

That isn't really how the Bible works, though. A flat reading just doesn't stand up to much scrutiny. Though Thessalonians is important for teaching us doctrine and practice, it isn't the final word. It needs to be seen in the context of the whole of Scripture – and indeed of Church teaching.

Jesus' interactions with vulnerable people seem to point in a different direction to those who suggest poverty is simply the fault of the person themselves. In probably the most famous passage in which he interacts with a vulnerable person, Jesus deals with the woman caught in adultery.

In this story, the religious leaders have condemned the women. According to the letter of the law, they are of course correct. But Jesus challenges them to examine their own hearts, and they drift away. Eventually he asks her, 'Where are your accusers? Didn't even one of them condemn you?' 'No, Lord,' she says – to which he responds, 'Neither do I. Go and sin no more.' 

On the surface this story isn't about the issue of poverty and work. But Jesus' actions here show his attitude. Firstly, those condemning her are sent away. In the words of another of his aphorisms, they're told to remove the log from their own eye before pointing out the speck in hers.

He then tells her to get on with her life – without saying she can just carry on as before. If laziness is to blame for someone's lack of work, then Jesus would say to them 'sin no more'. But before that, he has considered the structural inequality that has caused the person's situation.

A flat reading of the Bible just plucks out a text and applies it to the 21st century in America. We can't do theology like that – it doesn't work. People in poverty need to work, yes. But to close our eyes to the structural inequality in our economy isn't only ignorant – it's going against Jesus' example.

So, yes evangelicals are right that hard work is important in finding a way out of poverty. But to remove that from the Christian imperative to seek a just economy and dignity and opportunity for all is a short-sighted and ultimately wrong way to approach the issue.