Update: When I first posted this, my concluding paragraph did not get pasted into the edit window. I've corrected the omission.
A few weeks ago, John the Methodist linked to an essay titled The Liberal Temptation. John argued that the phenomenon discussed in that essay -- using state power to advance the church's agenda -- is a temptation of conservatives as well as liberals. He more accurately labeled it a statist temptation.
In the comments, Dan Trabue gave a lengthy defense of the idea that Christians should expect the state to help care for the poor -- and quoted several Bible verses to back his points.
I can understand both of their points of view, and to some extent I agree with both. There's no better indicator than that: John and Dan were actually discussing two different issues. I'll try to touch on both of them here.
First, the role of the state. The United States Constitution outlines the role of the national government and specifies its duties, one of which is "to promote the general welfare." Article I, Section 8 authorizes Congress to collect taxes for this purpose (among others).
So it would seem there should be no controversy there: If giving aid to people living in poverty promotes the general welfare (and I think it does), then the federal government has not just the right, but the duty to collect taxes for welfare programs.
Furthermore, through tax revenues the government has access to more resources than any individual or group could ever hope to collect. While most private charities do the best they can with the resources they have, the need is just too great. If we were to rely solely on voluntary charitable giving, a lot more people would fall into poverty.
The second issue here is the mandate Jesus gave to Christians to take care of those in need. Our salvation depends on it, according to Matthew 25:31-46.
But, as John points out in his post:
Compulsion is the enemy of evangelism, for there is no true conversion or sanctification unless is is uncoerced. Forced virtue, Left or Right, is no virtue at all.
If Congress votes to use our taxes -- everyone's taxes -- to fund a program to help the poor, we haven't fulfilled Jesus' mandate. Christian giving isn't simply a matter of helping those in need: It's also a matter of giving up our own desires and truly loving our neighbors as we love ourselves. If we give nothing more than what is automatically withdrawn from our paychecks, we are not really giving of ourselves.
Legislation of morality never works: The Volstead Act of 1919, which outlawed the sale of alcohol in the United States, did not eliminate the drinking of alcohol -- it merely created a new class of criminals.
Neither the right nor the left seem to be immune to the statist temptation: Just as we can't make people righteous by passing laws against abortion or homosexuality, we can't make people righteous by donating their money for them through tax laws. Laws may change a person's outward behavior -- or at least a person's public behavior --- but they cannot change people's hearts.
So I am left with two seemingly contradictory beliefs: Without the resources that only the state can muster, we can't hope to take care of all the people in need... but giving by proxy through taxes is not true charity.
But these are not mutually exclusive. It's not impossible to give to private charities and pay our taxes. It's no sin to expect our government to be responsive to the needs of its citizens. It's also no sin to give of ourselves to take care of our brothers and sisters.