Christians are more than twice as likely to blame a person’s poverty on lack of effort


Which is generally more often to blame if a person is poor: lack of effort on their own part or difficult circumstances beyond their control?

The Washington Post and the Kaiser Family Foundation asked 1,686 American adults to answer that question — and found that religion is a significant predictor of how Americans perceive poverty.

Christians, especially white evangelical Christians, are much more likely than non-Christians to view poverty as the result of individual failings.

“There’s a strong Christian impulse to understand poverty as deeply rooted in morality — often, as the Bible makes clear, an unwillingness to work, in bad financial decisions or in broken family structures,” said Albert Mohler, president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.

“The Christian worldview is saying that all poverty is due to sin, though that doesn’t necessarily mean the sin of the person in poverty. In the Garden of Eden, there would have been no poverty. In a fallen world, there is poverty.”

In the poll, conducted from April 13 to May 1 and has a margin of sampling error of plus or minus 4 percentage points, 46 percent of all Christians said that a lack of effort is generally to blame for a person’s poverty, compared with 29 percent of all non-Christians.

The gulf widens further among specific Christian groups: 53 percent of white evangelical Protestants blamed a lack of effort while 41 percent blamed circumstances, and 50 percent of Catholics blamed a lack of effort while 45 percent blamed circumstances.

In contrast, by more than 2 to 1, Americans who are atheist, agnostic or have no particular affiliation said difficult circumstances are more to blame when a person is poor than lack of effort (65 percent to 31 percent).

The question is, of course, not just an ethical one but a political one, and the partisan divide is sharp: Among Democrats, 26 percent blamed a lack of effort and 72 percent blamed circumstances.

Among Republicans, 63 percent blamed a lack of effort and 32 percent blamed circumstances. And race mattered, too: Just 32 percent of black Christians blamed a lack of effort, compared to 64 percent who blamed circumstances.

A statistical analysis of the data showed that political partisanship is the most important factor in views on the causes of poverty, but religious identity stands out as one of several important demographic factors.

Theologians point to passages in the New Testament that shape Christians’ views on poverty, from the verse in Thessalonians that says, “The one who is unwilling to work shall not eat,” to Jesus’ exhortations to care for needy people, including those who are sick and in prison, to the many interpretations of his statement quoted in Matthew, Mark and John, “The poor you will always have with you.”

Helen Rhee, a historian who studies wealth and poverty in Christianity, attributed Christians’ diverging viewpoint first to scripture and second to a theological divide in the early 20th century.

At the same time that fundamentalists were splitting from modernists over whether Christians should accept Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution, an academic split emerged: premillennialists vs. postmillennialists. Continue reading

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