Where Religion and
Public Values Meet:
Who Will Contest?
Brent B. Coffin
Justice as participation requires personal responsibility that is proportional to the privileges and resources of citizens. The privileged are proportionally obligated to assure that all citizens enjoy the distributive conditions of justice and to act preferentially with those who are being excluded from community life.
PARTNERSHIPS FOR SOCIAL WELFARE ARE IMPORTANT for all Americans; they are especially important for the poor. At stake is whether all persons and groups are able to flourish in good times and have security against severe hardship in bad times, and, even more urgently, whether the most vulnerable Americans share in the good times and survive the devastating consequences of hard times. This being the case, we would expect public debates about social welfare to address more than the social-safety net for those at the very bottom of society. Our debates should be about the more inclusive questions of poverty and wealth, the responsibility of the poor to help themselves and the obligation of the prosperous to help others, the safety net at the bottom of society and the range of economic inequality among fellow citizens who, with them, make up a single democratic society.
Unfortunately, such has not been the case. American public debates about social provision have been framed largely in terms of welfare reform. Unlike partnerships for social welfare, which are about all of us, welfare reform is about them. Its animating question is not how all American families are able to manage working, caring for children and elderly, and staying active in religious and civic communities. Welfare reform is driven by the question of what legislators will do about "the underclass"--those who have stopped playing by the rules and stopped achieving, presumably unlike the rest of us. We may thus wonder if those unfortunate and often misunderstood words of Jesus from the Gospel of St. Luke, the poor you will always have with you, have come to include the political corollary, so, too, the welfare reform debate.