Briefly Noted: On Poverty Alleviation and Faith-Based Initiatives

[Editor’s Note: This post originally appeared on December 30, 2013.]

In the 2013 issue of the Journal of the Society of Christian Ethics, Keri Day tackles an important question about the efficacy and propriety of Faith-Based Initiatives in the United States.[1] Faith-Based Initiatives are, by definition, government sponsored programs that provide resources to religious organizations for the express purpose of combatting poverty and other social ills. Day’s analysis of these programs is very skeptical, since she sees them as being framed within a neoliberal economic perspective. Neoliberal economics emphasize free market principles while still expressing a significant concern for issues of social justice. Instead, Day approaches poverty and social justice from a womanist perspective, which is a version of contextual theology that she describes as being a progression beyond black liberation theology and feminist theology.[2]

For Day, neoliberalism is incorrect because it “argues that merit, thrift, and hard work can bring socioeconomic success, which means that if one is poor, one must be indolent. In other words, poor individuals are the problem, not the system.”[3] This definition illustrates the greatest weakness of Day’s argument, which is that she does not fairly engage opposing ideas. Day’s representation of free market economics, such as those espoused by neoliberals, is a strawman. Notably, within the limited bibliography of her article, Day fails to engage with other scholars critical to her view.

This caricature of neoliberalism is essential for Day’s argument, since a major plank in her platform is to challenge “neoliberal hegemony” by “reconstituting history from the underside of life so that we may hear, see, and appreciate the voices of the oppressed.”[4] Day argues that there has been a fundamental shift in American views on poverty from colonial days until the present. She asserts that free market principles have shifted concern for poverty from a familial and community concern to one of “contrived and racist characteristics of the poor . . . . [T]his new paradigm located the problem of poverty in the lack of labor discipline, violations of work ethics, and lack of family discipline.”[5] This is contrasted to the modern “welfare state” which views poverty as a national, political problem.

Day’s chief objection to Faith-Based Initiatives is that they seek to reform people in order to combat poverty. She asserts, “In fact, within the idea of charitable choice and faith-based initiatives, poor mothers tend to be generally represented as a kind of moral recovery project for the state as well as churches.”[6] Day is reacting negatively to the perception that there is a connection between the type of behavior that often leads to single motherhood due to children born out of wedlock and poverty. So viewing sin as a problem that must be dealt with in combatting poverty, which is an evidence of sin in the world, is anathema to Day.

Day’s proposed solution is changes in societal structures that involve increasing the minimum wage and creating more child care and health care programs.[7] This is because Day believes the government is responsible for caring for the daily physical needs of Americans.[8] Day’s views claim to affirm justice and a right view of the imago Dei, but they tend to undermine it because of an improper understanding of sin and the role of government.

In response to Day’s article, I limit myself to three comments. First, Day is certainly right to argue that individual sin cannot fully explain all societal poverty. She is correct to assert that concern for structural justice is central to Christian theology and ethics. On the other hand, Day’s rejection of the role of individual sin in perpetuating unhealthy lifestyles and an over emphasis on the role of government in caring for the physical needs of people brings into question the basis for, if not the fact of, her rejection of Faith-Based Initiatives. In the end, the question of the effectiveness and propriety of Faith-Based Initiatives in American society needs further evaluation, but the solution will not be found through Day’s womanist theology.

Second, I recommend Marvin Olasky’s book, The Tragedy of American Compassion,[9] as a helpful counterpoint to Day’s perspective. Olasky outlines the evolution of the American approach to poverty alleviation, arguing that the sort of high level approach that Day advocates is largely ineffective and, at the same time, tends to denigrate the imago Dei. While Olasky’s work should be read critically, his presentation should be at least considered.

Third, I wish to point out that American evangelicals need to work together to build healthy biblically-based models for understanding the roles of the government, the individual and mediating structures in alleviating poverty. We should ask questions such as: what is God’s creational design for government? How should government relate to other beings (individuals) and institutions (family, church, business), especially when it comes to alleviating poverty? When does the government wrongly overextend its God-intended authority such that the state is overinflated or tramples on the jurisdiction of other institutions? When is the government neglecting its role by overinflating the role of the individual? What should be the role of the institutions which mediate between the individual and the government (e.g. non-profit organizations, churches, charities)? Many of the questions that arise will not be answered by any sort of biblical proof-text, but instead must be answered by going beyond explicit biblical statements in order to explore larger patterns within the biblical narrative. In other words, we need creative, biblically-based proposals for promoting human flourishing in a 21st century Western democratic republic.

[1] Keri Day is an assistant professor of theological and social ethics and director of the Black Church Studies program at Brite Divinity School at TCU.

[2] Keri Day, “Saving Black America? A Womanist Analysis of Faith-Based Initiatives,” Journal of the Society of Christian Ethics, 33.1 (2013), 65–66.

[3] Ibid., 66.

[4] Ibid., 67.

[5] Ibid., 69.

[6] Ibid., 75.

[7] Ibid., 78.

[8] Ibid., 74.

[9] Marvin Olasky, The Tragedy of American Compassion, (2nd ed.; Wheaton, Ill.: Crossway, 2008).

Briefly Noted: On the Ethics of Anonymous Sperm Donation

Not that I watch Vince Vaughn movies. But, Delivery Man, starring Vaughn and released last fall, tells the story of an anonymous sperm donor who had “fathered” over 500 children. The premise of the movie is that the anonymous donor’s children are suing to find his identity. It is billed as comedy with a theme of redemption as the hapless Vaughn chooses to take responsibility for his many children and begins to meet them. The movie is intended to be humorous, but it brings to light an important ethical question which perhaps has not been adequately considered by the evangelical church.

Writers such as Leslie Fain have begun to address the ethics of sperm donation.[1] Fain’s recent article raises questions about the nature of human reproduction and the role of technology in relation to it. She wonders whether this is yet another area where technological advances are not yet accompanied by adequate ethical evaluation.

Another writer, Jennifer Bleyer, recounts the story of a serial sperm donor who has “ . . . handed over his sperm to 85 women and now has 24 donor children, with five more on the way.”[2] According to Bleyer, this donor spends up to 3 hours a day corresponding with potential recipients, even offering the convenience of curb side pickup. “Prior conversations with the recipient have assured him that, should the transaction fully succeed, the resulting child is free to inquire about him or meet him when ready, but there’s no expectation of a relationship or regular contact.”[3]

More common than personal, individual donation is the process of anonymous donation through sperm banks. Bleyer notes there is a “ . . . relative lack of oversight with which sperm banks operate. . . . Some banks are suspected of knowingly creating dozens and even hundreds of offspring of a single donor.”[4]

The current trend is a push toward eliminating anonymity among donors. However, as Bleyer notes, “Many former donors do not want to be tracked down—they were broke college kids when they handed over their semen for $35 or so a cup and are now grown men with their own children.”[5] Fain records one former donor’s comments: “Some [donors] are quite frightened at the prospect of contact [with their children], some have not told their families.”[6] So there is a sense of shame, or at least discomfort, among some former donors.

What is the real ethical concern? On the surface, it appears that these sperm donors, anonymous or known, are doing a moral good by providing a means for infertile couples to conceive and bear children. This satisfies a utilitarian approach to human reproduction, but fails to consider the larger moral picture.

There are a number of ethical concerns with AID (artificial insemination by donor). One concern is that the means of obtaining donations often involves pornographic stimulation. Another concern is the commodification of humans.[7] AID often involves prospective customers sorting through catalogs that outline all of the vital statistics of the men: height, weight, hair color, blood type, education level, occupation, and ethnicity.[8] The ability to shop for the optimal genetic material for your prospective child seems strikingly superficial. Imagine the moral outrage if the measurable attributes of spouses were actively considered as the primary basis for selection.

A third concern is the fact that many children who are the products of anonymous AID are unaware of their family medical history. With anonymity, there is no way to ensure the dozens of children which may have been “fathered” by a donor might not be intermarrying. A fourth concern is the disorder which AID introduces into the notion of “family.” The donor is intentionally fathering a child with no intention of fulfilling his parental responsibilities.[9] The resulting family experiences a relational imbalance, with a child formed from genetic material from the mother and not the father. John Jefferson Davis notes that this can be a continued source of tension in these composite families.[10]

A fifth concern is the continued cost to the psychological well-being of the resultant child. This concern surfaces in the testimonies of many donor-fathered children, such as Colton Wooten whose account in the NY Times Opinion section in 2011 records the difficulties he faced growing up disconnected from his genetic father.[11] But shouldn’t Colton be glad just to be alive? Alana Newman notes, “We’ve created a class of people who are manufactured, and treat them as less-than-fully human” by denying them knowledge of their parentage and expecting them to be grateful for mere existence.[12]

So, for what it’s worth, on AID and other issues related to technological developments, the church and its leaders need work hard to sustain a pace of ethical reflection which is not outstripped by the pace of technological research and development. Even some Hollywood screenwriters have recognized this truth and have made it the major theme of movies such as Terminator. Not that I watch Arnold Schwarzenegger movies.

[1] Leslie Fain, “Sperm Donation in the Wild, Wild West,” The Human Life Review, 39 no 4: 88–100.

[2] Jennifer Bleyer, “A Conception Conundrum,” Psychology Today, November/December 2013: 81.

[3] Bleyer, 81.

[4] Bleyer, 82.

[5] Bleyer, 86.

[6] Fain, 97.

[7] See the article in the Chronicle of Higher Education about the ethics of the donation process: Don Troop, “The Student Body, FOR SALE,” Chronicle of Higher Education 59, no. 24, February 22, 2013: A16–A19.

[8] For instance, see this information about the Family Funny Man, Donor #13108:

[9] Fain, 90.

[10] John Jefferson Davis, Evangelical Ethics, 3rd ed.  (Phillipsburg, N. J.: P&R, 2004), 72–80.

[11] Colton Wooten, “A Father’s Day Plea to Sperm Donors,” New York Times, June 18, 2011. [Accessed online, 2/17/14]

[12] Alana Newman, “What are the Rights of Donor-Conceived People” Human Life Review, 39 no. 4: 121.

Briefly Noted: David Jones’ “An Introduction to Biblical Ethics”

Jones_EthicsIn case you missed it, Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary is an emerging and burgeoning epistolary powerhouse, with David W. Jones’ An Introduction to Biblical Ethics as one recent and exemplary instance. Jones, Associate Professor of Christian Ethics at SEBTS, also is the author of Reforming the Morality of Usury and co-author of Health, Wealth & Happiness, God, Marriage, and Family, and Marriage and the Family.

In An Introduction to Biblical Ethics, which hit the bookstore shelves this week, Jones provides a concise and elegant introduction to ethical reasoning based upon Christian Scripture. His is the latest contribution to the B&H Studies in Christian Ethics series, which is edited by Southeastern’s own Daniel Heimbach.

The book provides an overview of ethical methodologies and explains Jones’ ethical approach that considers three aspects of every moral event: conduct, character and goals. He then moves into chapters that explain the nature, relevancy, coherency, structure, and source of the moral standards revealed to man by God through the Bible. Jones also includes an exposition of the Decalogue broken down into the two tables of the law, showing the continuity of the moral law through history and its applicability for contemporary ethics. The book includes helpful chapter summaries and a glossary, features that are lacking in many other introductory textbooks.

As an introductory text, this book is outstanding. David Jones is a careful researcher and an engaging writer. Whether one looks to refresh one’s knowledge of biblical ethics, to grow in one’s understanding of God’s Word and its importance in the Christian life, or to pursue academic studies in the field of Christian Ethics, this book will be an excellent addition to one’s library.

For those interested in academic studies in Christian Ethics, Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary offers an M.A. in Ethics, Theology and Culture and as well as an opportunity to focus on Christian Ethics while pursuing a Th.M. or Ph.D. in Theological Studies.