Fr. Peter-Michael Preble: A Christian Response to the Ongoing Enslavement of America’s Poor

Source: Huffington Post | Fr. Peter-Michael Preble

Yesterday, President Obama signed a law that will raise the debt ceiling and continue to enslave the American people for another three or four years. It has reduced the national debit some but it seems to me at least that it has not gone far enough. Just so you know, your share of the national debit is about $42,500. It seems to me that the era of Big Government needs to end.

I am what one would call a “classical liberal.” Now, before you go crazy because I use the word liberal, please read on. I think you will be surprised.

Classical liberalism developed in the 19th Century in Western Europe and the Americas and is a political philosophy committed to the ideal of limited government, liberty of individuals including freedom of religion, speech, press, assembly and free markets. The sovereignty of individual private property rights is essential to individual freedom. The philosophy believes in an unfettered market with a very minimal role of government. In other words, small federal government, small state government, with decisions being made at the local level where the people have a direct voice in determining what is best for their community.

The 18th Century Scottish Philosopher Adam Smith believed that government (and by this I think he meant federal or national government) has only three functions:

  1. Protection of the population from foreign invaders
  2. Protection of citizens from wrongs committed against them by other citizens
  3. Building and maintaining public institutions and public works that the private sector could not profitably provide (roads, bridges, harbors, canals, railways, postal and other communication services)

Classical liberalism places emphasis on the sovereignty of the individual again with private property rights being essential to individual freedom. Classical liberals believe that individual rights are natural, inherent, inalienable and exist independently of the government. This is what Thomas Jefferson called the inalienable rights in the Declaration of Independence. Unlike social liberals, classical liberals are “hostile to the welfare state.” They do not have an interest in material equality but only in “equality before the law” (Alan Ryan, “Liberalism,” in “A Companion to Contemporary Political Philosophy”). Classical liberalism is critical of social liberalism and takes offense at group rights being pursued at the expense of individual rights.

I have written before that I believe the church is the social institution that should deal with the social ills of society. In the time of St. Basil the Great the Church was responsible for education and health care. The church has a long history of providing for those in need. When Jesus fed the 5,000, he did not turn to Caesar and say, “Hey, give me a grant so I can feed these people.” No, He just made it happen. In the Books of Acts, when the widows were being neglected, the church ordained deacons to care for them and they took up collections to support the work, not from the Roman government but from believers.

During the debate on the debt ceiling a group of very well meaning Christian leaders from across the religious spectrum, led by Jim Wallis of Sojourners, lobbied the President and leaders in Congress to pass a law that would protect the welfare state. They posit that there is biblical evidence that the government needs to care for the poor no matter what the consequences. As a classical liberal (and yes, as a Christian), I disagree whole heartedly with the aims of this group and I would submit that they do not speak for the majority of Christians in this country.

Recently, thanks to my friend Fr. Hans Jacobse, I have come to learn of another group of Christians that have come together to counter that argument of these so called “progressive Christians.” The group is called, “Christians for a Sustainable Economy,” and in their letter to President Obama they have this to say:

We believe the poor of this generation and generations to come are best served by policies that promote economic freedom and growth, that encourage productivity and creativity in every able person, and that wisely steward our common resources for generations to come. All Americans — especially the poor — are best served by sustainable economic policies for a free and flourishing society. When creativity and entrepreneurship are rewarded, the yield is an increase of productivity and generosity.

I submit that the present government programs do nothing but enslave the poor of this country to the programs and do nothing to break the cycle of poverty in this country. There is a growing gap between the haves and the have nots, and economic freedom is out of the reach of many, many people. I am not saying that we need to end all social programs. That would be cruel and unfair to those who really do need the social safety net. But we need to plan for the end game. It seems to me that the government is very good at starting things — welfare, unemployment, wars — but is not very good at ending them. Yes, we need a social safety net, but it needs to be just that — a safety net and not a lifestyle.

There is ample biblical evidence for the church aiding the poor. In fact, it is one of the mandates that Jesus left us to love our neighbor. And there is ample biblical evidence of the church “teaching a man to fish.” It is time that the church and her people get off the sidelines and get into the game.

Please consider reading the articles on the website of Christians for a Sustainable Economy and if so moved add your signature to the letter to the President. I was honored to add my name to the list of American Christians that care about the poor and care about our country. Won’t you too be one of them?


  1. I also refer to my political philosophy in this manner, which confuses many liberals because they are often poorly educated in history, philosophy, politics and ethics.

    A concise and clear article – well done, Fr. Peter. Once again, you demonstrate your clear vision and depth in the Orthodox Christian moral tradition!

    • Dn Brian Patrick Mitchell :

      But are you a classical liberal of the left or a classical liberal of the right?

      That’s the problem with “classical liberalism”: It doesn’t really get at the main differences between people, and so it lumps together people who are in fact poles apart. Look at the wikipedia article: Most of those named as “classical liberals” were not particularly Christian; many were in fact very anti-Christian.

      Only rather recently (last 50 years) have anti-government conservatives in America taken the name, but it really doesn’t fit them. Politics is not all about the individual, and if our own tradition means anything, governments do have other responsibilities that those named by Adam Smith.

      • Classical Liberalism is just that Classical Liberalism it does not come from the left or from the right. That is a modern political distinction.

        • Dn. Brian Patrick Mitchell :

          Actually, both are modern phenomena, but the distinction of left and right preceded the use of the term “liberal” by two decades. Left and right originated in the early days of the French Revolution, whereas the label “liberal” was first applied in Spain in 1810 to a party of the left opposed to absolute monarchy.

          The term “classical liberalism” is a 20th-century invention meant to distinguish earlier forms of liberalism from the “new liberalism” of the late 19th century, but this “new liberalism” arose out of liberalism’s earlier forms. John Stuart Mill laid the groundwork for it, and was opposed by more conservative “liberals” like Fitzjames Stephens.

          What people call “classical liberalism” was quite diverse and in many ways contradictory. About the only thing uniting early “classical liberals” was opposition to the innovation of absolute monarchy, but some supposed liberals like Edmund Burke (grandfather of Britain’s Conservative Party) opposed it on conservative grounds (constitutional tradition, Christian subsidiarity) while others opposed it on progressive grounds (natural rights, equality, consent of the governed). I discuss the differences among the opponents of absolute monarchy (and plutocratic nationalism) in my book Eight Ways to Run the Country.

          Sorry to complicate things, but reality is often more complicated than we would like.

          • Classical Liberal of the Austrian school, which presuposes a strong local Church and understands that none of this (liberty) works without a moral fabric (the family) that doesn’t originate from the State.


            • Dn Brian Patrick Mitchell :

              The question is, would classical liberals of the Austrian school support the state’s use of force to support the local Church and enforce public morality? This was a major no-no for many if not most 19th-century liberals; it’s still verboten among many self-styled “classical liberals” and most avowed libertarians, including those I know of the Austrian school; and it isn’t included within the limits set by Adam Smith and endorsed by Fr. Peter above. Yet it is the Orthodox tradition.

              • Now, why would the state have to enforce the local Church? I never got this argument, because it’s really not an argument. If anything, the Church silently, enforces the State. And at a local level, if a particual State wanted to set up a theocracy, then the STATE had no say in the matter. In fact, many of the smaller colonies/states early on where. And Jefferson, who was anything but a Christian disagreed with them but did absolutely nothing to stop them from doing so.

                Dn. Brian, don’t let a few “anarchists” in the midst of Classical Liberalism let you think that they actually have a voice in defining what that ideology really is.

                • Dn Brian Patrick Mitchell :

                  Pardon me, Macedonia74, but I’m having trouble making sense of what you’ve said, and it doesn’t appear that you’ve understood what I’ve said. I said “support the local Church and enforce public morality”; you’ve turned that into “enforce the local Church” and “set up a theocracy,” as if (a) any cooperation between church and state constitutes a theocracy, and (b) such theocracy is presumptively bad. How very American. How very progressive.

                  Try this:

                  In On Liberty, John Stuart Mill writes that a person’s “own good, either physical or moral, is not a sufficient warrant” for the state’s use of force against him, and that personal welfare and private morals should be governed solely by social suasion and censure, rather than by political coercion. This is consistent with Adam Smith’s three principles endorsed Fr. Peter and many other “classical liberals” and libertarians. By that rule, the state cannot ban pornography, prostitution, gambling, or a host of other vices. The state cannot even ban gladitorial games as long as the gladiators are free participants.

                  Now, why should such things be off limits to the state? Why should we draw the line where Mill draws it? That’s the question James Fitzjames Stephen asks in Liberty, Equality, Fraternity. Stephen was himself a “classical liberal.” He even stood for Parliament as a candidate of the Liberal Party. But his book was written against Mill’s On Liberty and in defense of state support for religion and morality, which Mill would not allow.

                  Thus my question for Fr. John and Fr. Peter was, which kind of “classical liberal” are you, Mill’s kind or Stephen’s kind? Progressive or conservative? The former is more common; the latter is more Orthodox.

  2. Excellent article Fr. Peter! Thanks for making this public statement and adding your voice in support of freedom, liberty, common sense, and true Christian and Constitutional principles. We’re living in troubled times and all of us must bear witness to the truth and take a stand.

  3. The liberal vision of government is easily understood and makes perfect sense if one acknowledges their misunderstanding and implied assumptions about the sources of income. Their vision helps explain the language they use and policies they support, such as income redistribution and calls for the rich to give something back.

    Suppose the true source of income was a gigantic pile of money meant to be shared equally amongst Americans. The reason some people have more money than others is because they got to the pile first and greedily took an unfair share. That being the case, justice requires that the rich give something back, and if they won’t do so voluntarily, Congress should confiscate their ill-gotten gains and return them to their rightful owners.


    The sane among us recognize that in a free society, income is neither taken nor distributed; for the most part, it is earned.


    Say I mow your lawn. For doing so, you pay me $20. I go to my grocer and demand, “Give me 2 pounds of steak and a six-pack of beer that my fellow man produced.” In effect, the grocer asks, “Williams, you’re asking your fellow man to serve you. Did you serve him?” I reply, “Yes.” The grocer says, “Prove it.”

    That’s when I pull out the $20 I earned from serving my fellow man. We can think of that $20 as “certificates of performance.” They stand as proof that I served my fellow man. It would be no different if I were an orthopedic doctor, with a large clientele, earning $500,000 per year by serving my fellow man.

    By the way, having mowed my fellow man’s lawn or set his fractured fibula, what else do I owe him or anyone else? What’s the case for being forced to give anything back? If one wishes to be charitable, that’s an entirely different matter.

    Contrast the morality of having to serve one’s fellow man in order to have a claim on what he produces with congressional handouts. In effect, Congress says, “You don’t have to serve your fellow man in order to have a claim on what he produces. We’ll take what he produces and give it to you. Just vote for me.”

    Who should give back? Sam Walton founded Wal-Mart, Bill Gates founded Microsoft, Steve Jobs founded Apple Computer. Which one of these billionaires acquired their wealth by coercing us to purchase their product? Which has taken the property of anyone?

    Each of these examples, and thousands more, is a person who served his fellow men by producing products and services that made life easier. What else do they owe? They’ve already given.

    If anyone is obliged to give something back, they are the thieves and recipients of legalized theft, namely people who’ve used Congress, including America’s corporate welfare queens, to live at the expense of others. When a nation vilifies the productive and makes mascots of the unproductive, it doesn’t bode well for its future.

  4. Milton Friedman gets it right on our responsibility to the poor:

  5. cynthia curran :

    Well, as some like Ron Paul would point out a lot of modern American Conservatives that see themselves as classical liberals tend to give corporate welfare. The biggest receiver is agriculture. Government kick backs for agriculture interested are nothing new. Procopius the famous 6th century Byzantine author mentions that big farm interest in his day had received grooms and horses government and made much profit. This is something he approved of. So, big Ag had received goodies from the government on and off for centuries.

  6. cynthia curran :

    Protecting from foreign invaders,well some modern US Conseratives may be undermining this since they insist on no tax increases. Ben Stein one of the few on the right thinks that maybe sometimes always going for the tax cut could hurt defense in the long term. Modern Liberals will prevent a big chunk being taken out of the two largest welfare programs since the population is aging social sercurity and medicare which leaves cuts in defense. People around here doubt cuts in defense since we now engaged in several fronts but an example out of history, Justin II was also engaged in several fronts and the military budget was cut then as well.

  7. Dean Calvert :

    Hi Everyone,

    Just bumped into this – it should be required reading for anyone discussing these issues.

    It is time for people to inform themselves (with some data) about what is really going on here. This is no longer a left vs right issue – it is becoming an issue of “people who can count” vs “those who can’t.”

    An uninformed, apathetic and ignorant electorate is the surest path to tyranny.

    Best Regards,

  8. cynthia curran :

    Well, Businessmen are not always good guys. Part of the poverty problem is that businessmen for years wanted to hire illegal immigrant labor for low skilled jobs since they were easier to train than teenagers or people just out of high school. And work like farm work was done by them for decades, migrant farm work usually being one of the lowest paid job categories in the US. States like California, Texas and Arizona and Nevada suffered since they were closed to the Mexican border and illegal immigrants mainly from Mexico but other places came through with low job skills and usually tended to have children and many of the children are on the free and reduce lunch programs. Poverty rates in the above mention states usually have grown in the past 30 years because of this. California was up to 1980 known as a low poverty state and please don’t just blame the Democratics for this since, Calif has low poverty rates among native born whites which shows its not democratic policies to blame for their poverty but a growth of low skilled workers who tend to be younger and have children.

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