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Notre Dame College Faculty to Discuss Theology, Government Assistance in 2013 Pr
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Notre Dame College Faculty Discuss Theology, Government Assistance in 2013 President’s Lecture

A Notre Dame College political scientist has discovered some religious congregations don’t take advantage of government assistance because they believe the Bible teaches them to take care of their own.

Ronald "Eric" Matthews Jr., Ph.D., assistant professor of history and political science, has studied Protestant evangelicals who say theology─and giving from their own personal coffers─trumps charitable choice, the public policy that allows churches to apply for federal grants to assist the poor.

Matthews, with Jennifer Lanz, J.D., adjunct instructor in political science, presented some of these findings during the 2013 President’s Lecture at the College. They discussed "The Role Theological Beliefs Play in Feeding the Poor through Government Assistance Programs" during the invitation-only event.

In two national surveys of more than 1,500 individuals and 1,000 congregations, as well as in-depth interviews with 36 evangelical ministers from Central Appalachia, Matthews found that poverty relief from many religious communities in the post-welfare era is more faith-based than federal-granted.

According to Matthews, congregation members give─and give generously─of their own money and not that of taxpayers. But they mainly share the wealth with those who partake in their home church services.

"Public policy allows for churches to apply for federal money to aid the poor, but many congregations don’t take advantage of the grants," Matthews said.

In the lecture, he and Lanz explained scripture is the reason why and discussed how these findings could affect welfare reform moving forward. Lanz also presented the methods employed by ministers to use legal statutes to frame their willingness to help those in need.

Matthews said ministers quote Bible verses in governing their gifts of aid, particularly passages that call for people to worship and work for what they receive and for churchgoers to assist members of their personal congregations─to gain their own religious rewards.

While this theology improves immediate congregations, it creates challenges for change in broader societies as well as public policy.

"Most ministers say we will help those who help themselves. For those who come to church and take of our spiritual bread, we will give them real bread," Matthews said. "But then as far as the poor in the community as a whole, those who don’t come to that church─where evangelicals are prominent─nothing changes."