Notre Dame Political Scientist Uncovers Link Between Theology, Government Assistance

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.

In two national surveys of more than 1,500 individuals and 1,000 congregations, as well as in-depth interviews with nearly 40 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. I wanted to find out why," Matthews said.

He learned scripture is the deciding factor.

Matthews said ministers, especially those who are more conservative and have more literal interpretations of the Bible, quote two verses in governing their gifts of aid: Matthew 25: 40, "Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me." And 1 Thessalonians 4: 11-12 ," And that ye study to be quiet, and to do your own business, and to work with your own hands, as we commanded you; That ye may walk honestly toward them that are without, and that ye may have lack of nothing."

"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."

The study is the basis for Matthews' third book, "Is Charity a Choice?: Protestant Evangelicals, Charitable Choice and the Feeding of the Poor," which he coauthored with Janet Lane.

"The book investigates whether charity is really a choice or if it is a command. Can you choose who you help? And is aid mandated by morals, by theology or by the government? The answer is complex," he said.

The Notre Dame faculty member also has penned "Obamagelicals: How the Right Turned Left" with Michele A. Gilbert and edited "Perspectives on the Legacy of George W. Bush" with Michael Grossman.

"Obamagelicals" analyzes factors that motivated younger, Caucasian Protestant evangelicals in the South to cross the traditional party lines of their older "religious right" parents to help elect President Barack Obama in 2008.

"Perspectives" is a compilation of opinions on the presidency of George W. Bush born of a collection of essays from various experts presented during a conference Matthews conducted with the Center for Public Service at the University of Mount Union. Matthews led the center and taught political science at Mount Union before joining Notre Dame in 2010.

He earned a doctorate in public policy from Kent State University, master's degrees in public administration and supervision and in adult education from the University of Kentucky (UK) and a bachelor's degree in education from the University of Florida. He has worked as an extension agent and grant writer for UK and North Carolina State University and as a high school teacher in Florida.


Matthews was selected to present these findings at the College's 2013 President's Lecture. With Jennifer Lanz, J.D., Notre Dame adjunct instructor in political science, he discussed "The Role Theological Beliefs Play in Feeding the Poor through Government Assistance Programs." Lanz presented some of the methods employed by ministers to use legal statutes to frame their willingness to help those in need.

E.g., 06/24/19
E.g., 06/24/19