One lawmaker with a strong interest in revamping our approach to helping the poor is Sen. Paul Simon, Democrat from Illinois. Earlier this year, his book Putting America Back to Work was released, and in March he introduced legislation that outlines a Guaranteed Job Opportunity Program to help the unemployed without putting them on welfare. Simon, a five-term member of Congress and the son of a Lutheran minister, recently talked with CHRISTIANITY TODAY about the theological roots of his concerns.

As a Christian, is your public service concern for the poor different from that of a politician who addresses these issues from a secular perspective?

My parents gave me a scriptural base for my concern. My father took Matthew 25 very seriously—“I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink.” I can’t say that my perspective is dramatically different from someone of the Jewish faith who hears, in Isaiah and Amos, the same admonitions to be concerned about the poor.

The churches used to talk about the “worthy poor”—those who deserve to be helped. Then, in the sixties and seventies, God’s free grace was emphasized. Are we turning back to requiring people to deserve what they get? Is this theologically sound?

The concept of grace applies to the process of salvation rather than to our application of faith to life. It is proper to encourage people to work. But I don’t like the phrase “worthy poor.” That has a basically untheological premise to it. I don’t know that you can speak about worthy poor and unworthy poor any more than you can about worthy rich or unworthy rich.

Some people think that if we leave the poor alone, ...

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