Unfortunately, our current politicized culture causes many to look first to the government when they think about charitable giving and helping those in need. Politicians, activists, and even some religious leaders are quick to demand that the taxpayer shoulder the charitable role traditionally reserved for civil society and a compassionate citizenry.

Most North Carolinians are familiar with the Rev. William Barber. He’s infamous for incessantly sanctifying any government largesse as compassionate. Yet, the consequences of attempting to morph charity into a bureaucratic behemoth is not only bankrupting the nation but also creating a culture of entitlement bereft of gratitude. 

While many politicians constantly clamor about taking your money to pay off the debts of others, private charities are heavily active in this space now. Jordan Roberts of the John Locke Foundation has highlighted and assisted the growing trend of private organizations addressing crippling health care costs through medical debt forgiveness. Some of those expenses are magnified by a complex regulatory state or a lack of price transparency for medical services. “Researchers analyzed claims from a large commercial insurer and found that among 347,356 patients who were treated by an in-network surgeon at an in-network, 20.5% of episodes had an unexpected out-of-network bill,” writes Roberts.

Capitol Hill Lutheran Church in Des Moines, Iowa, just announced the forgiveness of $5 million in medical debt as part of an Advent campaign. Church leaders conclude their message by offering a commitment to continue the fundraising initiative. 

Financial radio figure Dave Ramsey and his organization Ramsey Solutions recently paid off $10 million in debt for 8,000 people, including a large chunk of medical debt. A simple Google search of Christian churches and medical debt provides a lengthy list of articles detailing aggressive campaigns to pay off medical debts in the amounts of millions.

The reason? To model the message of Christmas, which embodies the kind of love that can only be voluntarily received. “Long before there was a government welfare program, this spirit of voluntary giving was ingrained in the American character,” declared former president Ronald Reagan in a 1981 Thanksgiving Proclamation. 

A recent YouGov PLC survey shows that 63% “would prefer to receive a meaningful gift that would help others this Christmas, rather than a traditional gift such as clothes or electronics.” A little over three quarters of those surveyed said it’s important to focus on people in need this Christmas. Those numbers come amid a season of self-sacrifice because of government mandated shutdowns during the coronavirus pandemic that are inflicting extreme harm on working families, small business owners, and Americans in service industries. The vast majority of citizens still have a longing to give despite making personal sacrifices during a pandemic. 

The ancient theologian and philosopher Augustine noted that, “Human society is knit together by transactions of giving and receiving.” This is an important point and something government hasn’t proven it can replicate. Ultimately, the government has little capacity to meet deeper needs or restore goodness to society. The long list failures of the federal war on poverty undoubtedly provides the starkest example. 

Laws mandate that people pay taxes, which is why we often see some of the super-rich take to television or op-eds to strut and implore for higher tax rates on people like themselves. Yet, there are few instances of the wealthy trumpeting the action of voluntarily turning over more of their earnings to the treasury. That kind of coercive effect to create a bureaucratic caretaker society is a misguided view of charity. It’s a view that completely eschews virtue of voluntary giving. “Too often charity has become confused and conflated with coerced governmental distribution,” writes Acton Institute scholar Jordan Ballor in his book Ecumenical Babel.

Christmas and the holiday season remain a powerful reminder that it is good to give and help those in need. However, when we confuse or conflate voluntary charity with government coercion, we not only diminish our cultural heritage of giving, we also impoverish our society by believing that government could ever be enough to meet our needs.

Ray Nothstine is editor of Civitas Institute’s Capitol Connections.