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Worse Than Politics:
Hijacking a Religion

C. Gourgey, Ph.D.

Those who oppress the poor insult their Maker, but those who are kind to the needy honor him.
Proverbs 14:31

Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.
Matthew 25:40

A news item recently appeared that didn’t get much attention but that has huge implications for this country’s spiritual integrity.

First, some background. The Affordable Care Act included a provision for “cost-sharing reduction” (CSR) payments to certain individuals with income below 250% of the poverty line. These payments are subsidies intended to put health insurance within the reach of people who could not otherwise afford it.

Donald Trump is now basing the credibility of his campaign promises on his prediction that “Obamacare” will “explode.” Unfortunately for him, Obamacare is not exploding. While not free of kinks and complications, it has still benefited millions. So to keep his promise to the American people Trump will find a way to make Obamacare explode if it stubbornly refuses to do so on its own. He has threatened to stop these CSR payments in order to hasten Obamacare’s demise.

This, according to Trump, will make Democrats start calling him to negotiate some form of the Republican substitute health care plan. Analyses of that plan have shown that it would make health insurance unaffordable for tens of millions of people who now have it. Its provisions devastating Medicaid would specifically hit poor people very hard. The only people who would benefit are those who don’t need to: the wealthy who would pay less in taxes and who can afford the higher premiums.

So Trump would like to “negotiate” with Democrats over how many poor people to disenfranchise while making sure that his prophecy about Obamacare becomes self-fulfilling. If Obamacare won’t explode, then throw a bomb at it.

This is deeply ironic, considering that had the Republicans passed the Affordable Care Act, which originated in Republican ideas, they would be touting it as their greatest achievement. Republican Governor of Massachusetts Mitt Romney instituted a very similar plan for which Republicans have never apologized. But “Obamacare” must be the work of the devil, since it was passed under a Democratic President. And even worse, under a black Democratic President - this is the unforgivable sin of “Obamacare.” “Don’t take away the ACA, just get rid of Obamacare” many uninformed voters have been heard saying. Just what is most wrong with “Obamacare”? It must be the name “Obama.”

These attempts to sabotage the ACA are just one part of a systematic campaign of cruelty that this administration has been waging against the poor and those who do not fit the stereotype of “Great America.” The persecution of undocumented immigrants who pose the rest of us no danger, the separation of families, leaving so many children without their parents, is unconscionable. So is the demonization of Muslims as people. A debate about religion and its misuses would certainly be legitimate, but that is not what this is. This administration has made it acceptable to target groups of people who are different, and without saying so explicitly it has legitimized lingering racist sentiment against a black President. How else to explain the fact that Trump has paid no price for the lie he propagated for so many years about Barack Obama being born in Kenya, has never apologized for it, and has surrounded himself with so many people who have white supremacist backgrounds? While this certainly does not explain Trump’s appeal to all of his supporters, it has made him attractive to many.

So what about religion? Religion should no more than any other controversial topic be above debate and criticism. However, it is very easy to criticize a religion that is not one’s own. The excesses of radical forms of Islam are well-publicized and should be examined. Islam’s defenders say their religion has been “hijacked.” But virtually no one has spoken about the hijacking of Christianity.

Trump did not hide who he was. His racism and misogyny were evident way before the election. The Republican Party makes no secret of its policies favoring the rich at the expense of the poor. Yet more than four out of five white Evangelical Christian voters went for Trump and the Republican Party.

They supported Trump not even in spite of what his party stands for, but very possibly because of it. This is the party whose members insist on making America a “Christian nation,” even using religion to justify its exploitative policies. There is an old Calvinist notion that wealth is a sign of election, which encourages the belief that poor people are not worthy or lack character. “Build their character by denying them handouts especially taken from my tax dollars” seems a very prevalent attitude. On the Catholic side, Paul Ryan has invoked the teaching of “subsidiarity” to justify reducing or eliminating federal programs supporting the poor.

Just what kind of Christianity is this?

Certainly no Christianity that Jesus would have recognized. When asked what is needed to inherit eternal life, Jesus responded: Sell what you have and give to the poor. He never said pull yourself up by your bootstraps. He never said that giving to others makes them lazy. He never said that people deserve only what they can pay for themselves. He did not, as so many conservatives do today, blame poor people for their poverty.

Jesus said this: “Whoever wishes to be great among you must be your servant” (Matthew 20:26). If you love me, he said, “Feed my sheep” (John 21:17).

Evangelical Christianity turns this on its head. It has replaced Jesus’s teachings on non-self-interested love with a totally self-centered religion based on securing one’s personal salvation. To be “eternally saved” it doesn’t matter what you do and how you love. Human effort and “good works” count for nothing, and are in fact denigrated as leading to the heresy of “works righteousness.” Just accept Jesus Christ as your Lord and Savior and you are in; it doesn’t even matter what kind of person you are. After all Jesus did love sinners, didn’t he? (I suppose as long as they were documented.)

If we wish to consider how a religion can be hijacked we have a perfect example right here. A religion of ultimate personal concern for one’s place in heaven has been constructed on mistranslations and distortions of the letters of Paul, sprinkled with anachronistic misapplications of the Book of Revelation. This supposed Christianity has replaced and obscured the religious reforms that Jesus came to institute. Jesus was not concerned with telling us how to live forever in bliss. Jesus wanted to pull us out of our egotism and conform us to the image of God in selfless love. Yet there is nothing more egotistical than making one’s own salvation the central focus of religion. So how can we know a true Christian? True Christians will strive to follow Christ’s example of love, and will devote their lives to serving others, without concern for whether or not their devotion “saves” them. God, who is love, recognizes and desires the loving heart and not the striving to make sure one receives one’s portion of heavenly dessert.

Perhaps it is no wonder that today one can call oneself a Christian yet vote for an individual and even a political party that stands against everything Christ taught. Christ - and Paul too - taught us to care for the poor, and to love beyond ethnic and religious differences. The perverted doctrine of “justification by faith,” which is the cornerstone of much Evangelical Christianity and which maintains that since we are incapable of doing what is good we can be saved only by faith in Christ, is based on a complete misunderstanding of Paul’s Letter to the Romans and is largely due to the inadequacy of the English language to capture the original Greek. Love, not salvation, must be our ultimate concern.

In recent years Evangelical Christianity has become associated with political conservatism. That itself is no sin. Christians, Jews, any group will inevitably have political differences. And both liberals and conservatives have sound ideas that the other side can benefit from hearing. But we are not in the same place once political conservatism mutates into the brutal mistreatment of the poor and of select ethnic or religious groups. Then we are no longer simply dealing with political differences, but with a rift in the spiritual substance of our society and our nation. It is worse than politics. It is a country whose soul is in danger. For this the prophetic books of the Bible were written.

Easter 2017