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Faith as Politics

The Religioius Justification of Neglect

C. Gourgey, Ph.D.

It is not unusual today to find the language of religion mixed up with the language of politics. The Republican Party’s platform mentions God no less than twelve times, and Republicans have condemned Democrats for not mentioning God in theirs. The Republican platform supports prayer in schools, the right of faith-based organizations to discriminate in hiring based on religious belief, and the public display of the Ten Commandments “as a reflection of our history and of our country’s Judeo-Christian heritage.” Many Republican politicians do not hesitate to proclaim their Christian faith as a great motivator of their policies. So we have a right to expect that those policies will reflect Godly values and honor the founder of the religion its adherents proclaim.

How do prominent Republicans apply their religion to today’s politics? And how should we judge those applications according to what Jesus actually taught?

On his program of March 11, 2010 Glenn Beck called social justice “a perversion of the Gospel.”(1) This seems odd, to say the least. One cannot read the Prophets, and the Gospels as well, without being struck by the theme of social justice:

Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin? (Isaiah 58:7)

They do not judge with justice the cause of the orphan, to make it prosper, and they do not defend the rights of the needy.(Jeremiah 5:28)

Therefore because you trample on the poor and take from them levies of grain, you have built houses of hewn stone, but you shall not live in them. (Amos 5:11)

Then the righteous will answer him, “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?” And the king will answer them, “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 25:37-40)

When we look at what Jesus actually said and taught, we get a very different impression from the Jesus of politics - one that challenges us and rightfully makes us uncomfortable.

The beauty and greatness of Jesus is that he is beyond politics. No one group or party or social class can claim him. Jesus loved both poor Lazarus and rich Zacchaeus. So we should be skeptical whenever any political party uses Jesus to justify its policies, especially if those policies cause harm to others.

Republicans today speak of “Big Government” as if it were the Beast of Revelation. Indeed, their battle cry is “Starve the Beast!” and you can almost hear the “666.” Not satisfied with what may well have been the biggest transfer of wealth from the poor to the rich in this nation’s history, better known as our recent financial crisis, they are proposing budgets that will provide tax cuts mostly benefiting the wealthy, paid for by cuts in services to the poor. This is evident in three important areas: income taxes, Medicaid, and Medicare.

In an effort to appeal to the center during this general election campaign, presidential candidate Mitt Romney and vice presidential candidate Paul Ryan are insisting that their tax proposals would not burden the middle class. However, the figures do not support this claim. The nonpartisan Tax Policy Center issued an analysis of the Republican tax plan:

Our major conclusion is that a revenue-neutral individual income tax change that incorporates the features Governor Romney has proposed - including reducing marginal tax rates substantially, eliminating the individual alternative minimum tax (AMT) and maintaining all tax breaks for saving and investment - would provide large tax cuts to high-income households, and increase the tax burdens on middle- and/or lower-income taxpayers.

Here’s why:

In this exercise, we estimate by how much tax expenditures would need to be reduced to maintain current revenues given the tax rates specified in presidential candidate Mitt Romney’s tax plan as described on his campaign website. This plan would extend the 2001-03 tax cuts, reduce individual income tax rates by 20 percent, eliminate taxation of investment income of most taxpayers (including individuals earning less than $100,000, and married couples earning less than $200,000), eliminate the estate tax, reduce the corporate income tax rate, and repeal the alternative minimum tax (AMT) and the high-income taxes enacted in 2010’s health-reform legislation. We estimate that these components would reduce revenues by $456 billion in 2015 relative to a current policy baseline. According to statements by Governor Romney and his advisors, the remainder of the plan will include policies to offset this revenue loss, although there are no details on how that would be achieved.(2)

Those details are not given most likely because in order to make this policy revenue-neutral, tax breaks favoring the middle class would have to be abolished. The Republican tax plan continues the redistribution of wealth from the poor and middle class to the rich.

In addition to more tax advantages for the wealthy at the expense of others, the Republican plan will further shred the social safety net by virtually dismantling Medicaid. The current system will be replaced by block grants to the states, with the goal of shrinking spending by one third over the next decade. Coverage will fall far short of current levels. To make up for this, families who are already struggling may be charged for part of the cost of their elderly loved ones’ care.

Medicare too would change beyond recognition under the Republican program. Instead of the current system’s payments to doctors and hospitals, people would receive a fixed amount from the government to purchase their own private plan or a plan somewhat similar to traditional Medicare. Republicans call this “premium support”; this is a euphemism for “voucher.” These Medicare vouchers are unlikely to keep pace with the rising costs of health care, which traditionally outrun inflation. In addition, the private plans are expected to siphon off younger and healthier beneficiaries, putting pressure on premiums for those older and sicker patients remaining in traditional Medicare. Medicare is one government program that actually has worked well, but under the Republicans Medicare as we know it will come to an abrupt end. And once again the burden will fall on the poor and middle class.

How do they justify this? Paul Ryan actually refers to his faith:

A person’s faith is central to how they conduct themselves in public and in private. So to me, using my Catholic faith, we call it the social magisterium, which is how do you apply the doctrine of your teaching into your everyday life as a lay person?

To me, the principle of subsidiarity, which is really federalism, meaning government closest to the people governs best, having a civil society of the principal of solidarity where we, through our civic organizations, through our churches, through our charities, through all of our different groups where we interact with people as a community, that’s how we advance the common good. By not having big government crowd out civic society, but by having enough space in our communities so that we can interact with each other, and take care of people who are down and out in our communities.

Those principles are very very important, and the preferential option for the poor, which is one of the primary tenants of Catholic social teaching, means don’t keep people poor, don’t make people dependent on government so that they stay stuck at their station in life. Help people get out of poverty out onto life of independence.(3)

Paul Ryan found a nice word to theologize his economics. The principle of “subsidiarity” was formalized in 1891 by Pope Leo XIII, who in all likelihood never intended it to supersede the Gospel, or to justify a reverse-Robin Hood economics of taking from the poor to give to the rich. Of course, according to Ryan, dismantling the safety net for disadvantaged people actually helps them - it teaches them “independence.” Therefore enriching the wealthy at their expense does poor people a valuable service. So Ryan’s “preferential option for the poor” means cutting their benefits! Ryan fails to mention that local organizations are also cash-starved and cutting back, and cannot fill the void left by a disappearing “big government.” He apparently lives in a world in which poverty, illness, and extreme disability do not exist.

Ryan's end run around the Gospel did not go unnoticed. A group of Catholic professors responded with a letter putting the true face on Ryan's exploitation of Catholic teaching:

We appreciate your willingness to talk about how Catholic social teaching can help inform effective policy in dealing with the urgent challenges facing our country... However, we would be remiss... if we did not challenge your continuing misuse of Catholic teaching to defend a budget plan that decimates food programs for struggling families, radically weakens protections for the elderly and sick and gives more tax breaks to the wealthiest few.(4)

Now consider Richard Land, chief ethicist for the United States Southern Baptist Convention. His credentials should certainly give him the authority to speak on biblical ethics. He says:

The Bible tells us that socialism and neo-socialism never worked. Confiscatory tax rates never work.... People aren't going to work very hard and very productively unless they get to keep a substantial portion of that which they make for them and for their families.(5)

Land has every right to be anti-socialist. But he does not have the right to falsify the Bible and bend it to his own purposes. Let’s contrast his statements about the Bible with what the Bible actually says:

Land: “The Bible tells us that socialism and neo-socialism never worked.”

Jesus on “redistribution of income”:

When Jesus heard this, he said to him, “There is still one thing lacking. Sell all that you own and distribute the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.” (Luke 18:22 )

The Bible on socialism:

All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need. (Acts 2:44-45)

Now the whole group of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one claimed private ownership of any possessions, but everything they owned was held in common. With great power the apostles gave their testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great grace was upon them all. There was not a needy person among them, for as many as owned lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold. They laid it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to each as any had need. (Acts 4:32-35)

Land: “Confiscatory tax rates never work.... People aren't going to work very hard and very productively unless they get to keep a substantial portion of that which they make for them and for their families.”

The Bible on “confiscatory taxes”:

But a man named Ananias, with the consent of his wife Sapphira, sold a piece of property; with his wife’s knowledge, he kept back some of the proceeds, and brought only a part and laid it at the apostles’ feet. “Ananias,” Peter asked, “why has Satan filled your heart to lie to the Holy Spirit and to keep back part of the proceeds of the land? While it remained unsold, did it not remain your own? And after it was sold, were not the proceeds at your disposal? How is it that you have contrived this deed in your heart? You did not lie to us but to God!” Now when Ananias heard these words, he fell down and died. And great fear seized all who heard of it. The young men came and wrapped up his body, then carried him out and buried him. (Acts 5:1-6)

Now I am not suggesting that we impose on our own society social norms that worked for Christians in the first century, nor that we adopt socialism as our economic system. But it is simply not legitimate to make the Bible say exactly the opposite of what the text plainly states, in order to exploit it for political purposes. It is also clear that Land’s reworking of the Bible undermines its call to support the poor.

Our third example comes from a well-known and outspoken pastor, and is noteworthy because it is so typical of current religious attitudes.

Pastor Rick Warren of Saddleback Church came into prominence with his book The Purpose Driven Life. To hear him speak, one might wonder whether he believes that God is a Republican, since apparently God really does favor small government:

Well certainly the Bible says we are to care about the poor. There's over 2,000 versus in the Bible about the poor. And God says that those who care about the poor, God will care about them and God will bless them. But there's a fundamental question on the meaning of “fairness.” Does fairness mean everybody makes the same amount of money? Or does fairness mean everybody gets the opportunity to make the same amount of money? I do not believe in wealth redistribution, I believe in wealth creation.

The only way to get people out of poverty is J-O-B-S. Create jobs. To create wealth, not to subsidize wealth. When you subsidize people, you create the dependency. You - you rob them of dignity. The primary purpose of government is to keep the peace, protect the citizens, provide opportunity. And when we start getting into all kinds of other things, I think we - we invite greater control. And I'm fundamentally about freedom.(6)

So caring for the poor means not subsidizing them. The only way is “J-O-B-S.” Any other form of government support is overreaching. It makes us wonder about what Jesus said (Matthew 25:36): “I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me.” It sounds like Jesus was encouraging dependence. Better he should have said, “I was naked, I was sick, and you told me to get a job.”

The fact is there are many people with nearly insurmountable struggles, older people on fixed incomes, people with severe disabilities (mental, physical, or both) whose main source of income is SSI or some other government assistance, people who are homeless not by choice but due to serious cognitive challenges, people with dementia whose family members may give up their own lives and livelihoods to support them. These people cannot simply get up and get a job. Even if many of them could work (and many cannot), in today’s tough economy they are virtually unemployable. Many of them are unskilled. Age and disability discrimination are rampant, even though we deny it. It is an offense to God and humanity to insist in God’s own name that we “help” such people by drastically cutting their services, so that those who already have more than they need can pay even lower taxes. If Jesus stood for anything at all, it was precisely the opposite of this.

Later in that same interview Warren states emphatically that only Christians go to heaven; members of other faiths need not apply. It is not surprising that worship of a God so lacking in compassion leads easily to cruel social policies. This is what happens to religion when we get away from what Jesus actually taught and start replacing that with doctrines and theologies imposed on the Bible many years afterward.

If God is anything, God is goodness. If belief, and not goodness, becomes the standard, then of course one will have no difficulty espousing doctrines that are not good, such as “helping” the poor by choking off their benefits and supporting the transfer of their resources to the rich. Rick Warren's faith - a type so prominent in America today - asks us to subordinate our sense of goodness to beliefs and doctrines.

This new Gospel is a distortion of the original. It takes the challenge out of Jesus’s teachings and replaces it with self-righteousness, a false certainty about whom God accepts and whom God rejects. Jesus’s message was simple, but we hopelessly complicate it. Why? Because while simple, it challenges and upsets us. Who among us is really willing to give all they have and serve the poor? Who among us is really willing to let go of material wealth, to commit to a higher purpose? Who among us enjoys being made aware of how little we do to serve our fellow human beings, including especially those whom Jesus called “the least of these”? No, a comforting Jesus is far more appealing than a challenging one. So many of us ask the wrong question: “Are you saved?” Jesus would have asked a better question: “Do you love?”

Instead, today we hear those who most publicly proclaim their faith in God also praise Ayn Rand, patron saint of selfishness (and no friend of religion herself). Jesus most likely would have found that puzzling. But it makes sense when we realize what this campaign is doing: it is the politics of resentment, of stigmatizing the poor as leeches and parasites who deserve to have their benefits cut off. In an offhand moment Romney said it all: these are people “who are dependent upon government, who believe that they are victims, who believe the government has a responsibility to care for them, who believe that they are entitled to health care, to food, to housing, to you-name-it.” The resentment is unmistakable and cannot be whitewashed. It is also self-justifying: “I have mine, and if you don’t have yours, it’s your own fault. So lower my taxes.”

The problem is, the premise is all wrong. These people are not parasites. Many of them are hardworking; in fact many work much harder than those with high-paying jobs and rich benefits, and certainly harder than those who live off investment income and can afford not to work at all. I think of my friend who works long hours morning till night at a simple retail job that does not pay what her efforts deserve, and that gives her no health coverage. As a result she cannot attend to some potentially serious health problems. I think of another good friend who died of cancer because she had no insurance to pay for expensive treatments. They represent thousands of human beings conveniently dismissed by false spiritual rhetoric, which protects us from seeing how shameful it is that the richest country on earth allows so many of its citizens to go without health care. And worse, which stimulates and justifies resentment against those people, so that those who already have more than they need can live with an untroubled conscience. “Are there no emergency rooms?” they ask, much as old Scrooge asked “Are there no workhouses?” But emergency rooms do not provide adequate health care for serious conditions; they only stabilize you until you can receive some other form of care - which you won’t if you lack insurance. If you have a chronic, degenerative disease, don’t expect much help from the emergency room.

In the last chapter of John, Peter is desperate to make Jesus understand his love for him. Jesus keeps putting him off. He says, repeatedly, If you love me Peter, then “feed my sheep” (John 21:17). Peter doesn’t want to hear that. He wants to hear Jesus say “I know you love me and I love you too.” Instead, Jesus calls on Peter to love others, by putting that love into action. That is where God is, and that is where Christ is even in the heart of the non-Christian. “Just as you did it to one of the least of these, you did it to me.”

Selfishness has its defenders, and even its philosophers. But don’t try to make Jesus one of those. If we try to turn Jesus into our political partisan, he may shock and surprise us. That shock is good for us. It is a sign that we are listening.

(C. Gourgey is a licensed creative arts therapist and author of Judeochristianity: The Meaning and Discovery of Faith, which explores what faith can mean if we restore Jesus’s teachings to their rightful place of central importance.)


(1) Media Matters for America, “‘Thou Shalt Not Lie’: Beck Denies Equating Social Justice with Communism, Nazism,” MediaMatters.org, April 7, 2010.

(2) Samuel Brown, William Gale and Adam Looney, “On the Distributional Effects of Base-Broadening Income Tax Reform,” Urban-Brookings Tax Policy Center, August 1, 2012.

(3) David Brody, “Only on Brody File: Paul Ryan Says His Catholic Faith Helped Shape Budget Plan.” Christian Broadcasting Network, April 10, 2012.

(4) Foxnews.com, “‘Ryan Facing Catholic Prof Complaints Over Budget Comments Ahead of Georgetown Speech,” Fox News, April 25, 2012.

(5) Barbara B. Hagerty, “Christians Debate: Was Jesus For Small Government?National Public Radio, April 16, 2012.

(6) ABC This Week, “‘This Week’ Transcript: Pastor Rick Warren,” ABC News, April 8, 2012.

April 2012