The Party of Jesus?

In nineteenth-century America, through the Great Depression, and into the early 1960s, politically active Christians tended to be aligned with the causes of the political Left. They fought to end slavery. They fought for an end to child labor. They fought for a minimum wage, limited working hours, overtime pay, unemployment insurance, and the right to unionize. They fought for women’s suffrage. Just as James Madison had explained in the Federalist Papers, they believed that civil government could be utilized as an instrument of social justice, where the rights and the well-being of the weak, as well as the strong, could be protected. Their belief that the use of civil government to provide support for the poor seemed to them well fitted to Jesus’ mandate that we provide for “the least of these.” (Matthew 25:31-46)

Since the 1970s and 80s, however, the political sentiments of many Christians, particularly evangelical Christians, have more often been associated with the Republican Party and, thus, the political Right. While a comprehensive explanation of this transition would be too lengthy for this post, we can at least point to a few significant factors.

The turbulent and rebellious 1960s spawned a cultural revolution that was rather unsettling to many Americans. Newfound expressions of sexual freedom and feminist causes were particularly objectionable to conservative Christians. While the Democratic Party mostly sought to embrace the liberal idea of individual liberty in matters of personal lifestyle, the Republican Party mostly did not. The natural result was that the Republican Party became more attractive to Christians.

The “southern strategy,” implemented by Barry Goldwater, Richard Nixon, and most effectively by Ronald Reagan, was an election strategy based on exploiting racist attitudes in the southern states, but its momentum nevertheless helped to transform the South more generally. The South came to no longer feel any particular obligation to the Democratic Party as a legacy of the Civil War era. Since the so-called “Bible belt” runs across the South, a great many Christians were included among those who had broken a habit of supporting the Democratic Party. President Reagan then bolstered the attractiveness of his party among Christians with his strong opposition to abortion and his eloquent expressions of lamenting the widely perceived decline of “traditional values.”

Another Christian tradition that aligns well with Republican ideology is that of individual responsibility and, thus, individual liberty and prosperity. The roots of this tradition are found in Protestantism, particularly its Calvinistic branch. Historians have argued that the cultural value of individualism and personal achievement have been instrumental benefits in enabling prosperity among the northern Protestant nations of Europe, and of North America.

There are other cultural and psychological factors that help to explain why so many Christians feel an allegiance to the Republican Party and its conservative ideology. Many are consistent with traditional Christian moral values. But any analysis of Republican ideology and its alignment with Christian principles must include a discussion of a pervasive worldview among today’s Republicans—a worldview that largely underpins the party’s political philosophy and virtually all of its policy positions, whether domestic social policy, economic policy, immigration policy or foreign policy—a worldview that, I will argue, is undeniably at odds with the views of Jesus, as reported in the Gospels.

Congressman Paul Ryan of Wisconsin has been described by many, in recent years, as the intellectual leader of the Republican Party. As chairman of the House budget committee, his budgets (always adopted by the Republican majority) established him as the ideological leader of the party as well. His budgets have reflected his ideological worldview—a worldview he has said was primarily shaped by economists Milton Friedman and Friedrich Hayek and more particularly by novelist Ayn Rand. Though he denied it when vying for a chance to be Mitt Romney’s running mate, an audio recording of Congressman Ryan at a gathering of The Atlas Society confirmed what he had said many times before: “I grew up reading Ayn Rand and it taught me quite a bit about who I am and what my value systems are, and what my beliefs are.” Rand’s books are required reading for Ryan’s staff and interns. (Rand’s books are popular among a number of other Republican office holders as well as with conservative radio personalities too.) It is Rand’s view of economics that most interests Congressman Ryan, but her economic philosophy cannot logically be separated from her broader view of humanity.

Rand was an outspoken atheist who described Arabs and Native Americans as “savages,” and expressed her view that, as such, the latter should have no rights. She objected to any government programs to help the poor. She was particularly repulsed by programs for educating disabled, or as she put it, “subnormal,” children. She famously told Mike Wallace in a 1959 interview that she believed altruism to be evil, while selfishness a virtue, as it is the necessary driving force of capitalism. Fundamentally, Ayn Rand saw humanity as consisting of virtuous self-reliant people and inferior and/or slothful people. Her social and economic philosophies presumed a struggle between “producers” and “moochers.”

Of course this worldview didn’t enter the Republican Party with Paul Ryan. As part of his “southern strategy” Ronald Reagan repeatedly spoke of “welfare queens” who drink martinis and drive Cadillacs while receiving welfare checks. There had been an infamous case of welfare fraud in the news that roughly fit that characterization. But as politicians usually do, Reagan used it to paint a broader picture in propagating the notion that taxes are high because too many undeserving moochers are suckling from government teats.

More recently, Mitt Romney expressed a similar view—a view that voters will act exclusively in their own immediate personal interest—when he suggested that 47 percent of the American electorate direct their votes toward simply gaining more benefits for themselves from government coffers. Of course Romney wasn’t completely wrong. Most Americans do tend to put personal interests ahead of the national interest in choosing their preferred candidates. But that is true of all sides of the political spectrum. Consequently candidates always promise government benefits, tax cuts, or both, believing it will help them get elected. This ongoing problem is a symptom of a failure of effective and constructive leadership. It is regrettable that Romney could evidently see only one side of that equation.

Deriding moochers is also a sentiment regularly expressed on AM talk radio and FOX News. FOX attempted to denied it, but their strategy of vilifying “moochers,” as they endeavor to define the political Left, was pretty well illustrated (even if not an objective analysis) by Jon Stewart and Comedy Central as seen here.

It should not be a surprise to anyone, therefore, that when Donald Trump made the (demonstrably false) claim that Mexico was “sending rapists and drug dealers” across the border, a great many Republican voters saw his assertion as valid. Never mind that illegal immigrants commit crimes at a lower rate than American citizens generally, and come to the U.S. primarily to fill available jobs (a natural consequence of supply and demand). Never mind that children come as refugees from horribly dangerous circumstances in Central America. (Jesus was a child refugee too, of course, as His family fled the violence of Herod.) Trump’s assertion well fits the ideological worldview of “us versus them”—of patriots and parasites.

Since none of the dire predictions of catastrophic side effects of the Affordable Care Act have come to pass, the continuing vehement Republican opposition to the ACA as a whole (rather than simply repairing its flaws) can only be attributed to an opposition to the subsidies and the taxes that pay for them—the public assistance to those who otherwise cannot afford health insurance. It is evidently thought that such people are undeserving of our assistance. (Though another explanation could be that pride simply prevents an admission that President Obama has done something worthwhile.)

Very often the sentiment of “us versus them” is much more subtle and, instead of moochers and producers, it is manifest as a hierarchical view of society. Republican economic policy, for example, hinges on the idea that capital is paramount to labor (or supply paramount to demand) in the function of capitalism. As Republicans speak of “job creators” they tend to assume that employment is merely the result of the activity of producers, with little recognition of the fundamental role and needs of the labor from which demand arises. Republicans decry what they call the “death tax” (inheritance tax), supposing no particular obligation to the society that enabled an accumulation of wealth, while assenting to more of a financially aristocratic society. Similarly, patriotism morphs into a nationalism that supposes our nation can do no wrong. After President Obama expressed regret for some of the errors of the United States in a speech in Cairo at the beginning of his term, Republicans have ever since accused him of going around the world apologizing for America, as if, contrary to the teaching of Jesus, humility is a regrettable vice.

There is no doubt that there are a great many unscrupulous and unmotivated people in the world who resent others who have prospered as a result of initiative and hard work, and many of them are aligned with the Democratic Party. And the Democratic Party too often confuses the goal of fairness of opportunity with a redistribution of wealth. But an ideology that presumes people are poor because of a lack of initiative is not an ideology informed of reality. More to the point of this post, it is not an ideology that Jesus would recognize as grounded in Godly thinking.

There is no indication in Scripture that Jesus saw the poor as mere slackers. On the contrary—the Gospels tell us that Jesus spoke of the poor in the most sympathetic terms. “…the poor have good news preached to them.” (Matthew 11:5) Throughout the Gospels Jesus expressed grace toward the poor and the disabled, and implored us to provide for them. “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the Kingdom of God.” (Luke 6:20-21) When the tax collector Zacchaeus told Jesus that he would give half of his possessions to the poor and pay back four times any amount he may have cheated anyone, Jesus told him that his salvation was assured. (Luke 19:1-9) This does not necessarily mean that giving to the poor secures one’s salvation, but it is a clear proclamation that such behavior is a measure of one’s faithfulness to God.

Some of us may prefer to believe that private philanthropic initiatives are sufficient, or even more effective than the use of civil government, as we might envision the political struggle in America as one of redistributing wealth, rather than one of ensuring fairness of opportunity. But let’s face it—the worldview of many in today’s Republican Party can be aligned with the views of Jesus only if somehow we imagine that Jesus spent His days among us complaining about how moochers would inherit the earth.

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