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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The Politics of Fear

Well understanding how fear, as a powerful motivating force, can induce irrationality in the arena of public sentiment and public policy, President Franklin Roosevelt famously declared in his first inaugural address, “We have nothing to fear but fear itself.”

Indeed, America has seen some rather infamous manifestations of this when, for example, Roosevelt himself ordered the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II, and with two so-called Red Scares—one shortly after the Russian Revolution, in which President Woodrow Wilson imprisoned Americans for their political beliefs, and then another after World War II, in which the House Committee on Un-American Activities and the committees of Senator Joseph McCarthy imagined widespread Communist infiltration of the United States government and sought to ruin the lives of so-called “Communist sympathizers” and anyone associated with them.

Of course, fear in the arena of politics is not always irrational. Those conscientious Germans who feared the rise of Nazism were certainly justified. A fear that our federal government will be unable to implement a more sustainable fiscal policy before a damaging fiscal crisis occurs is not without some foundation either. But among politicians, the peddlers of fear are very often unconcerned with informed and rational conviction. They just want to win. So they seek to exploit fear that can be induced by deception.

Fear is very often a product of uncertainty and, particularly when accompanied by its companion—loathing—a product of ignorance or misunderstanding. Politicians and political advocates of all stripes routinely make exaggerated claims and use quotes or data out of context to incite conviction for their cause among constituents who lack a comprehensive understanding of the issues at hand. They not only induce fear of the effects of alternative points of view through subtle or even not so subtle deception, they often succeed in demonizing the advocates of those alternative points of view. Once a political figure is sufficiently demonized, people are apt to fear and believe that they are capable of a multitude of evils.

All Americans, whether they may tilt to the political Left or the political Right, are vulnerable to the politics of fear. It can be said that those on the Left tend to fear corporate greed and malfeasance, overpopulation, global warming, pollution, government intrusion into personal matters, war or an unwarranted use of military force, and the agricultural use of pesticides, hormones and genetic engineering. It shouldn’t be suggested that these things are not important and should not be of concern, but there is little doubt that their pernicious effects can be exaggerated, resulting in irrational fear among some.

On the Right, fear resulting from uncertainty, or fear of uncertainty itself (or at least an uneasiness with uncertainty), may be an integral part of what induces one to lean to the Right to begin with.  A Stanford University social psychology study, encompassing some fifty years of data and published in 2003, concluded as much:

We regard political conservatism as an ideological belief system that is significantly (but not completely) related to motivational concerns having to do with the psychological management of uncertainty and fear. Specifically, the avoidance of uncertainty (and the striving for certainty) may be particularly tied to one core dimension of conservative thought, resistance to change. Similarly, concerns with fear and threat may be linked to the second core dimension of conservatism, endorsement of inequality.

By “endorsement of inequality,” the authors appear to have merely meant that conservative thought is in acceptance of inequality as the necessary price to pay for the preservation of its perceived natural order of society.

We might easily dismiss such a study as the psychobabble of liberal university professors, but we need not look very far to see that many on the Right quite readily respond to the politics of fear. We certainly cannot assume that everyone who holds conservative political views does so as a result of fear. There are some very practical and principled reasons to hold conservative views. Nevertheless, we can find quite an abundance of behavior and convictions motivated by fear on the Right.

Have you ever wondered why all of those purveyors of minted gold coins as an “investment against inflation” find such fertile ground on Fox News and on AM (conservative) Talk Radio? While such coins might be fun to collect, they are a horrible investment. These proprietors are capitalizing on an underlying fear that the economy might suddenly collapse and/or that run-away inflation will ensue (particularly with that “socialist” Obama at the helm). On these venues, Glenn Beck in particular has been a successful merchant of the fear of economic collapse and massive inflation.

Among those on the Right, we also find fears of government intrusion into our businesses and societal or religious choices, government incompetence, very competent government wickedness (ironically), socialism (being asked to contribute to the benefit of undeserving people), illegal immigrants, foreign invasion or subversion, the U.N. and the possibility of a one-world-government (villainous black helicopters and such), drones, religious persecution, losing one’s cultural or religious identity (the so-called Culture Wars), gun confiscation, crime, men of other races, homosexuals and gay marriage, sharia law (this danger appears greatest in the state of Oklahoma), Common Core, and the possibility that President Obama is a socialist, Muslim, or even the Anti-Christ. If you find yourself on mailing lists resulting from having given to Republican campaigns, you’ll likely see emails from a variety purveyors of survivalist supplies taking advantage of fearful and gullible people. One need only have a couple of Right-leaning friends or family members who forward circulating emails to witness a pervasive sentiment of impending doom resulting from the deceitful and nefarious motives of President Obama and the Left.

It is little wonder then, that when the Democrats and President Obama passed comprehensive (very voluminous and perhaps too complicated) healthcare reform without any support from Republicans, the political opposition had little trouble in instilling fear of the law’s allegedly pernicious provisions. After all, they say, the law provides for “government run” healthcare and includes “death panels,” an assault on Medicare, forced participation, a “job-killing” burden on the nation’s businesses, and will result in reduced care and greater costs for us all.

Ironically, given the fervor of their rhetoric as they endeavor to repeal the law before its implementation, perhaps what Republicans fear most is that people will discover that there wasn’t really all that much to fear after all.

The Telling Politics of the Individual Mandate

For some time I have been intending to write about how partisanship affects the way we think—how partisanship corrupts fair minded and sound reasoning. There is a great deal to consider on that subject. Numerous factors can be cited as contributing to the partisan divide that has increasingly afflicted our country—the hardening of ideological stances that inhibits those who get caught up in partisan thinking from being able to appreciate any merit at all in opposing points of view. I simply have not yet had the time to construct a comprehensive essay on the subject. Given the great passion that has recently ensued from the Supreme Court’s decision concerning the individual mandate included in the Affordable Care Act (“Obamacare”), however, I thought I would go ahead and write of that one example—a prime example of how partisanship distorts perception.

It is pretty widely understood that those of us who pay property taxes and who pay for our own health insurance are, in doing so, also paying for the medical care of those citizens who have no health insurance. Through our property taxes we pay to support the county hospital district that treats the uninsured for free, and hospitals tell us that much of the cost of treating the uninsured is also passed along to those individuals and insurance companies who pay for medical services. In 1989, as part of an insurance reform proposal, the Heritage Foundation (a conservative think tank) proposed a solution to what they called this “free rider” problem. Their plan, named “Assuring Affordable Health Care for All Americans,” included a suggestion to “mandate all households to obtain adequate insurance.” The proposal was fully consistent with the politically conservative principle of citizens not being imposed upon to support other citizens who can reasonably support themselves. As Mitt Romney would later describe it to reporters in 2005 when he proposed that it be enacted as law in Massachusetts, “It’s the ultimate conservative idea, which is that people have a responsibility for their own care, and that they don’t look to government … if they can afford to take care of themselves.”

After that initial 1989 call for an individual mandate, the idea then became part of a number of conservative and Republican proposals for insurance reform, including one that was developed at the request of the H.W. Bush administration in 1991, but was never acted upon. When Hillary Clinton spearheaded an effort to achieve universal healthcare coverage in 1992 and 1993, Republicans in congress responded with various alternative proposals, all of which included an individual mandate. A bill called the “Health Equity and Access Reform Today Act” was introduced in the Senate by Republican John Chafee of Rhode Island and co-sponsored by Minority Leader Bob Dole and 18 other Republican Senators. The bill called for health insurance vouchers for low-income individuals, along with a mandate that all capable individuals buy their own health insurance. As House Minority Leader at the time, Newt Gingrich strongly endorsed the mandate. Of course Gingrich has been a vocal supporter of an individual mandate until only very recently, when a run for the presidency and a new political dynamic prompted a change of heart.

Republican proposals in response to so-called “Hillarycare” were met with skepticism by Democrats. Democrats were particularly opposed to the individual mandate, which they saw as a “giveaway” to insurance companies. Rather than seriously consider the merits of the mandate and incorporate it into a bi-partisan healthcare reform effort, Democrats were evidently blinded by partisan thinking and assumed, by default, that Republicans were once again simply trying to protect the interests of big business—in this case, the insurance companies—at the expense of ordinary citizens. As a result of that partisan divide, the Clintons’ efforts to enact reform and ensure universal coverage failed.

Here’s where it begins to get interesting.

As a candidate for president in 2008, Barack Obama repeatedly denounced the individual mandate, which, by then, Hillary Clinton had adopted as a part of her campaign’s healthcare proposal. One of his campaign mailers explained, “The way Hillary Clinton’s healthcare plan covers everyone is to have the government force uninsured people to buy insurance, even if they can’t afford it. … Punishing families who can’t afford healthcare to begin with just doesn’t make sense.” As candidates usually do, Obama mischaracterized Clinton’s proposal and offered no alternative of his own that would ensure universal coverage.

By some accounts, Obama’s attitude toward an individual mandate began to change as soon as he had secured his party’s nomination for the 2008 election. In any case, he didn’t have to reverse himself publicly when reform was being crafted because all of the proposals were originating in the House and Senate. It was concluded that the mandate was an important component of any proposal that could realistically ensure universal coverage, other than a government-run single payer system. And since it was a Republican idea to begin with, it was thought that its inclusion would help to ensure Republican support for reform.

It turned out, however, that reforming our nation’s insurance and healthcare delivery systems is very complicated business, and therefore, an easy target for political posturing and propaganda. There are a number of reasons why the “Affordable Care Act” lost the support of all Republicans in Congress and perhaps a few of them are good reasons. The particulars of the legislation are far too voluminous and complicated to get into here (and they are not the point of this writing anyway). But perhaps what is most interesting, and rather telling, is how attitudes completely changed regarding the individual mandate to buy health insurance.

By the time the “Affordable Healthcare Act” or “Obamacare” was enacted, the individual mandate had evolved from a soundly conservative idea espousing personal responsibility to, in the minds of many, a typically liberal, “nanny state” idea espousing an obtrusive government and less freedom for us all. Since the healthcare law had been enacted solely by Democratic members of Congress at the urging of President Obama (which can perhaps be blamed, at least in part, on Obama and the Democrats), it became, especially for those who live exclusively in the partisan world of the FOX News culture, a clear example of a horrible abuse of power by politicians who have no regard for personal liberty and the Constitution. Since virtually every other component of “Obamacare” is rather popular among the public, the individual mandate became the primary focus of attack. When partisanship fully takes hold, simply winning for the sake of the tribe takes precedence over truth or principle.  As a result, ironically, Republicans put themselves in the position of, contrary to everything they believe, defending the right of a few citizens to sponge off of the rest of us.

That’s what partisan thinking can do.

When the Affordable care Act was enacted, President Obama and the Democrats insisted that the sanction for those who didn’t buy health insurance was a penalty, not a tax.  They didn’t want to be accused of raising taxes. They well understood that even though the penalty (or tax) would be imposed only on those who neglected to buy health insurance and would likely lower everyone’s healthcare costs, political opponents could rather easily mischaracterize it for political gain.  (They understood this because that’s the way the game is played in politics, and, make no mistake, Democrats do the very same thing all the time.)  Just as Chief Justice John Roberts aptly pointed out, however, regardless of what politicians might call it, if it looks like a duck, walks like a duck, quacks like a duck, and flies like a duck… well… it’s a tax.  After the Supreme Court’s ruling, we have seen that the Democrat’s concern was well founded.  Since, when the tribalism of partisanship takes hold, winning elections is more important than principle or sound public policy, Republicans have now accused Obama and the Democrats of perpetrating a huge tax increase on the middle class.  Naturally, we are expected to overlook the fact that the tax is imposed only on those whom the Heritage Foundation and Republicans had for many years called “free riders,” and partisans undoubtedly will.

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As a side note: Since the Supreme Court has now declared that the government can penalize us for not buying health insurance, many have worried that the government can tell us anything about our personal lives—make us buy and eat broccoli, for example. Keep in mind that we still have the 14th Amendment that, according to a long line of precedents made by the Court, ensures that we have a right to privacy. The government cannot tell us to eat broccoli or how we should wear our hair because those are private matters. Whether or not we buy health insurance is not a private matter, on the other hand, because such a decision ultimately affects everybody else.

Of course eating broccoli (or green vegetables in general) is good for our health and some may argue, therefore, in the general public interest. There will always be such judgments to make. That’s why we have a Supreme Court that is, by design, insulated from partisan pressures and, at least theoretically, resistant to partisan thinking.