by Frederick Sparks
In the wake of Republicans in the House of Representatives voting to cut the food stamp program by $39 billion, I’ve seen a lot of memes attempting to point out the hypocrisy of Republicans, who so explicitly embrace Christian religiosity on the campaign trial, yet seem at odds with the liberal socialist progressive Jesus of the gospels when it comes to their position on government spending for social safety net programs. I have a negative reaction to this meme (especially coming from fellow skeptics), not just because I think it may misrepresent the character of Jesus that emerges from the biblical text but also because I ultimately find it to be an ineffective argument.
For one, I do not take Jesus’ admonition to give everything you have to the poor as a call for socialist wealth redistribution, but as a call to a life of religious asceticism by an eschatological preacher who saw the end as nigh. I mean, this is the same Jesus who told a parable in which a servant who refuses to enrich his unjust master is the bad guy. And yes, I understand that the point of a parable is the not the explicit story, but the implicit message. Still, I think the choice of the explicit story matters.
Jesus also blithely asserted that “the poor will always be with you” (a repeat of Deuteronomy 15:11 by the way). If there is anything that progressive political philosophies have in common, I would think it is the idea that poverty can be eradicated, even if it involves the overhaul or overthrow of a current economic system that seems to necessitate a poor class.
But of course the inconsistent gospel narratives complicate any definite assertions about Jesus’ character and philosophy. The larger issue is that I’m not sure how this argument will effect changes behavior, if that is the point. For one, it seems to assume that bible quoting politicians actually sincerely believe what they say, a dubious assumption to say the least. Also, if the attempt is the change the mind of voters who have supported these politicians, I doubt if this will cut it. Those who vote against their own economic interest have demonstrated their obdurate voting nature, particularly given the fact that food stamp usage increased in counties carried by Romney in 2012.
But also, conservatives already have a counter to the argument that they are not being “Christlike” with respect to the poor. Jesus didn’t say the GOVERNMENT needed to feed the poor. Republicans are not (supposedly) against charity, they just think it should be performed by churches and private individuals.
We have far more recent and coherent sources and justifications to argue for a progressive compassionate approach towards the less fortunate. More time should be spend on articulating those arguments, not arguments based on the inconsistent bronze age book of mythology.