One of the most appalling trends in modern politics has been the relentless attempt by conservatives to co-opt the Christian faith. At least since the rise of the so-called Moral Majority in the 1980s, conservative politicians and pundits have made a great show of their Christian piety and moral rectitude. They have argued for prayer in public schools, the Ten Commandments in courthouses, the teaching of creationism in classrooms. They rail against a supposed “war on Christmas” and, lately, a war on Christianity itself. They profess their allegiance to God in party platforms and conventions. They proclaim that America is a “Christian nation.” 1
The Republican show of sanctimony has been very successful in convincing many Christians that the GOP is the party of God—that Republican policies are somehow more in keeping with Christian values than those of Democrats.
It is a maddening and inexplicable meme, because a reading of the Gospels tells a very different story: Many conservative policies and actions, especially toward the poor, are flagrantly incompatible with the teachings and ministry of Jesus.
Admittedly, What Would Jesus Do? is a dangerous game to play. The Bible can be interpreted in many ways. The Gospels were written in a very different time, and Jesus didn’t have much specific to say about corporate tax policies or immigration reform. But Republicans started this game, and if it is true, as Christians will tell you, that the New Testament’s message is timeless, then Christ’s teachings must still apply, and the few instructions he left to the world were fairly explicit when it comes to how we should treat the poor and disadvantaged.
Christian conservatives have become a large and zealous base of the Republican Party. But is that support justified? Here are a few of Jesus’ teachings, along with the actions of Republicans in recent years.
WE MUST SHOW A SPECIAL COMPASSION FOR THE POOR AND DISADVANTAGED
The words of Jesus
Throughout the Gospels Jesus, in his words and actions, showed a boundless love and compassion for those at the extreme margins of society. It is a defining characteristic of his ministry and one of his most frequent themes in the Gospels. He taught often about our duties to the poor; walked among lepers; healed the sick and disabled; dined with sinners (Mark 2:15); and allowed a woman of questionable repute to anoint his feet (Luke: 36-50). No one was denied his love and grace, and he made clear that the people who were lowest in society are paramount in the eyes of God.“So the last will be first, and the first will be last,” Jesus says in Matthew 20:16, and again in the Sermon on the Mount: “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God. Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you will be satisfied” (Luke 6:20-21).
The Gospels are filled with Jesus’ sayings, stories, and miracles demonstrating compassion for the poor, and he commands us to do the same. In fact, Jesus says that serving those in need is the equivalent of serving Christ himself: “Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’
“Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’
“The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’” (Matthew 25:31-40)
Tellingly, Jesus also makes a point of condemning those who refuse to help: “Then he will say to those at his left hand, ‘You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. … Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.” (Matthew 25:41-45)
Jesus makes his point in yet another way to a Pharisee who had invited him to a meal: “When you give a luncheon or a dinner, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbors, in case they may invite you in return, and you would be repaid. But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. And you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you, for you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.”
What’s more, Jesus taught us not just to give to the poor, but to give generously, unselfishly, and even sacrificially. “Give to everyone who begs from you,” Jesus says in Luke 6:30. A few chapters later, he advises: “Sell your possessions, and give alms. Make purses for yourselves that do not wear out, an unfailing treasure in heaven.” (Luke 12:33-34).
The Gospel of Luke also quotes John the Baptist with a similar message that Jesus presumably would endorse: “The person who has two coats must share with the one who doesn’t have any, and the person who has food must do the same.” (3:11)
Can Jesus’ intentions be any clearer? Over and over and over in the Gospels, his teachings about our duty to those in need are powerful and undeniable. Caring for others is a manifestation of God’s great commandment to us, second only to our devotion to God: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” (See Matthew 22:36-40.)
The actions of Christian conservatives
If the message of Jesus, then, is that helping the poor generously and unselfishly is a Christian imperative, how can we account for the actions of Christian Republicans in Congress (with the presumed support of their Christian constituents), which seem downright hostile toward the poor? Conservatives, in their zeal for smaller government, have been ruthless in advocating cuts to social services and opposing laws that would help low-income people. In just the last few years, Republicans have:
- Voted for major cuts in food stamps for people in poverty
- Refused to raise the minimum wage
- Voted more than 50 times to try to repeal or defund the health care law that has brought affordable health insurance to 16 million people
- Supported the Paul Ryan budget, which would slash funding for food stamps, Medicaid (health care for the poorest of the poor), and other social service programs
- During the sequester, proposed cuts to Meals on Wheels for homebound elderly
- Refused to extend unemployment benefits to jobless Americans during the Great Recession
- Blocked the expansion of Medicaid for low-income and disabled people in Republican states
- Proposed significant cuts in Head Start, the preschool program for low-income children
- Proposed steep cuts to Pell grants to help low-income students go to college
- Proposed cutting Medicaid for the poorest Americans and
people with disabilities
On every front, Christian Republicans have vehemently opposed programs that benefit the poor and the sick, and always in the name of saving money. Though income inequality has risen significantly in the last 30 years, and more than 45 million Americans live in poverty, Republicans often dismiss any discussion of the issue as “class warfare.” The stinginess and callousness of the Republican agenda is in stark opposition to the many directives of Christ that we should help the disadvantaged in a spirit of open-heartedness and generosity.
WE SHOULD NOT CONCERN OURSELVES WITH MONEY
The words of Jesus
Jesus often warned about the corrupting power of money—its ability to distract us from the true work of God. From the vantage of our consumer age in the 21st century, his views on the subject can be striking, even startling.
“Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moths and vermin destroy, and where thieves break in and steal,” Jesus says in Matthew 6:19-21. “But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven. …For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”
A few verses later he makes the point again: “No one can serve two masters. … You cannot serve God and money.” (Matthew 6:24).
He repeated the warning in the Parable of the Sower, who cast some of his seeds among thorns, which choked the seeds and prevented them from growing and bearing fruit. Those seeds, Jesus explained, represented “the one who hears the word, but the cares of the world and the lure of wealth choke the word, and it yields nothing.” (Matthew 11:1-23)
The consequences of letting money divert us from our Christian duties are dire, Christ says: “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.” (Mark 10::25)
He says it again in Luke 6:24-25: “But woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation. Woe to you who are full now, for you will be hungry.”
The actions of Christian conservatives
If these are the words of Jesus, why do Christian Republicans seem so obsessed with money and taxes? Why are they so eager to slash social programs for the poor in the name of saving money? And why do their policies almost exclusively favor the rich over the poor?
It isn’t enough that conservatives vote to cut food stamps, repeal health care, and keep the minimum wage at poverty level, they also love to adopt policies that inordinately benefit the wealthy (presumably making it even harder for the rich to get to heaven). They cut the top tax rate from 70% in 1981,when Ronald Reagan took office, to 35% under President George W. Bush. They cut the capital gains tax from 28% in 1981 to 15.7% in 2007 (which mostly benefits those with large stock and real estate portfolios). Recently, Republicans in the House voted to eliminate the inheritance tax, which only applies to estates of about $5.5 million or more.
Then, outrageously, when their tax cuts predictably led to massive budget shortfalls under Reagan and Bush, conservatives used those deficits as their excuse to cut social programs for the poor. In large part, the conservative agenda is based on storing up treasures here on earth, instead of doing God’s work helping people in need.
The difference in values between the two political parties can be seen starkly by comparing the stated 2015 agendas of President Obama (in his State of the Union address) and Republican Party leaders (outlined in this CNN article):
|President Obama||Republican 2015 proposals|
|Raise in the minimum wage||Approving the Keystone Pipeline|
|Affordable child care and $3,000 per child tax cut||Relaxing regulations on manufacturers to spur job growth|
|Universal paid sick leave and maternity leave for workers||Repealing the health care law|
|Equal pay for women||Reversing Obama’s executive actions to allow illegal immigrants to stay in the U.S.|
|Free community college||Tax reform|
In virtually every instance, Republicans choose saving money and cutting taxes over easing the burden of the poor and sick. And these aren’t the only issues in which Republicans make their allegiance clear. They oppose unions, Dodd-Frank banking reforms, net neutrality, ending corporate tax loopholes—in fact, it’s hard to name an issue in which conservatives side with the little guy over the rich and powerful. Invariably, they show deference to the rich and indifference to the poor. “You cannot serve God and money,” Jesus said. Apparently, when it comes to public policy, conservatives have made their choice.
WE SHOULD NOT JUDGE OTHERS
The words of Jesus
Several times in the Gospels, Jesus teaches us that we should not sit in judgment of others.
“Do not judge, and you will not be judged; do not condemn, and you will not be condemned,” he tells us in Luke 6:37.
In Matthew 7:3-5 he says: “Why do you see the speck in your neighbor’s eye, but do not notice the log in your own eye? Or how can you say to your neighbor, “Let me take the speck out of your eye,” while the log is in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your neighbor’s eye.”
When the scribes and Pharisees want to stone to death a woman for adultery, Jesus stays their hand by saying, “Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.” (John 8:7)
Our job is not to condemn others, Jesus tells us, but to love them. His message could not be plainer.
The actions of Christian conservatives
Despite these clear admonitions from Jesus, conservatives have added a new wrinkle in their attitude toward the poor: judgment and condemnation. Not content with mere indifference, they have moved on to antipathy, disparaging people on welfare or food stamps as lazy, freeloading moochers.
The attitude isn’t new, although it seems to have accelerated in recent years. It seemed to begin in earnest with Ronald Reagan’s conjuring of the “welfare queen,” a purely apocryphal image of Cadillac-driving welfare cheats. More recently, the conservative message has been to label the poor as takers. Here are just a few examples:
- Fox News denigrates people on food stamps. (via The Daily Show)
- And does it some more. (The Daily Show)
- Paul Ryan says 60% of Americans are “takers.” (Huffington Post)
- More than 75% of conservatives say the poor have it easy. (Washington Post)
- Most Republicans believe people are poor because they don’t work hard enough. (TalkingPointsMemo)
- GOP Gov. John Kasich criticizes his own party. (Business Insider)
WE SHOULD BEWARE OF FALSE PIETY
The words of Jesus
Jesus showed a remarkable compassion generally, but he made an exception for a certain kind of person: the hypocrite. Several times in the Gospels, Jesus scorns the sanctimonious scribes and Pharisees, the religious authorities who made a public show of their religiosity but demonstrated little love or concern for others. They obsessed over other people’s strict adherence to religious law but lost sight of their godly responsibilities to help people.
Jesus warned us many times about people like them: the outwardly pious who have no real love for the poor, and who mistake piety for true faith.
“Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves,” Jesus says in Matthew 7:15.
He also advises against public displays of faith: “Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them; for then you have no reward from your Father in heaven,” he says in Matthew 6:1, and again four verses later: “And whenever you pray, do not be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, so that they may be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen.”
In fact, the Gospel of Matthew devotes an entire chapter (23) to Jesus’ condemnation of sanctimonious hypocrites. “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites!” he says in Matthew 23:23. “For you tithe mint, dill, and cumin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith.”
Again, in Mark 12:38-40, Jesus tells us: “Beware of the scribes, who like to walk around in long robes, and to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces, and to have the best seats in the synagogues and places of honor at banquets! They devour widows’ houses and for the sake of appearance say long prayers. They will receive the greater condemnation.”
The actions of Christian conservatives
Do Jesus’ words ring any bells in the behavior of conservative Christian politicians, who seem so eager to wear their religion on their sleeves? Governors Rick Perry of Texas and Bobby Jindal of Louisiana hold large prayer rallies in advance of their presidential campaigns. Senator Ted Cruz announces his run for president from a conservative Christian college. Religious conservatives argue strenuously for teaching creationism and conducting prayers in schools. Lawmakers declare from the floor of Congress that America is a Christian nation founded on Christian principles. They make a great show of their Christian beliefs—and then vote to cut food stamps for people in poverty. They propose a budget that slashes food stamps and Medicaid for the indigent and disabled. They vote to make basic health care once again unaffordable for millions of Americans and offer nothing in its place. They label the poor as takers and freeloaders.
For all of their outward piety, Christian conservative politicians seem more concerned about saving money or pointing fingers at other people’s sins than about easing the burden of people in need. And conservative Christian voters support them in all of it. Are these the kind of people Jesus was referring to in Matthew 15:7-8? “You hypocrites! Isaiah prophesied rightly about you when he said: “This people honors me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me …”?
No doubt Republicans would not take kindly to the assertion that their politics are riddled with Christian contradictions. Most likely, their objections would sound something like this:
Christian conservatives are concerned about the poor. We just have different political ideas about how to help. Our unwavering support for business interests doesn’t show an indifference to the poor, it’s a better and more efficient way of improving the lives of all Americans, including the poor. A strong business environment boosts the economy and creates jobs, and that helps everyone. As Ronald Reagan once said, “A rising tide lifts all boats.”
Being Christian doesn’t mean you can’t also be concerned about wasteful spending, budget deficits, and government overreach. The big-government social programs beloved by liberals are inherently wasteful and inefficient. They foster a culture of dependence that is ultimately demeaning to the poor because they don’t teach low-income people how to be self-sufficient. Government handouts don’t help the poor; they induce them to remain in a lifetime of poverty.
In many respects, that’s a perfectly reasonable political position. Leaving aside the fact that Republican “supply-side economics” is a completely unproven theory2, it’s an argument Democrats would do well to consider. Liberals, after all, are also concerned about wasteful spending and ineffective programs.
Unfortunately, the conservative argument that they’re just helping the poor in a different way is belied in three ways:
1. Poverty is not a priority. Though Jesus said helping people in need must be one of our highest priorities, Republicans rarely seem to talk about poverty issues—and certainly not as a justification for their pro-business, small-government, tax-cutting agenda. Their arguments are almost exclusively about money (less government spending, lower taxes) or “freedom” (less government regulation, lower taxes). Poor people are not Republican constituents, and judging by their rhetoric, they are not really much on their minds. Does being a good Christian mean you can’t be concerned about the national budget or government waste or bureaucracy? No, of course not. But it does mean those things can’t be your only concern.
2. Their actions contradict their words. The conservative argument that their policies are trying to promote self-sufficiency for the poor falls apart with their proposals to cut food stamps, Meals on Wheels, or Pell grants. For example, more than 60% of people who receive food stamps are children, the mentally and physically disabled, or elderly—people who aren’t in the job market. And 31% of food stamps go to people who already have jobs—the working poor. Even the able-bodied, childless adults who get food stamps can usually only receive them for three months unless they’re working at least 20 hours a week. When Republicans tried to slash food stamps, they didn’t make any distinctions between welfare cheats and the genuinely needy; they just thought we were spending too much money. Cuts in food stamps or Meals on Wheels hurt everyone, not just the lazy. And when conservatives propose cutting Pell grants for college, they’re hurting low-income people who are trying to be self-sufficient. The Republicans’ indiscriminate whacking in the name of saving money devastates the deserving and undeserving alike.
3. They don’t propose alternatives. Conservatives rarely propose alternative solutions to the social programs they love to slash. They’re eager to take things away—food stamps, Medicaid, affordable health insurance. But when do they offer constructive ideas of their own? If Christian conservatives think the social programs we have are wasteful and inefficient, it seems they should be duty-bound by their religion to propose better solutions. If they despise the Affordable Care Act, how else do they propose that tens of millions of uninsured Americans get proper health care? If they want to get rid of Head Start, what do they plan to do about the education gap between rich and poor children, or about child care for the working poor? The conservative “solution” is to maintain the status quo.
At least a few conservatives may be dimly awakening to their sorry record of Christian charity. Rep. Paul Ryan, for example, has recently been making noises of concern for the poor. But his Johnny-come-latelyism and unhelpful proposals seem quarter-hearted at best. (He also voted to cut funding for food stamps.)
It’s possible that Christian conservatives might drag out another argument against the charge of hypocrisy: that Jesus was talking about personal responsibility, not government obligations.
That’s true enough, technically. Jesus lived under a military dictatorship, not a democracy. And as we’ve said, he didn’t have much to say about health care or welfare programs. But he was talking generally about our human responsibilities, and he didn’t make exceptions to helping the needy. In any case, this would be a curious argument from conservatives, who keep saying that America is a Christian nation, founded on Christian principles. If that’s true (it isn’t, but we’ll let it pass for the sake of argument), shouldn’t our government adhere to the Christian obligation of helping the poor? No other social entity—not private charity, nonprofit organizations, or state government—has anywhere near the power, reach, and immense financial resources of the federal government, nor the ability to create coordinated, systemic solutions to nationwide problems. If you’re a Christian, why wouldn’t you want to employ such a vast resource for the glory of God? It’s a mystery.
Just to be clear, none of this is an argument that conservative Christians as individuals are somehow less Christian than liberals, or less empathetic toward the poor. No doubt millions of conservatives donate money to food banks, or volunteer in worthy causes for the disadvantaged, or tithe to churches that have wonderful programs for the poor.
This is an argument that the open-hearted Christian charity shown by individual conservatives is strangely and perversely absent from Republican national policies. When it comes to politics, that concern for the poor somehow is ruthlessly trumped by conservatives’ exaggerated loathing of all things government and by their emphasis on saving money and cutting taxes instead of helping people in need.
It is also an argument that conservative Christians need to rethink their reflexive support of the Republican Party. They should ask themselves seriously if voting Republican truly reflects their Christian beliefs and the teachings of Christ.
If that’s too much to ask, then at least they need to radically revise their conservative policies so that they genuinely address issues of poverty and the protection of America’s most vulnerable citizens while staying true to their political beliefs. Helping the poor must be a significant part of Christian conservative rhetoric and action. As Ohio Republican Gov. John Kasich said in announcing his 2016 presidential bid, “When you die and get to the meeting with St. Peter, he’s probably not going to ask you much about what you did about keeping government small. But he’s going to ask what you did for the poor.” Why isn’t that the governing philosophy of all Christian conservatives?
It’s remarkable, really, that most Christian conservatives, so eager to show off their religion in public, can get their religion so exactly wrong. In complete contradiction to the teachings of Jesus, they champion policies that favor the rich over the poor. Time after time, on issue after issue, they seem to choose the path of least compassion, of money over people, and of judgment rather than love.
Helpfully, though, Jesus left us some advice 2,000 years ago, in Matthew 7:15, about how to recognize the hypocrites and false teachers who profess religion but corrupt the word of God:
“By their fruits you shall know them.”
1 A tiny handful of examples to illustrate the general mindset:
- John McCain says the Constitution established a Christian nation.
- Sarah Palin talks about America as a Christian nation.
- A modern history of God and the Republican Party platform
- The Texas Republican Party platform states America is a Christian nation. (search “Christian”)
- Republican congressman J. Randy Forbes proclaims America is a “Judeo-Christian nation” on the House floor.
- The Tennessee House votes to make the Bible the official state book.
- Conservatives in the media declare a “war on Christianity.”
2 “Supply-side doctrine, which claimed without evidence that tax cuts would pay for themselves, never got any traction in the world of professional economic research,” says Nobel Prize-winning economist Paul Krugman in his book The Conscience of a Liberal. “N. Gregory Mankiw, the Harvard economist who was the chairman of Bush’s Council of Economic Advisers between 2003 and 2005, famously described the supply-siders as ‘cranks and charlatans’ in the first edition of his textbook on the principles of economics.”