One such conversation revolved around the American tax system and social welfare. A group of (mostly) Christians were complaining that they are tired of paying higher tax rates than their less fortunate fellow Americans. They are tired of having their hard-earned money taken from them while so many do not pay, or pay very little. They are tired of watching lazy good-for-nothings take it easy while on the 'government gravy train.' While these are not a uniquely Christian gripes (nor do all Christians have these gripes), this chorus has been growing louder in Christian circles, and has has been elevated by religious right leaders, pundits, and authors, as legitimate Christian concerns.
Many Christians seem to believe that Jesus did not condone involuntary redistribution, but rather voluntary acts of charity. While this is not entirely off-base, it is far from accurate.
Gregory Paul, writing in The Washington Post's On Faith column last week, wrote about this bizarre shift from a socialist Jesus to a capitalistic Christianity:
A truly strange thing has happened to American Christianity. A set of profound contradictions have developed within modern conservative Christianity, big and telling inconsistencies that have long slipped under the radar of public knowledge, and are only now beginning to be explicitly noted by critics of the religious and economic right.He continues to describe yet more bizarre shifts, including the religious right's growing love affair with hard-line atheist and anti-Christian Ayn Rand. As Paul writes, many of these "Christians who support the capitalist policies associated with social Darwinism strenuously denounce Darwin’s evolutionary science because it supposedly leads to, well, social Darwinism! Meanwhile atheists, secularists and evolutionists are denounced as inventing the egalitarian evils of anti-socially Darwinistic socialism and communism. It’s such a weird stew of incongruities that it sets one’s head spinning."
Here is what is peculiar. Many conservative Christians, mostly Protestant but also a number of Catholics, have come to believe and proudly proclaim that the creator of the universe favors free wheeling, deregulated, union busting, minimal taxes especially for wealthy investors, plutocrat-boosting capitalism as the ideal earthly scheme for his human creations.
Indeed it does. How has this happened? How can such Christians reconcile their anti-welfare, capitalistic ideology with a religion based on a man who urged his followers to sell their possessions and give to the poor? Paul states, "A basic point of core Christian doctrine is that the wealthy have no more access to heaven than anyone else (and in fact may have less), offering hope to the impoverished rejected by cults that court the elites."
In scripture, Jesus provides continuous encouragement for the poor. He warns the wealthy that it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.
Chapters 2 and 4 of Acts state that all “the believers were together and had everything in common. Selling their possessions and goods, they gave to anyone as he had need… No one claimed that any of his possessions was his own, but they shared everything they had…. There were no needy persons among them. From time to time those who owned lands or houses sold them, brought the money from the sales and put it at the apostles feet, and it was distributed to anyone as he had need.”
That's about as far from the Objectivism of Ayn Rand as one can get. That, my friends, is socialism and welfare in a nutshell.
As for those who claim that Jesus's socialism was voluntary, it is important to note that in Jesus' time, we did not have complex societies comprised of millions of people. In simpler times it was not uncommon to welcome traveling strangers into one's home for a meal, a bed, or to have a wound or sickness treated. We relied on the charity of others because societies were not advanced enough to have, or need, safety nets for the suffering. Today, not many would take a stranger into their home, and very few have the time, or energy, in our modern, frantically paced society, to provide hands-on assistance to those in need.
In addition to Jesus' own words, we also have numerous depictions of pro-socialist ideology in The Gospels.
Writes Paul (again from the above-mentioned Washington Post piece):
To get just how central collectivism is to Christian canon, consider that the Bible contains the first description of socialism in history. Anti-socialist Christians also claim that the Biblical version was voluntary. Aside from it being obvious that the biblical version of God was not the anti-socialist Christian capitalists commonly proclaim he was, some dark passages in Acts indicate how deeply pro-socialist the New Testament deity is. Chapter 5 details how when a church member fails to turn over all his property to the church “he fell down and died,” when his wife later did the same “she fell down… and died… Great fear seized the whole church and all who heard about these events.”
Dear readers, does this not sound like a form of terror-enforced-communism imposed by a God who thinks that Christians who fail to join the collective are worthy of death?
Part of the reason why the current pro-capitalistic, anti-socialistic ideology has infiltrated the religious right is due to the dominionist ideology that has been championed by the far-right over the past 20 years.
It is no secret that the religious economic ideology found in the influential Christian book, America's Providential History by Mark Beliles and Stephen McDowell has infiltrated the Republican Party Platform and was partly instrumental in informing many of George W. Bush's Administration policies. This ideology is also echoed in the the policies of many current Republican lawmakers, including most of the 2012 GOP hopefuls. There is a clear relationship between the "dominion mandate" described in the textbook, and the ideology of the religious right.
Beliles and McDowell write:
"Scripture makes it clear that God is the provider, not the state, and that needy individuals are to be cared for by private acts of charity."
"Ecclesiastes 5:19 states, 'For every man to whom God has given riches and wealth, He has also empowered him to eat from them'...Also in I Chronicles 29:12, 'Both riches and honor come from Thee.'"
There has been much made of the Dominion mandate and the fact that Bachmann and Perry have close ties to the Dominionist movement. Many of the supporters of Perry's 'Response' prayer rally are aligned with the New Apostolic Reformation and Seven Mountains Dominionism. We have yet in our nation's history seen such a dangerous mix of religious and political ideology.
It must be said that this ideology is not new. Gordon Bigelow, writing on the evangelical roots of economics (Harper's Magazine v.310, n.1860, 1may2005):
At the center of this early evangelical doctrine was the idea of original sin: we were all born stained by corruption and fleshly desire, and the true purpose of earthly life was to redeem this. The trials of economic life—the sweat of hard labor, the fear of poverty, the self-denial involved in saving—were earthly tests of sinfulness and virtue. While evangelicals believed salvation was ultimately possible only through conversion and faith, they saw the pain of earthly life as means of atonement for original sin...Evangelicals interpreted the mental anguish of poverty and debt, and the physical agony of hunger or cold, as natural spurs to prick the conscience of sinners. They believed that the suffering of the poor would provoke remorse, reflection, and ultimately the conversion that would change their fate. In other words, poor people were poor for a reason, and helping them out of poverty would endanger their mortal souls. It was the evangelicals who began to see the business mogul as an heroic figure, his wealth a triumph of righteous will. The stockbroker, who to Adam Smith had been a suspicious and somewhat twisted character, was for nineteenth-century evangelicals a spiritual victor.
Paul, in the Washington Post, cites many other contributions to this Bizarro Christian Capitalism:
In the early Protestant Netherlands, Switzerland and England capital became the dominant economic driver. Of course members of a religion want to think that God approves of what they are up to. So many (but not all) Protestants began to cherry pick those Biblical passages that could be massaged to seemingly support laissez-faire markets while pretty much ignoring those that clearly don’t. This works because, as surveys show, most Christians don’t actually read the bulk of the Bible, and people are mentally skilled at dismissing the awkward passages they do come across. Christians really took the theory that God is pro-capital to its extreme in what has be come the least socialistic and most Jesus-following of the advanced democracies, the USA, where many see the nation as an exceptional, God blessed “Shining City on the Hill” they think stands as the exemplar of Godly capitalism to the world.Christians really took the theory that God is pro-capital to its extreme in what has be come the least socialistic and most Jesus-following of the advanced democracies, the USA, where many see the nation as an exceptional, God blessed “Shining City on the Hill” they think stands as the exemplar of Godly capitalism to the world.This ideology flowered with the emergence of evangelical and Pentecostal Prosperity Christianity and the modern corporate-consumer culture. This culture was further integrated into politics promoted by the likes of Ayn Rand, William Buckley, Milton Friedman, Alan Greenspan, and the alliance between Reagan and the religious right. It has gained more steam in recent years with the advent of the Tea Party, the recent Rand revival, and the rise of politically minded Christian right organizations and figures, many with close ties to 2012 GOP candidates.
Even if one could successfully argue that Christianity is pro-capitalism, where is the acknowledgement of Adam Smith's argument for a progressive taxation. Adam Smith, widely cited as the father of modern economics and capitalism, and author of the classic treatise on capitalism, The Wealth of Nations, wrote the following:
“The necessaries of life occasion the great expense of the poor...The luxuries and vanities of life occasion the principal expense of the rich, and a magnificent house embellishes and sets off to the best advantage all the other luxuries and vanities which they possess. . . . It is not very unreasonable that the rich should contribute to the public expense, not only in proportion to their revenue, but something more than in that proportion.”And while Adam Smith truly believed in the promise of capitalism, even he warned us of the dangers of excess and greed:
"The subjects of every state ought to contribute towards the support of the government, as nearly as possible, in proportion to their respective abilities; that is, in proportion to the revenue which they respectively enjoy under the protection of the state. The expense of government to the individuals of a great nation is like the expense of management to the joint tenants of a great estate, who are all obliged to contribute in proportion to their respective interests in the estate. In the observation or neglect of this maxim consists what is called the equality or inequality of taxation."
“All for ourselves, and nothing for other people, seems, in every age of the world, to have been the vile maxim of the masters of mankind.”Clearly, both The Father and the father of capitalism are preaching the same thing: It is our duty to contribute more than our less fortunate neighbors (in proportion to our abilities and wealth), for the greater good of society. It really couldn't be any more explicit.
As a non-believer who often finds himself in conversations with devout Christians, I find it strange, and a bit disturbing, that I am often the one who ends up preaching the Christlike messages of compassion and charity. Where have these ideals gone? This strange brand of Christianity fails to address the issue of human suffering, a staple of Christian theology. In this Bizarro World, it is the successful, employed Christian who is the one suffering, while the welfare recipient is reaping the spoils of capitalism. This is upside-down thinking, and is precisely where religion fails.
Humanists adhere to a code which not only rejects scripture as a moral guide, but which requires that we act with the goal of reducing suffering. Whereas we understand that we are not always capable of reducing the suffering of people at all times, we support the funding of organizations which are equipped to address the problem of suffering on a mass scale. Are there flaws in some of these services? Is there waste? Do some people abuse the system? Sure. But they are successful in reducing suffering in most instances, and working to improve these services is preferable to tearing them down.
America is somewhat unique in the way its social issues are so deeply intertwined with religious ideology. (Even It is the mix of religiosity and political conservatism that has bred this new brand of Christianity where our wealth is smiled upon by God and we ask the sick and the poor to pick themselves up by their bootstraps or suffer the consequences.
In different times, it might be the Christian accusing the atheist as being selfish, smug, and lacking in compassion.
Funny how things change.
(NOTE: The characterizations in this post describe a particular brand of Christianity -- I know many Christians who are some of the most generous and compassionate people I know.)
Images from Tea Party Jesus, a Web project "putting the words of Christians in the mouth of Jesus."