Senior Religion Reporter at ThinkProgress. Player of harmonica and ukulele. Tips: firstname.lastname@example.org
No, that’s not what Jesus says.The ongoing Capitol Hill brawl over health care and budget cuts is getting Biblical.
In recent months, GOP lawmakers have taken to spouting Christian scripture to defend conservative fiscal policy and their effort to repeal the Affordable Care Act. The first example came from Rep. Roger Marshall (R-KS), who argued in early March that Jesus would support his criticism of Obamacare’s Medicaid expansion, as aspect of health care reform that extended insurance coverage to additional low-income Americans.
“Just like Jesus said, ‘The poor will always be with us,’” Marshall told Stat News, quoting the Bible. “There is a group of people that just don’t want health care and aren’t going to take care of themselves.”
He added that “morally, spiritually, socially,” some poor and homeless people “just don’t want health care.”
Marshall’s comments triggered a flurry of criticism from several sources, including more progressive faith writers who chided him for rebuking the traditional Christian instruction to help the poor regardless of their personal choices. The newly elected congressman eventually walked back his remarks a few days later.
“Just like Jesus said, ‘The poor will always be with us…There is a group of people that just don’t want health care and aren’t going to take care of themselves.”
But it wasn’t long before another lawmaker spouted a similar argument in a policy debate. Later that month, Rep. Jodey Arrington (R-TX) attempted to use scripture to justify increasing work requirements for unemployed adults who use food stamps. When a representative from a Jewish anti-hunger advocacy group cited a passage from Leviticus to argue that poor people who receive benefits should not be judged by constrictive work requirements, Arrington fired back with a line from the New Testament.
“Scripture tells us in 2 Thessalonians chapter 3:10…‘for even when we were with you, we gave you this rule: if a man will not work, he shall not eat,’” Arrington said. “And then he goes on to say ‘we hear that some among you are idle’ … I think it’s a reasonable expectation that we have work requirements.”
These statements from Arrington and Marshall are rooted in the same religious idea: that the poor and sick?—?or at least a subset thereof?—?supposedly deserve their plight, and healthy and more financially secure Americans shouldn’t be forced to care for them.
This theology has incensed many progressive Christians of late, but it didn’t appear overnight. It’s the result of a decades-long campaign by conservative lawmakers, intellectuals, and theologians to craft a theology that rejects longstanding Christian understandings of society’s needy. As debates over the budget and health care continue to escalate, it’s worth investigating the strange origins of the belief system being preached from GOP podiums.
An ancient scriptural debate
For many Christians, debates about the poor and their choices are as old as scripture itself. The God of the Hebrew Bible?—?i.e., the Old Testament?—?is often inflicts illness and economic despair on those who reject the Almighty, and prophets such as Moses preach dire warnings against disappointing God.
“The Lord will send upon you disaster, panic, and frustration in everything you attempt to do, until you are destroyed and perish quickly, on account of the evil of your deeds, because you have forsaken me,” a passage from Deuteronomy reads. “The Lord will make the pestilence cling to you until it has consumed you off the land that you are entering to possess.”
Yet this concept?—?that self-righteous immorality begets earthly woes?—?was either rejected or complicated in the New Testament by none other than Jesus himself. When Christ is asked by his disciples how a blind man was afflicted with his condition, for instance, he dismisses earthly concepts of sin-borne illness.
The passage reads:
As [Jesus] walked along, he saw a man blind from birth. His disciples asked him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” Jesus answered, “Neither this man nor his parents sinned; he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him.”
Jesus then proceeds to heal the man, implying that “God’s works” are both his actions and, perhaps, the actions of those who heal the sick.
The tension between these two divergent concepts led to a number of different Christian teachings over the years. While many interpreted scripture to mean that all poor people should be served, others delineated between “deserving” and “undeserving” poor.
The Religious Right and the “undeserving poor”
American views on the morality of the poor have evolved over the years. In the 1800s, poverty was seen as a moral failing, but that attitude changed drastically around the turn of the century as the Industrial Revolution took hold. Bettering the lives of poor?—?especially factory workers and children?—?became a rallying cry for Christians who ascribed to the “social gospel” movement popular in the early 1900s, and mass unemployment during the Great Depression complicated tidy definitions of the undeserving poor. Then, sweeping social programs created by President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal cemented a national system?—?and an ideology?—?that sanctioned relief for those in need (regardless of their personal choices), which President Lyndon B. Johnson built out with 1960s-era anti-poverty initiatives.
But mindsets began to shift as the 20th century wore on, and there’s strong evidence that right-wing Christian figures helped craft a form of “biblical capitalism” to counter the views of religious progressives.
In his 2014 book The Undeserving Poor: America’s Enduring Confrontation with Poverty (originally published in 1989), author Michael Katz argues concepts of the “undeserving poor” reemerged during the ascendancy of the Religious Right in the 1970s. When conservative Christian leaders began outlining their agenda, he writes, they targeted programs like welfare because they “believed [the system] weakened families by encouraging out-of-wedlock births, sex outside of marriage, and the ability of men to escape the responsibilities of fatherhood.”
Citing sociologists, Katz notes that by the early 1990s?—?around the same time as their cause fused with the institutional conservative movement?—?right-wing Christian leaders were willing to work against some of their own churchgoers when it comes to anti-poverty initiatives.
Why? Because, Katz says, the “economic fortunes” of prominent pastors relied less on government spending on programs that “poor fundamentalists might desire.”
This eventually sparked something of a cottage theological industry where thinkers concocted faith messages that couple the idea of “undeserving poor” with a passionate support for free-market capitalism. In addition to scores individual theologians writing over the course of decades, issue-specific groups such as the American Enterprise Institute’s (AEI) Values and Capitalism project or the Institute for Faith, Work, and Economics (IFWE) sprung up to espouse a conservative and libertarian economic theology primarily geared toward evangelical Christians.
Sociologist Paul Froese at Baylor University?—?a Baptist school?—?observed this emerging phenomenon in 2012, describing it as a “new religious-economic idealism,” or the “belief that the free-market works because God is guiding it.” He pointed to survey data reporting that Americans who feel “God has a plan” for them and their nation are far more likely to think that “able-bodied people who are out of work should not receive unemployment checks.”
“Perhaps it is the fervent individualism of American Christianity which makes free market capitalism seem like a Divine mandate,” Froese wrote. “Because evangelicals assert that you alone are responsible for your eternal salvation, it makes sense that the individual is also responsible for his or her economic salvation without government assistance, especially if God is the only assistance you really need.”
The impact of these efforts was on full display during a 2014 panel discussion at AEI, where speakers debated “a Biblical answer to poverty.” All four panelists?—?two from IFWE?—?championed the merits of traditional capitalism, and IFWE Vice President of Theological Initiatives Art Lindsley drew upon a book chapter he wrote entitled “Does God require the state to redistribute wealth?” He argued that modern concepts of jubilee?—?a practice referenced in the Bible and traditionally interpreted to be a period of debt forgiveness in ancient Israel?—?are inaccurate, and insisted that early Christians did not sell all of their possessions (despite the fact that, according to the Bible, Jesus explicitly asked them to).
“I think we would all agree that there is a place for government, a place for the church, a place for nonprofits?—?but there’s also a place for markets,” Lindsley said.
“Because evangelicals assert that you alone are responsible for your eternal salvation, it makes sense that the individual is also responsible for his or her economic salvation without government assistance, especially if God is the only assistance you really need.”
Meanwhile, this mindset has been exacerbated by the rise of the so-called “prosperity gospel,” a form of Christianity in which adherents are taught they can achieve physical and financial success through their Christian faith?—?especially giving money to their pastor. Smaller iterations of this idea have existed for generations, but modern prosperity preachers now boast some of the largest churches in the country, attracting massive congregations to huge churches and even stadiums.
The wealthy pastors who head up these churches, many of whom own large homes and private jets purchased by their congregants, serve as an implicit spiritual exemplars: i.e., they are wealthy because of their faith. These so-called “health and wealth” pastors, in turn, often laud other rich individuals instead of the poor, including the growing number of prosperity preachers who have aligned themselves with Donald Trump.