How can people who claim to be followers of Jesus be political conservatives?
When you are in the political world, you have decisions to make every single day about who you will try to help and who you won't. In spite of the earnest quest of good technocrats everywhere, the simple fact is that there are only a few win-win solutions. Who you tax, who you give a tax break to, what programs you cut or add to, who you tighten regulations on, and who you loosen them on, what kind of contractors are eligible for government work, which school districts and non-profit groups get federal money, etc: these political decisions are generally not win-win. Instead, they mean that one group of people win, and one group of people loses. It is the nature of politics, and you can't take the politics out of politics.
The most fundamental difference between progressives and conservatives is that question of which side you are on. Conservatives believe that the rich and powerful got that way because they deserve to be, that society owes its prosperity to the prosperous, and that government's job when they have to make choices is to side with those businesspeople who are doing well, because all good things trickle down from them. Progressives, on the other hand, believe it is the poor and those who are ill-treated who need the most help from their government, and that prosperity comes from all of us -- the worker as well as the employer, the consumer as well as the seller, the struggling entrepreneur trying to make it as well as the wealthy who already have.
Usually, I might spend my time arguing which of those worldviews gives us better policy outcomes, or which is better politics, but in this post I want to focus on something else: which side the God of the Judeo-Christian Biblical tradition is on.
Between Glenn Beck's conspiracy theories about Christian social justice (Since Communists and Nazis both used the words "social" and "justice," sometimes even together, the phrase must be bad along with other words they used a lot like the, and, one, thank you, please, today, tonight, and tomorrow), Sarah Palin's "spiritual warfare," and my very fun e-mail debates with a much-beloved but sadly misguided conservative Christian relative, I have been thinking a lot about Christians and political ideology of late. As those of you who read me a lot know, I was raised in a church-oriented home, and I write about religion a fair amount. This isn't because I am conventionally religious: I decided about four decades ago that since there was no way for sure about the nature of God or the soul or all that metaphysical stuff, I wasn't going to spend much time thinking, caring, or worrying about it. If that sends one to hell, at least I'll be there with a lot of my favorite people. But I still have the social and moral teaching I learned from my upbringing embedded in me as a core part of my value system, and I still know my Bible pretty well.
That's why I am always puzzled by how people who claim to be followers of the Jesus I read about in the Bible can be political conservatives.
Now I know there are many people who have not been brought up in the Christian faith, or who were but aren't interested in it anymore. Perhaps like a great many folks, you have been turned off by all the high-profile preachers who claim to speak for Christianity but preach a brand of narrow, intolerant conservatism that you can't relate to. My view is that even if that is the case, it is still important to know something about the Christian New Testament because it is such a historical and cultural touchstone in our country. I also think it's important to have a sense of just how different the Bible is from how conservative Christians represent it. For those of you uninterested in all this, I understand why: you definitely won't want to dig into what follows. But for those of who are, here is my argument about Christianity and progressivism in politics.
Conservative Christians' primary argument regarding Jesus and politics is that all he cared about was spiritual matters and an individual's relationship with God. As a result, they say, all those references from Jesus about helping the poor relate only to private charity, not to society as a whole. Their belief is that Jesus, and the New Testament in general, is focused on one thing and one thing only: how do people get into heaven.
The Jesus of the New Testament was of course extremely concerned with spiritual matters: there is no doubt whatsoever about his role or interest in the issues of the day, that the spiritual well-being of his followers was a major interest of his. How much he was involved with or interested in the political situation of the day is a matter of much debate and interpretation. Some say it was a lot and others that it was pretty limited or, as conservatives would say, not at all. However, much of a priority or focus it was, though, if you actually read the Gospels, it is clear that Jesus' main concern in terms of the people whose fates he cared about was for the poor, the oppressed, and the outcast. Comment after comment and story after story in the Gospels about Jesus relates to the treatment of the poor, generosity to those in need, mercy to the outcast, and scorn for the wealthy and powerful. And his philosophy is embedded with the central importance of taking care of others, loving others, treating others as you would want to be treated. There is no virtue of selfishness here, there is no "greed is good," there is no invisible hand of the market or looking out for Number One first. There is nothing about poor people being lazy, nothing about the undeserving poor being leeches on society, nothing about how I pulled myself up by my own bootstraps so everyone else should, too. There is nothing about how in nature, "the lions eat the weak," and therefore we shouldn't help the poor because it weakens them. There is nothing about charity or welfare corrupting a person's spirit.
What there is: quote after quote about compassion for the poor. In Jesus' very first sermon of his ministry, the place where he launched his public career, he stated the reason he had come: to bring good news to the poor, liberty to the captives, to help the oppressed go free, and that he was here to proclaim a year of favor from the Lord -- which in Jewish tradition meant the year that poor debtors were forgiven their debts to bankers and the wealthy. In Luke 6, Jesus says the poor and hungry will be blessed, and the rich will be cursed. He urges his followers to sell all their possessions and give them to the poor. The one time he really focuses on God's judgment and who goes to heaven is in Matthew 25, where he says those who go to heaven will be those who fed the hungry, clothed the naked, visited those in prison, gave shelter to the hungry, and welcomed the stranger -- and those who don't make it were the ones who refused to help the poor and oppressed.
And he was a really serious class warrior, too -- he wasn't just into helping the poor; he didn't seem to like rich folks very much. In Matthew 6, he focuses on the love of money as a major problem. In Luke 11, he berates a wealthy lawyer for burdening the poor. In Luke 12, he says that the wealthy who store up treasure are cursed by God. In Luke 14, he says if we throw a party, we should invite all poor people and no rich people, and suggests that the wealthy already turned down their invitation to God's feast, and that it is the poor who will get into heaven (a theme repeated multiple times). He says that the rich people will have a harder time getting to heaven than a camel trying to pass through the eye of a needle. He chases the wealthy bankers and merchants from the Temple.
I have never heard a conservative Christian quote any of these verses -- not once, and I have been in a lot of discussions with Christian conservatives, and heard a lot of their speeches and sermons. The one verse they always quote (and I mean always -- I have never talked to a conservative Christian about economics and not heard them quote this verse) is the one time in which Jesus says that "the poor will always be with us." The reason they love this quote so much is that they interpret that line to mean that in spite of everything else Jesus said about the poor, that since the poor will always be with us, we don't need to worry about trying to help them. Apparently since the poor will always be with us, we can go ahead and screw them. But Jesus making a prediction that there will always be oppressive societies doesn't mean he wanted us to join the oppressors. By clinging desperately to that one verse in the Bible, and ignoring all the others about the poor and the rich, Christian conservatives show themselves to be hypocrites, plain and simple.
The Jesus of the New Testament spent his public career preaching about the nature of God and our relationship to God, but also about how we should deal with each other. He repeatedly blessed mercy, gentleness, peacemaking, community, and taking care of each other. He lifted up the poor and oppressed, and spoke poorly of the wealthy and powerful. If anyone in modern society talked like he did, you can bet your bottom dollar that conservatives would condemn that person as a class warrior, a socialist. Jesus may not have been primarily concerned with politics, but for what politics he did have, it is virtually impossible to argue that he was anything but a progressive thinker.
I want to close on one other note here. I focused here on the Jesus of the Gospels (principally Matthew, Mark and Luke -- the Gospel of John is almost all focused on mystical spiritualism), but Jesus is not exactly the only Bible character concerned with issues of social and economic justice. All of the first five books of the Torah (the Old Testament for Christians) talk a lot about justice for the poor; the Psalms are full of verses about the helping poor; every Old Testament prophet castigates the Jewish people (and yes, their governments) for mistreating the poor. And in the New Testament, there are some dynamite passages promoting progressive thinking aside from all of the Jesus quotations I mentioned. Three of my very favorites:
Judeo-Christian scripture is a rich and complicated work of literature. Written over the course of (at least) several hundred years by dozens of different authors, there are a variety of perspectives and many times outright contradictions in the theology and the politics of the writing (if it's all inspired word for word by God, He seems to have changed his mind a lot). But one thing is extremely certain: the poor seem to be who God is most concerned about. Yes, there are a few quotations (four, if I remember right) trashing gay people, along with quite a few more about the right way to do animal sacrifice and to be careful about eating shellfish and hanging out with women who are menstruating. But mercy, kindness, and concern for the poor and the weak and the outcast seems to matter a lot more, with literally several hundred verses referencing those agenda items. If you are a progressive, that is a pretty good ratio.