The Intersection of Politics and Christianity

There’s an interesting story at NPR regarding the proposed GOP budget. Is the GOP budget that slashes assistance to the poor something that is in line with the Christian calling of hospitality and caring for the poor? Here’s an excerpt from the article:

After the House passed its budget last month, liberal religious leaders said the Republican plan, which lowered taxes and cut services to the poor, was an affront to the Gospel — and particularly Jesus’ command to care for the poor.

Not so, says Wisconsin Republican Rep. Paul Ryan, who chairs the House Budget Committee. He told Christian Broadcasting Network last week that it was his Catholic faith that helped shape the budget plan. In his view, the Catholic principle of subsidiarity suggests the government should have little role in helping the poor.

“Through our civic organizations, through our churches, through our charities — through all of our different groups where we interact with people as a community — that’s how we advance the common good,” Ryan said.

The best thing that government can do, he said, is get out of the way.

Scot McKnight responded to Paul’s quote with a review of the scriptures,

“1. Some folks are poor. They deserve, in most cases, our empathy and our compassion and our help — both as relief and as a path to employment.

2. Scriptures teach God’s people to care for the poor, and when God’s people ignores the poor, God makes it known that he is on the side of the poor. (Let’s not debate the specifics of the “preferential option for the poor.”)

3. Scriptures don’t emerge from either socialism or from free market enterprise, and those who think they do are making a gross historical error. It requires historical finesse and hermeneutical nuance to move from that world into our world. Turning the Bible’s laws into eternal laws is great example of biblicism and will land you in trouble most of the time.

4. God’s people responded to the poor in a variety of ways, including distribution — ever read about Moses in Egypt? And Jubilee? And the laws of gleaning? These are divinely-commanded and governmentally-administered required donations designed to help the poor.

Sometimes God’s people responds individually and locally to care for the poor. Ever read about Paul ad his collection for the poor saints in Jerusalem? (Which, by the way, was a Christian concern for fellow Christians, was an offering and not a tax, and which is not a good set of texts for how democratic societies care for their poor.)

5. The Church’s teaching traditions are worthy of serious exploration, including how Christians have helped shape public policy in a variety of countries in order to make sure the poor are cared for.”

As I read NPR’s story and McKnight’s response, two thoughts jumped out at me.

First, whether we like it or not there is a commonality in the mission of the Church and the purpose of local and federal government. Both seek to alleviate suffering. Both seek to help solve the problems that riddle our society. While there are big differences between the two and how they go about doing their work, there is an obvious overlapping.

Secondly and most importantly, Paul’s logic really does not add up. He says that government should play little if no role in assisting our poorest citizens and puts the responsibility for doing so on churches and charitable organizations to “advance the common good.” The government should “get of the way.” If Paul and the rest of the GOP are truly concerned with the level of poverty in the U.S., they have an interesting way of showing it. It seems to me that Paul’s budget makes idealistic assumptions about how the poor are cared for. Why assume these other organizations are going to pick up the slack when the the government pulls back? If anything, in a struggling economy, Churches and other non-profits are struggling to keep up much less expand their operations. In a perfect world, Paul’s plan would be defensible. Churches and other civic organizations wouldn’t need government assistance in caring for the poor. It sounds great but it’s never been the case and there’s no reason at all to believe it will be the case anytime soon. So the question becomes why the GOP would draft a budget proposal that anticipates a set of circumstances that we’ve never seen before? My guess would be that the current level of poverty in the U.S. is acceptable to GOP and won’t really matter if their policies make it a little worse.

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