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.

Why I Call Myself “Liberal” and not “Progressive”

My friend Tony Jones and some other folks over at Pathos are working out the implications of “Progressive Christianity” and what it means in today’s religious landscape. They’re also talking about the differences between labels like “progressive” as opposed to “liberal” and why certain labels are better than others. I’m not really all that bothered by the use of either word (progressive/liberal) but I do tend to prefer “liberal” to describe myself in the religious and political landscape.

The main reason is that I find the label “progressive” too dismissive of those who would not call themselves “progressives” in a religious or political sense. It implies that one way of thinking or believing is progressing while others ways are not. I find a lot that I’m not a fan of in conservative, traditional Christianity but one thing I don’t find is absolutely no one progressing, growing, moving forward within their conservative world-view. Sure, there are those that regress or remain static in their ways, but that’s certainly not as universal a condition as the word “progressive” would imply.

The main difference between liberal/progressives and conservative/traditionalists is the way each group approaches boundaries or limits. Traditionalists will typically tend to respect limits and boundaries while liberals will typically question or challenge them. If I call myself a “liberal,” I’m identifying the nature of my relationship to the conventional boundaries with which we all interact. If I say I’m not bound by what Paul writes in scripture about homosexuality or the role of women, then I’ve freed myself, liberated myself from what many believe is a healthy limit that the Bible sets. Conservatives fear that we all ultimately lose something when we cross these limits. Liberals fear that something is lost if these limits are not, at the very least, questioned and challenged. This doesn’t mean that conservatives cannot progress within their world-view. It just means that limits are typically respected and revered because their perception of tradition brings with it great authority.

I realize conservatives will say that, within their world-view, they are indeed “liberated” and I’m not trying to imply otherwise. It’s certainly not up to me to determine whether or not a person feels free. But if these labels are used to indicate our relationship to boundaries, then I feel like both descriptors, “liberal” and “conservative,” can be agreeable for both groups.

The Curse of Constantine

“One of history’s greatest lessons is that once the state embraces a religion, the nature of that religion changes radically. It loses its nonviolent component and becomes a force for war rather than peace. The state must make war, because without war it would have to drop its power politics and renege on its mission to seek advantage over other nations, enhancing itself at the expense of others. And so a religion is in the service of a state is a religion that not only accepts war but prays for victory. From Constantine to the Crusaders to the contemporary American Christian right, people who call themselves Christians have betrayed the teachings of Jesus while using His name in the pursuit of political power.”

–Mark Kurlansky, Nonviolence

Of course, this phenomenon is not limited to just the Christian right. To some degree we all pursue our own power while ignoring the powerless. I know that often times I can be violently nonviolent. It’s fairly easy to consider yourself a proponent of nonviolence when the topic surrounds the Iraq or Afghanistan wars currently going on or the build up of nuclear weapons all around the world. But it gets a bit more difficult when considering our own thoughts, words and all the other daily choices that in some way or another commit violence on others, even those we love.

John McCain Is A Really Bad Campaigner

First, let me make it clear that I am very much rooting for John McCain in his primary campaign against J.D Hayworth. While I’m not a huge McCain fan, I’m even less of a Hayworth fan so for the good of all I’ll do my best to root for the better of two not-so-good choices. Unfortunately for those supporting McCain, he really is a terrible campaigner. On the other hand, Hayworth is smooth, well spoken and sharp. While he’s dead wrong on many issues, his tv and radio background come in handy.

To try to stave off Hayworth and his growing momentum, McCain is just flip-flopping his ass off. I certainly hope it works but even if McCain wins, he’s really being exposed for the kind of political weakling he really is. Here are two related stories on McCain’s recent change of heart and/or straight up deceptions on his record. Matt Yglesias highlights McCain’s TARP confusion here and examines his U-turn on the immigration issue here.