The strange origins of the GOP ideology that rejects caring for the poor

No, that’s not what Jesus says.

CREDIT: AP/Eric Gay
CREDIT: AP/Eric Gay

The ongoing Capitol Hill brawl over health care and budget cuts is getting Biblical.

In recent months, GOP lawmakers have taken to quoting 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, an 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 — 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.”

Rep. Paul Ryan has made several theological arguments to defend cutting welfare programs in recent years. CREDIT: AP/Cliff Owen
Rep. Paul Ryan has made several theological arguments to defend cutting welfare programs in recent years. CREDIT: AP/Cliff Owen

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 of 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.

GOP lawmakers begin preaching a gospel that judges the poor

Slowly but surely, disciples of this theology expanded from think tank conference rooms to the halls of power.

During the 2013 debate over the Farm Bill — which includes the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), or food stamps — two different Republican lawmakers bolstered calls to cut the program by citing 2 Thessalonians, just as Arrington did this year. Then-congressman Stephen Fincher from Tennessee dismissed Democrats who said government assistance mirrors Christ’s call to care for the “the least of these,” saying instead “Anyone unwilling to work should not eat.” Rep. Kevin Cramer (R-ND) also repeated the verse to counter a constituent who cited the Bible to criticize his support for cutting SNAP.

“Can we in good conscience make the banker, who in this case is a good hard-working person, pay for the faults of the sleeper with bad credit? Is that the knee-jerk Christian position? Let us just force people to be ethical. Let us force an ethical outcome. Let us force justice.”

The most passionate devotee of this theology, however, is probably Rep. David Brat (R-VA), who soared into office in 2014 as part of the Tea Party wave. Brat, a Presbyterian seminary graduate who listed a visit to AEI on his academic CV, even published theological works on conservative economics. In one 2011 paper on the topic of usury, he challenged the idea that banks should lower their loan rates for impoverished people with poor credit — in other words, the “undeserving poor.”

Rep. David Brat. CREDIT: AP/J. Scott Applewhite
Rep. David Brat. CREDIT: AP/J. Scott Applewhite

“That borrower may not like work and may sleep all day and eat snacks while watching television,” Brat, who serves on the House Budget Committee, wrote. “Can we in good conscience make the banker, who in this case is a good hard-working person, pay for the faults of the sleeper with bad credit? Is that the knee-jerk Christian position? Let us just force people to be ethical. Let us force an ethical outcome. Let us force justice.”

Meanwhile, conservative Catholics — another key component of the Religious Right coalition—have spent years crafting similar theology for their own tradition. Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI), for instance, defended his 2012 budget, which slashed many public programs, by championing a version of a Catholic concept known as “subsidiarity.”

“To me, the principle of subsidiarity, which is really federalism, meaning government closest to the people governs best, having a civil society of the principal of solidarity where we, through our civic organizations, through our churches, through our charities…that’s how we advance the common good by not having big government crowd out civic society…and take care of people who are down and out in our communities,” Ryan said at the time.

He went on to repeat the axiom that government assistance programs keep people poor by making them dependent: “The preferential option for the poor, which is one of the primary tenets of Catholic social teaching, means don’t keep people poor, don’t make people dependent on government so that they stay stuck at their station in life, help people get out of poverty out onto life of independence.”

Ryan’s understanding of subsidiarity was widely panned in Catholic circles, but other right-wing Catholics embraced his implicit message: government programs somehow create “undeserving poor” who do not work, and only through smaller government approaches can the lowly be spurred into action.

Progressive religious pushback

Raising the specter of the “undeserving” poor may be a popular trend among GOP politicians these days, but they’re rehashing it at time when poor-focused theologies are in a state of revival.

CREDIT: AP/Andrew Medichini
CREDIT: AP/Andrew Medichini

Many have pushed back on Marshall’s “the poor will always be with us” quip as well as the GOP’s misuse of 2 Thessalonians, for instance, saying lawmakers are using the lines out of context. Hundreds of faith leaders have also convened marches to decry Trump’s budget proposal as “immoral,” and spoken out against the Obamacare repeal. And one Tennessee woman even became a minor sensation after thousands shared a video of her defending the merits of the ACA — all while championing the need to care for the needy — at a recent town hall event.

“The ACA mandate requires everyone to have insurance because the healthy people pull up the sick people, right?” she said in February. “As a Christian, my whole philosophy in life is to pull up the unfortunate.”

Yet the most ardent (albeit indirect) opponent of the GOP’s theology may be one of the world’s most prominent faith leaders — Pope Francis. When he ascended to the papacy of the Catholic Church in 2013, it took him less than a year to publish Evangelii gaudium, a landmark apostolic exhortation that lifted up the issues of the needy and attacked any distinction between the “deserving” and “undeserving poor.”

“God’s heart has a special place for the poor, so much so that he himself ‘became poor,’” Francis writes, referencing the often impoverished life of the biblical Jesus Christ. “The entire history of our redemption is marked by the presence of the poor.”

Francis’ theology, in turn, has inspired him to de facto endorse policies that aid the poor. In May 2014, he called for “the legitimate redistribution of economic benefits,” saying scripture demands an economic system that cares for the “poorest and those most excluded.” This belief also extends to health care: in May of 2016, he referred to employers who don’t offer health insurance to employees as “true leeches.”

Will this be enough to change the hearts and minds of conservative lawmakers? Probably not: GOP lawmakers have yet to abandon their biblical capitalism, even when conservatives and progressive Christians both criticize things like the prosperity gospel. Nor has Paul Ryan, a Catholic who says he is inspired by the pontiff but has not altered his hardline views of the poor.

Regardless, don’t be surprised if the coming legislative battles become increasingly spiritual. The GOP is counting on it.