As the House Agriculture Committee convened earlier this week to discuss whether or not to cut as much as $4.1 billion from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly known as food stamps), the conversation between lawmakers devolved into an exchange that was equal parts bad policy and bad theology.
As House members discussed slashing the budget for the Farm Bill, which funds SNAP, Rep. Stephen Fincher (R-TN) took issue with some Democrats who cited Jesus Christ’s call to care for “the least of these” when describing the government’s need to assist the hungry. Instead, Fincher explained his support for the proposed cuts by quoting a very different Bible verse — 2 Thessalonians 3:10: “For even when we were with you, we gave you this command: Anyone unwilling to work should not eat.”
But while 2 Thessalonians is a convenient tool for those who want to justify ignoring the poor, Fincher’s lukewarm Biblical argument doesn’t hold up under scrutiny. As many religious bloggers have already pointed out, the author of 2 Thessalonians was actually referring to ancient Christians who had stopped working in anticipation of Jesus’ Second Coming. The verse is concerned with correcting a theological misunderstanding (i.e., don’t just wait around for Jesus, live an active faith), not passing judgement on the poor.
Worse still, Fincher’s use of the Bible to defend the slashing of food stamps isn’t just bad theology, it’s also bad policy.
Undergirding Fincher’s sloppy exegesis is an old conservative fiction that people who rely on food stamps are lazy parasites who mooch off the government and refuse to work. In reality, most of the country’s 47 million food stamp recipients are children or the elderly, and many are employed. A 2012 report from the USDA found that 45 percent of SNAP recipients were under 18 years of age, nearly 9 percent were age 60 or older, and more than 40 percent lived in households with earnings.
Fincher’s misguided Bible-thumping ignores the plight of America’s 8.9 million “working poor.” This massive group includes the thousands of participants from the recent fast food and retail workers strikes, people who, despite working full-time 40 hours a week for booming industries, often only make around $7.25 an hour, or $15,000 a year. That’s far below the federal poverty threshold of $23,550 for a family of four and leaves many working families with no choice but to apply for food stamps just to feed their loved ones. The strikers, who are consistently backed by droves of religious leaders, are clearly willing to work, yet lawmakers like Fincher (who made his millions with the help of government farm subsidies) stand poised to deny them access to the food they need by decimating funding for SNAP.
Fincher’s misuse of scripture is also a slight to disabled Americans who rely on SNAP to stay afloat. Americans with disabilities, many of whom are elderly or military veterans, are burdened with any number of maladies that make full-time work difficult, if not impossible. Far from encouraging freeloading behavior, food stamps and programs like Meals on Wheels help us honor our national commitment — and, for many Americans, a religious duty — to assist our fellow citizens when they need us most.
Fincher is free to draw his own conclusions about the Bible and its teachings. But using scripture to accuse millions of Americans of being lazy freeloaders is not only spiritually bankrupt, it’s also politically stupid. SNAP and other programs that help the poor still face the potential for massive cuts as versions of the Farm Bill move through Congress in the coming weeks, but millions of struggling Americans are hoping that elected officials will spend less time concocting dehumanizing theology and more time creating policies that grant much-needed assistance to our country’s most vulnerable.