By Alfredo Garcia
Religion News Service
WASHINGTON (RNS) When conservative broadcaster Glenn Beck warned churchgoers to "run as fast as you can" if their pastors preach about "social justice," was he also encouraging them to run from the Bible?
That's what some progressive Christian leaders are arguing as battle lines are drawn for the 2010 mid-term elections. They say Beck and his Tea Party followers are, in a word, unbiblical.
Not so fast, say Tea Party activists, who claim biblical grounds for a libertarian-minded Jesus. He didn't like tax-based welfare programs, they say, and encouraged his followers to donate from the heart.
The insurgent Tea Party movement threatens to usurp the political prominence of religious conservatives, whose focus on hot-button social issues has been overshadowed by the Tea Party's fight against big government.
"I think that the general ideology of the Tea party is not a Christian one," said David Gushee, professor of Christian ethics at Mercer University and co-founder of the New Evangelical Partnership for the Common Good, a faith-based nonprofit.
"This kind of small government libertarianism, small taxes, leave-me-alone-to-live-my-life ideology has more in common with Ayn Rand than it does with the Bible."
Gushee described the Tea Party as "an uneasy marriage between the libertarian conservative strand and the Christian right strand" of American politics. In this "uneasy alliance," however, he said the Christian side has taken a backseat to the movement's libertarian impulses.
According to a recent Bloomberg poll, 44 percent of Tea Party activists are self-identified "born-again" Christians, a group that generally takes close to heart Jesus' instructions to feed the hungry and clothe the naked.
Tea Party activists say the question is not whether to follow Jesus' words, but how.
Lloyd Marcus of Deltona, Fla., a spokesman for the Tea Party Express, is a born-again, nondenominational Christian who says flatly that "Jesus was not for socialism."
"Yes, the Bible advocates giving, but out of the goodness of our own hearts, not out of government confiscation of wealth or re-distribution of wealth," he said.
Joseph Farah, founder and CEO of the website WorldNetDaily and author of the new "Tea Party Manifesto," agreed.
"When Jesus talks about clothing the naked, feeding the hungry, he's talking to us as individuals," Farah said. The Bible does not "suggest that government is the institution that he designed to help the poor."
Government social welfare programs are akin to "coercively taking money from people and redistributing to other people, which, at the end of the day, is legalized stealing," he said.
"And the Bible is pretty firm on stealing."
But the Bible, and particularly the Hebrew prophets, are also firm on need to protect the vulnerable, which sometimes requires government action, said Simon Greer, president and CEO of the Jewish Funds for Justice, which helped fuel the progressive backlash against Beck.
Greer said his New York-based group is founded on "the fundamental religious call to care for others," which in turn is based "on the belief that we're all made in the image of the divine."
"The only sensible conclusion is that we need mechanisms like effective government ... to solve the pressing problems that our country faces," he said.
The Rev. Jim Wallis, founder of the Washington-based social justice group Sojourners, is even blunter in his assessment of the Tea Party's approach to giving.
"The libertarian enshrinement of individual choice is not the pre-eminent Christian virtue," he wrote on his blog, God's Politics. "Emphasizing individual rights at the expense of others violates the common good, a central Christian teaching and tradition."
Gushee frames his vision of government as "the community acting collectively," with religious groups playing a key role. Religious groups have been active supporters of government programs to fight disease, poverty and HIV/AIDS in the developing world--programs that would not exist without the wherewithal of the federal government.
For his part, Farah says he puts his faith in the generosity of the American people and supports church-based welfare over government-run programs. The data, however, tell a different story.
According to Illinois-based Empty Tomb, Inc., which tracks charitable giving, American church-goers gave only about 2.5 percent of disposable income to churches in 2007; of that, only about 0.37 percent--roughly $100 per member--went to charities beyond the church. Those figures are down by about half since 1968.
Michael Lindsay, a sociologist at Rice University and author of "Faith in the Halls of Power," doesn't have much hope for individual charity.
"I would like to think that Christians are generous," he said in an interview, "but sadly the truth of the matter is that their rhetoric is much stronger than their action."