WASHINGTON -- Republican and Democrats sparred this week on where Jesus Christ would stand on food stamps, a federal program that supported 47 million Americans last year.
On Wednesday, the House Agriculture Committee approved Republican legislation that would reform farm subsidies and trim the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program by roughly $2.5 billion a year. Republicans want fewer Americans to qualify for food stamps simply because they receive benefits from another safety net program. Under the new legislation, more people would have to pass income and asset tests to be eligible for food stamps. Nearly 2 million fewer people would qualify.
Rep. Juan Vargas, a California Democrat and former member of the Jesuits, a Catholic religious order, said he favored a Democratic amendment to undo the cuts because Jesus made himself clear on feeding the poor.
"Jesus kinda fools around and gives you parables. He doesn't oftentimes say exactly what he means," Vargas said. "But in Matthew 25 he's very, very clear. And he delineates what it takes to get into the kingdom of heaven very, very clearly. And he says how you treat the least among us, the least of our brothers, that's how you treat him."
In Matthew 25, Jesus describes those who will enter heaven as anyone who gave him food when he was hungry, invited him into their homes when he was a stranger, clothed him, cared for him while he was sick and visited him in prison. "The extent that you did it to one of these brothers of mine, even the least of them, you did it to me," Jesus says.
Rep. Mike Conaway (R-Texas) said during the hearing that he, too, is a follower of Christ.
"I read this chapter of Matthew 25 to speak to me as an individual," Conaway, a Southern Baptist, said. "I don't read it to speak to the United States government. And so I would take a little bit of umbrage with you on that. Clearly, you and I are charged that we do those kinds of things but [our government is not] charged with that."
Many religious groups lobby Congress on federal nutrition programs. The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, Jewish Federations of North America, and dozens of religious and secular organizations signed a letter to Congress last week urging members to oppose food stamp cuts. "If SNAP is weakened, our nation will see more hunger and food insecurity, worse health and educational outcomes, and higher health costs," it said.
While religious leaders in the U.S. have thrown their weight behind food stamps and government assistance programs, Pope Francis also spoke more broadly Thursday on his views on "cult of money" in his first address at the Vatican global finance.
Addressing new ambassadors to the Vatican, Francis described the prevalence around the world of an "an economy which is faceless and lacking any truly humane goal," resulting in people who "have to struggle to live and, frequently, to live in an undignified way."
"In circumstances like these, solidarity, which is the treasure of the poor, is often considered counterproductive, opposed to the logic of finance and the economy. While the income of a minority is increasing exponentially, that of the majority is crumbling," Francis said. "This imbalance results from ideologies which uphold the absolute autonomy of markets and financial speculation, and thus deny the right of control to states, which are themselves charged with providing for the common good."
Former Pope Benedict XVI had a similar view. In a Christmas address in 2011 that touched on Europe's financial crisis, Benedict said that "solidarity, commitment to one's neighbor and responsibility toward the poor and suffering are largely uncontroversial" but that the "motivation is often lacking ... to make sacrifices."
This week's debate was not the first time lawmakers brought religion into disagreements over economic issues and helping the poor. Amid debates over the debt ceiling, federal budget cuts and the fiscal cliff over the last two years, dozens of prominent denominational and church leaders formed a coalition called the Circle of Protection, to lobby for the protection of assistance programs. In 2012, liberal Catholic groups in particular criticized former vice-presidential nominee Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), who prominently supported broad budget cuts to government assistance. A Catholic, he said his views came from the Catholic principle of subsidiarity, meaning that decisions should happen at the lowest level of government that can handle them most effectively -- often individuals -- instead of big bureaucracies.
But groups like the Circle of Protection don't always sway Republican policy. During the food-stamp debate on Wednesday, other Republicans disagreed with Vargas' position and his reading of the Bible.
"The Bible says lots of things," Rep. Stephen Lee Fincher (R-Tenn.) said. He pointed to Matthew 26:11, which says "for you always have the poor with you," then 2 Thessalonians 3:10, which says "for even when we were with you, we used to give you this order: If anyone is not willing to work, then he is not to eat, either." Republicans have argued that programs like food stamps discourage work and make the safety net more of a hammock.
"Jesus made it very clear we have a duty and obligation as Christians and as citizens of this country to take care of each other. Democrat, Republican, Independent -- we should look after one another," he said. "But I think a fundamental argument we're having today is what's the duty of the federal government. We're all here on this committee making decisions about other people's money."
Rep. Doug LaMalfa (R-Calif.) cited Ephesians 2:8-9, which says, "for by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; not as a result of works, so that no one may boast."
"It always looks good when politicians can go say, we brought a bunch of money to this project here or that project there, standing next to this big, giant blown-up check somewhere and saying, 'look what we did for you.' That's all someone else's money," LaMalfa said. "We should be doing this as individuals, helping the poor."
Several Democrats noted that even with 47 million Americans benefiting from SNAP, some people are still hungry.
"Christians, Jews, Muslims, whatever -- we're failing our brothers and sisters here," Rep. Jim McGovern (D-Mass.) said.
Luke 6:20-21 Then he looked up at his disciples and said: 'Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God. 'Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you will be filled. 'Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh.
Luke 4:16-19 When he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, he went to the synagogue on the sabbath day, as was his custom. He stood up to read, and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written: 'The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord's favour.'
Matthew 25:34-36 Then the king will say to those at his right hand, "Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me."
Mark 10:21-22 Jesus, looking at him, loved him and said, "You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me." When he heard this, he was shocked and went away grieving, for he had many possessions.
Mark 12:41-44 He sat down opposite the treasury, and watched the crowd putting money into the treasury. Many rich people put in large sums. 42 A poor widow came and put in two small copper coins, which are worth a penny. 43 Then he called his disciples and said to them, "Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the treasury. 44 For all of them have contributed out of their abundance; but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on."
Luke 14:12-14 He said also to the one who had invited him, "When you give a luncheon or a dinner, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbors, in case they may invite you in return, and you would be repaid. But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. And you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you, for you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous."
Luke 16:19-25 "There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day. And at his gate lay a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores, who longed to satisfy his hunger with what fell from the rich man's table; even the dogs would come and lick his sores. The poor man died and was carried away by the angels to be with Abraham. The rich man also died and was buried. In Hades, where he was being tormented, he looked up and saw Abraham far away with Lazarus by his side. He called out, 'Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue; for I am in agony in these flames.' But Abraham said, 'Child, remember that during your lifetime you received your good things, and Lazarus in like manner evil things; but now he is comforted here, and you are in agony.
Luke 11:39-42 Then the Lord said to him, "Now you Pharisees clean the outside of the cup and of the dish, but inside you are full of greed and wickedness. You fools! Did not the one who made the outside make the inside also? So give for alms those things that are within; and see, everything will be clean for you. "But woe to you Pharisees! For you tithe mint and rue and herbs of all kinds, and neglect justice and the love of God
Luke 12:16-21 Then he told them a parable: "The land of a rich man produced abundantly. And he thought to himself, 'What should I do, for I have no place to store my crops?' Then he said, 'I will do this: I will pull down my barns and build larger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods. And I will say to my soul, 'Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.' But God said to him, 'You fool! This very night your life is being demanded of you. And the things you have prepared, whose will they be?' So it is with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich toward God."