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.