THE BLOG
05/25/2010 01:29 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Christianity and Conservatives

Much to my amazement, a post I did on Christianity and conservatives on May 10th has generated as much buzz and reaction as anything I have ever written. I have been quite surprised by this, as it was a post I wrote as much for myself, my family and a few old friends as it was to generate a wider debate. The issues I raised go over well-covered ground by many other writers and preachers: that Jesus identified far more with the poor than the rich, that he treasured the beloved community far more than rugged individualism, that he would be appalled by the Social Darwinist, selfishness-is-a-virtue brand of conservative politics currently in vogue in the modern conservative movement.

But it did get people going. There have been at least a half dozen posts written in response; I have gotten hundreds of email and Facebook responses, many by people I don't know; I have been asked by bloggingheads.tv to do a debate with a conservative minister today -- Bill Shuler -- and as of this post, there are almost 2,400 comments on the post on Huffington Post, which blows by my old record for post responses by close to 2,000. Apparently, this post really touched a nerve.

The responses I enjoyed the most were the foul mouthed, sometimes even threatening, nasty grams from all those "true Christians" who look forward to seeing me in Hell. That's always fun. But I was also touched by the large number of warm, thoughtful responses who wanted me to know that they agreed with me and were glad someone was saying what I said. I got the sense that there are a lot of people who are tired of conservatives loudly quoting the Bible and claiming to speak for all Christians when they really don't know much about the religion they claim to speak for. I also did have some Christians write me who misinterpreted my post, and thought that I was saying that all Christians are conservative-they wanted to assure me that was definitely not true, as they were both a committed Christian and a strong progressive. Since I have a lot of family members and dear friends who are both of those things, I did not think that, but was glad to get the additional reassurance.

The funniest response someone sent me was from a man who, among other things, asked if I was anti-Jewish, because some people when they move to the left go against Jews and Israel. I hadn't heard that one before, but its always refreshing to get some completely new (and utterly off the wall) question or response.

One of the most interesting blog posts published in response was by a conservative writer named Jameson Graber. He contended that I had made two mistakes. The first, he said, was that I viewed economics as a "zero-sum game". The second thing he talked about as a mistake was creating a false dichotomy between rich and poor, because "prosperity comes from all of us."

The zero-sum argument is an interesting one. I actually don't disagree with Graber that in market economies, entrepreneurs have the potential to generate new wealth out of relatively few resources except for good ideas and hard work. It is a wonderful thing when entrepreneurs manufacture products that consumers need and/or want, or when new technologies get created that provide value. I think both progressives and conservatives welcome that kind of innovation and added value to society as a result.

My argument, though, was not that market economics was a zero-sum game: my argument is that governments have to make choices about who they side with and who they don't. Graber quotes Exodus saying that a judge should not be partial to a poor man in a lawsuit, and paints a picture of an idealized free market where everyone has an equal ability to make their own way, to make something out of nothing. But markets get distorted by monopolies, oligopolies, fraud, sweetheart deals, and political influence. Markets develop bubbles and collapse. Consumers get sold bad products and tainted food that kills or maims them. Workers get abused and exploited. Innovative small businesspeople get intentionally squeezed out of markets by big businesses that don't want the competition.

The judicial system can sometimes (when they find out about the problem and have enough resources) deal with the problems that are outright crimes, but only a few of the problems mentioned above are even illegal. Judges should absolutely treat everyone equally under the law, but it's the rest of the government-the other two branches- that need to be involved to make markets work more fairly. And unlike the judicial branch of government, and unlike the free market in the private sector, the legislative and executive branches of government in the American system have to make choices. Every day. The results of these choices boil down to a simple formula: who benefits first, and who benefits most? Policymakers have to write budgets that impose taxes: who do they tax and at what level? They have to decide whether Social Security gets cut or not. They have to decide whether to raise, lower, abolish, or leave the minimum wage the same. They have to decide whether schools or the military budget or both get more money, or less.

I'm sorry if that seems zero-sum, but whatever you call it, it's a fact: elected political leaders have to make those choices. And when you are making these choices, as I discussed in my earlier post, it is really clear, it is undeniable in fact, which side the Jesus of the Bible was on. Which brings me to my other "mistake", as Graber puts it, that I was making a false dichotomy between rich and poor. Sorry, Jameson, but it is Jesus making that mistake: I'm just following his lead. As I document in my post, and Graber never even tries to actually refute (probably because there is no Biblical way to do it), Jesus in verse after verse stated he was on the side of the poor, and in verse after verse was dismissive, sometimes even openly hostile, to the wealthy.

Graber argues that "the policies of the Left (not sure why he capitalized it) provide incentives not to take risks and not to be productive." This is the argument of Glenn Beck and so many other conservatives, but it doesn't make any sense. Which would you rather be: Bill Gates or living on welfare? Or even just comfortably employed in a good job, with a nice house, able to take vacations and send your kids off to college, or living in cramped and dirty subsidized public housing with no capacity to do the things people in the middle class used to take for granted like take vacations and send their kids to college? Americans have plenty of incentives to be entrepreneurs and get good jobs. What they don't have is an economy that provides them a secure job and protection against economic predators and cheats.

Graber closes by trying to turn the story of the fishes and loaves into a metaphor for the free market system (It reminds me of when another conservative writer suggested the parable of the talents was actually Jesus supporting a cut in the capital gains tax: a major stretch, but I do admire the creativity.) Now most readers of the story of the loaves and the fishes would argue that it was a story about a miracle Jesus performed, or a story saying that we should not be afraid to be generous because God would provide to those who shared with their neighbors. But a metaphor for the free market system? C'mon, Jameson, lets get real: Jesus in the story doesn't charge any money for the food, or start a business in the town selling food, or loan people the food if they will give him back the equivalent in money with interest. He gives freely to all, and hungry people are fed as a result. It's pretty difficult to turn that into a metaphor for the free enterprise system.

I want to close by mentioning another conservative blogger named Joe, who wrote another post disagreeing with me. He did the usual snarky stuff that conservatives always do, although I do give him credit for his attempt at framing: "Conservatives believe in individual liberty while Liberals (there's that capitalization thing again) prefer to defer to 'community rule'...Think of it in these terms: "one person can make a difference" vs. "it takes a village". Here's the deal, though: progressives believe that both of these options are possible, that we can have individual liberty and community, that one person can make a difference but that we live our lives as part of an interdependent community. And, by the way, if we are forced to make a choice, it is clear as a bell that the Jesus of the Bible believed quite strongly in community over individualism.

My favorite paragraph from Joe, though, was a rather odd tangent on how governing by elite politicians was like being in school recess and not getting chosen for playing on a team. According to this truly funky metaphor, "government" won't pick you if you are the unathletic kid and were picked last. I know, I know, I don't get it either, since government actually tends to help the slow and handicapped kids. But you gotta love Joe's metaphoric creativity.

This whole Christianity and progressives thing clearly gets people going. I'm glad I was able to stimulate such a big conversation. Check out my debate with Rev. Shuler tomorrow and tell me how I did.

Cross-posted at my home blog, OpenLeft.com, where you can read all of my writing.