THE BLOG
04/03/2014 06:20 pm ET | Updated Jun 03, 2014

Poverty and the GOP's Redefining of Christian Values

"It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God," Matthew 19:24.

There's an idea in U.S. American politics: the GOP, specifically the Christian Right, embodies the first and final word about what it means to be Christian. That is to say, the GOP has taken the moniker Christian and made it synonymous with Republican. In 2012, 69% of white Protestants (who make up 39% of all voters) voted for Governor Romney.

We take this for granted, that white Protestants are Republicans. But is the GOP really an effective advocate of Christian values? Or is the Republican/Christianity marriage one built less on Christian values and more on Republican values seasoned with bombastic genuflections to controversial Christian issues like homosexuality?

Helping the poor was central to Jesus' teachings as described in the New Testament. Deuteronomy 15:7 counsels us not to be "hard-hearted or tight-fisted" towards those in need. Proverbs 22:9 says that blessed are those who share their food with the poor. Dozens of Biblical quotations touch on the importance of charity and of helping those in need.

But the GOP seems wholly unconcerned with the plight of the poor, even as 22% of children live in poverty. Consider the GOP's plan to cut food stamps (again). Or their constant struggle to end unemployment benefits, urging the poor to just get a job and stop being poor. Or their disavowal of the Earned Income Tax Credit, a thoroughly conservative tax cut that encourages people to find and maintain employment. Or Congressman Paul Ryan's budget proposal, which would gut nearly every program that aids the poor.

The classic response goes something like this: God-fearing Republicans believe in helping the poor, but through private charity, not big government. This is repeated ad nauseam. But, for private charities to replace government services, donations would have to be robust during times of economic hardship, when food stamp, Medicaid, and unemployment rolls increase substantially. Otherwise, charity would be unable to absorb the shocks of a struggling economy.

A recent essay in the progressive journal, Democracy, decimates the long-held belief that private charity is capable of replacing government programs. When people need help, during times of economic stagnation or recession, charitable donations fall.

This happened in 2008. Millions of people lost jobs, health care, and basic necessities, and applied for public assistance, which was sitting ready to absorb individuals newly in need. At the same time, charitable donations dropped across the board, a clear sign that they would have been unable to meet the country's needs. Furthermore, a 2007 report found that the highest earners in the U.S. give the least to charities whose work directly affects the poor.

And that's okay. It's okay for individuals to give however much they want to charities that are important to them and for charities to be unable to support millions of unemployed U.S. Americans. That's the government's job, to ensure a minimum standard of living for those in need. It's why we call it a safety net.

Private charities alone are categorically incapable of ensuring that our neighbors are helped in times of need. So, can we expect Christian Republican leaders to advocate for government assistance? Not even close. All around, the GOP is blaming the poor for being poor, a perfect excuse to eschew their Christian duty and deny the poor access to health care, food, and unemployment benefits.

But the GOP is doing something for Christian conservatives, right? Mostly they're just opposing LGBT rights, a topic whose Biblical roots are tenuous at best. In fact, this issue may soon become like slavery (another topic with an unsettling amount of tacit Biblical endorsements) as young Christians are markedly more supportive of LGBT rights.

So, why does the GOP focus more on LGBT rights than on poverty? Because poverty is difficult to eradicate? Or too expensive? Or maybe it's easier to drum up support, money, and votes by making an enemy out of human beings with a sexual orientation other than straight than making an enemy out of the scourge of poverty?

It is my hope that we can debate policy and find the best way to encourage economic growth and well-paying and stable jobs, while helping those in need without pretending that God is a cut-throat capitalist who believes poor people don't need help and maybe aren't even poor because they have things like refrigerators and phones and microwaves.

It's not against the law to worship a free market, compassionless, capitalist society or to pretend that charity is a reasonable substitute for social services. But it is backwards. And it's wrong to worship this fantasy and try to persuade others that it's tantamount to the Christian God written about in the Bible.