In our season of continued austerity, (despite evidence that it is not working), the House Agriculture Committee met to discuss cutting 4.1 billion from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (Food Stamps) or SNAP program. The highlight (or lowlight, depending on your preference) from the hearings was when the debate shifted from a policy debate to a theological one. While many tended to focus on Tennessee Republican Congressman Stephen Fincher and his misinterpretation of 2 Thessalonians 3:10, "For even when we were with you, we gave you this command: Anyone unwilling to work should not eat," the real theological discussion focused on the role of the government.
As reported in The Huffington Post, Rep. Juan Vargas, (D-California), in support of undoing the mandated cuts to Food Stamps suggested that while Jesus did not oftentimes "say exactly what he meant," in Matthew 25,
[Jesus] is 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.
To counter the argument, Rep. Mike Conaway (R-Texas) showing his Jesus bonafides, responded:
I read this chapter of Matthew 25 to speak to me as an individual. 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.
Fincher also added,
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, and Independent -- we should look after one another. 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.
I have to admit, teaching in a seminary, I hear this argument a lot. Moreover, while I could argue that the "government should not be in the position of giving away other people's money" is a ruse -- one can only point to Fincher's farm subsidies as exhibit A and suggest that this is based in a racial understanding of who "the poor" are and the rhetoric associated with "the poor" as being lazy, shiftless, and not worthy of help -- I would like to focus on what I believe gives this thinking its moral justification and theological relevance.
Notice that the Republican Congressmen did not refute Jesus' Matthew 25 declaration that we should assist in helping the poor; they just do not believe government should play a role. However, as I do in class when this subject comes up, I ask, "If the government is made up of the people, when do those people who profess to be Christian stop being Christian -- or more precisely, "when do those who profess to "follow Christ" stop following Jesus' command to help the least of these? I continue by asking, "Can one help the least of these as one would if she or he were not in Congress?
What makes Conaway, Fincher and a host of would be Congressional public theologians so hypocritical is that for just about everything that limits, restricts, confines, and marginalizes progress, they tend to argue there is a role of government and their faith is an important part of their decisions. However, for the poor, they limit the role of government and faith to just individual responsibility.
In short, when it comes to marriage equality, voting rights, the Second Amendment, women and their health choices and a host of other issues, they would invoke their faith to argue for government intervention. It is just when it comes to the poor and anything that would stimulate a sluggish economy; (ie., jobs, infrastructure programs and the like) and that invariably help the thousands of people who they represent, they put Jesus on the shelf, interpret scripture badly, and hide behind rhetoric that stigmatizes and legitimates not helping the poor all to the glory of God.
First published in the Rhetoric Race and Religion blog.