Newt Gingrich is running the most racially divisive presidential campaign in decades. In South Carolina, he consistently referred to President Obama as the "best food stamp President in American history" and singled out African Americans as content to live off of food stamps rather than work for a living. At a FOX News debate shortly before the primary, Gingrich brought the crowd to their feet (and got a bounce in the polls) by resurrecting the old straw man argument that Republicans believe in hard work while Democrats want people to rely on welfare. After the State of the Union address this week Gingrich said the President "will always prefer a food stamp economy to a paycheck economy and call it fair."
Gingrich is not alone in inaccurately casting the economic debate as a choice between jobs and dependency. Santorum has explicitly used the same theme, and Romney implies as much when he presents the election as a choice between so-called free American enterprise and decadent European socialism.
Leaders of both parties agree that the dignity of work is better than living on the dole, but the GOP tactic of pitting employment against the safety net is a false choice that promotes a cruel agenda. Working poor families and people who can't find jobs shouldn't go hungry, and protections like SNAP (formerly known as food stamps) help ensure that they don't. If these critical support lines didn't expand during economic crises, more people facing dire circumstances through no fault of their own would suffer. Claiming that people would rather live on these meager benefits than work to provide for their families is insulting and dishonest, especially at a time when job seekers outnumber job openings more than four to one. Furthermore, the President and congressional Democrats have aggressively pushed legislation that would create millions of jobs, only to see their agenda repeatedly blocked by Republicans.
Faith leaders responded to Gingrich's contemptible campaign rhetoric with a timely rebuke. Following his racially charged statements at the FOX News debate, more than 40 Catholic leaders released an open letter reminding him (and Rick Santorum, who made similar remarks in Iowa) that church leaders regard racism as an "intrinsic evil" and consistently defend safety net programs. Whether these two Catholic candidates take this reminder to heart remains to be seen, but I'm not holding my breath.
As Mitt Romney's tax returns, Gingrich's rhetoric and the President's bold advocacy for a fair economy come to define the campaign narrative, we need religious and political leaders alike to engage this discussion seriously and honestly.