Doc Cleveland: JFK's Birthday
NPR broadcast this piece, on American Christians' disagreement over Christianity's economic teachings, on Morning Edition today. Unsurprisingly, left-leaning Christians like me feel Jesus taught a basically leftist approach to social welfare issues; we feel that when Jesus is talking about feeding the poor and the hungry, comforting prisoners, and helping the homeless, that he means exactly what he says. Right-leaning Christians, perhaps also unsurprisingly, feel that Jesus forbids public spending on the poor, or taxing the rich, or interfering with personal economic liberty. Their Jesus generally sounds a lot like Ron Paul.
After the House passed its budget last month, liberal religious leaders said the Republican plan, which lowered taxes and cut services to the poor, was an affront to the Gospel — and particularly Jesus' command to care for the poor.
Not so, says Wisconsin Republican Rep. Paul Ryan, who chairs the House Budget Committee. He told Christian Broadcasting Network last week that it was his Catholic faith that helped shape the budget plan. In his view, the Catholic principle of subsidiarity suggests the government should have little role in helping the poor.
I know intramural religious disputes can seem completely mystifying to outsiders, and even to nominal insiders who haven't had much religious instruction. It's too easy to believe that whatever a particular preacher on TV (or NPR) happens to be saying on the air is "what Christianity teaches," but Christians disagree passionately about almost everything, including things that might seem straightforward and simple. So let me put this religious disagreement in context:
If Congressman Paul Ryan went to church yesterday, the first Bible reading he heard was this:
The community of believers was of one heart and mind,
and no one claimed that any of his possessions was his own,
but they had everything in common.
With great power the apostles bore witness
to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus,
and great favor was accorded them all.
There was no needy person among them,
for those who owned property or houses would sell them,
bring the proceeds of the sale,
and put them at the feet of the apostles,
and they were distributed to each according to need.
How do I know what selections from the Bible were read in Ryan's parish yesterday? Because, like every Sunday, the same three readings from the Bible were read in every Catholic parish yesterday. So this reading wasn't just read in Paul Ryan's church. It was read in Rick Santorum's church, and Newt Gingrich's, and all five conservative Supreme Court Justices'. If they went to Mass yesterday, this is what they heard near the beginning of the service. And if they happened to sleep late yesterday, this passage comes by (like every single passage in the New Testament) every three years in a systematic rotation. They all know this passage.
Now, what the Apostles are doing in this passage might sound a lot like socialism. That's because it is a lot like socialism: no individual property, redistribution of wealth according to need, collective decision making, and what is basically a 100% capital gains tax. Where did the Apostles get such ideas? From hanging around with Jesus, whom they worked with closely during his life and from whom (if you believe in the New Testament) they received further direct instruction shortly after his death and resurrection. Now, if you don't believe in Jesus's resurrection, that's fine. If you're not interested in what Jesus or his personal disciples thought about economics, more power to you. But if you're making a claim that Jesus opposed socialism, you're just making up your own Jesus who says whatever you want him to say. You aren't the first, so don't feel special.
Compare what St. Peter and the gang are getting up to in Acts of the Apostles with the kind of "socialism" that Republicans accuse Barack Obama of. If you think slightly higher tax rates on people who make a million dollars a year, a few new bank regulations, and a national health-care plan built on private for-profit insurers is "socialism" then Jesus's best friends are all screaming Commies. (Although, to be fair, Judas wasn't involved in the socialism recorded above, having already taken the path of individual enterprise.) You won't catch Barack Obama whipping any moneylenders.
If we want to ask "What Would Jesus Do?" about the economy, it is very clear that Jesus, unlike Obama, would not regulate banking. Jesus forbids banking outright. He forbids lending any money at interest, clearly and explicitly. What he meant by that is not up for debate. (If you want your Jesus to sound like Ron Paul, it's important not to quote much of what he actually says.)
I'm not recommending socialism, or the abolition of banks. I would not urge Jesus's economic program on the modern United States. But that's the point: it's not that left-leaning Christians are following Jesus's economic teachings and right-leaning Christians aren't. It's that even most left-leaning Christians are far, far to Jesus's right on economic issues. The Gospel's teachings about wealth and poverty aren't somewhere in the middle of America's current political spectrum. They're completely outside our terms of debate. (In fact, following the Gospel's teachings without any rationalizations would mean dismantling capitalism. I have no stomach for that.) Neither the American left nor the American right is obedient to Jesus on these questions. The right simply happens to offer a more intense and flagrant version of the left's disobedience to these teachings.
How do Paul Ryan or Rick Santorum or Antonin Scalia consider themselves good Catholics? The same way the rest of us do: by picking and choosing the teachings they pay attention to. For a long time, liberal American Catholics have been derided as "cafeteria Catholics," picking and choosing the teachings we find attractive and ignoring those we find less congenial. And it's true: my spouse and I try to be good Catholics, but we disobey the Gospel every single day. (We have a joint savings account). Yet American conservatives use the cafeteria model too, and as conservative ideology has gotten more fervent and intense over the past years it has moved conservative Catholics into ever-more-restricted selections from the cafeteria line. At this point, Ryan and Santorum aren't just choosing cafeteria style. It's like they're filling their trays with nothing but the Jello. Ryan's budget wants to punish the poor, the sick, and the elderly in the name of individual economic liberty, by which he means the moneylenders' profit margin. Santorum fixates on relatively minor teachings (and on teachings that he finds indirectly implied), while blatantly disobeying major teachings. Conservatives deplore contraception as abhorrent to God, but accept and even cheer the death penalty, despite the Church's condemnation of it. (It's true that no one uses contraception in the Gospels, but you might recall that it includes an execution. It's not in favor.)
Conservative Catholics often scold liberal Catholics for not properly respecting the teachings of the bishops and of the chief bishop, the Pope. But the bishops' religious authority is based, directly and completely, on the authority of the Apostles. The theory is that they're the Apostles' successors, with the Pope having St. Peter's old job. If the authority of the bishops matters, the Apostles' authority has to matter as much or more, and as you can see above, the Apostles themselves are a bunch of leftist hippy communists. You can't make a big deal out of disobeying Peter's two-thousand-years-later replacement but flout the actual Peter.
I'm in no position to judge others' practice of Christianity. I am absolutely terrible at it. But the truth is, almost every one of us is. Jesus never promised any of his followers that any of this would be easy. I'll freely admit that the Christianity I manage to follow, and to be honest even the version of Christianity that I try to follow, is different from what Jesus actually taught. But when you see Christians debating their politics and their faith, remember that all of our Christianities are different from what Jesus taught. That's been true in American politics since the Pilgrims got to Plymouth Rock, and it's not going to change in our lifetime.