Government, religion, and the poor

I’m not terribly fond of folks invoking unknowable deities to support their favored political positions. In fact, I’d rather folks not speak on behalf of deities at all. To do so seems to me to represent a being beyond our comprehension, who, for reasons that remain unfathomable to me, chooses not to represent him- or herself, and to do so thus seems to me to be inherently blasphemous. More prosaically, it’s an appeal to an authority whose very existence is to be accepted on faith.

Of course, if any of this has ever stopped anyone, I am unaware of any record of their existence. And so we have this thing called the Bible, allegedly the word of a god who is usually presented as male and as a patriarchal figure, but as recorded and translated by humans. In a literal interpretation of the Old Testament, this god appears to be an asshole, although Rabbi Michael Lerner suggests a figurative and inventive interpretation that I think might actually be more appropriate. And a significant part of the New Testament is about God’s son by way of immaculate conception, Jesus.

The literal text of the New Testament makes plain Jesus’ concern for the poor. Which leads to an odd conundrum that I’m generally reluctant to take up—I am not a theologian—regarding conservative attitudes on government programs allegedly intended to benefit the poor. Oversimplifying considerably, George Lakoff seems to suggest that this stems from a different view of how we take care of people and what they should be. In his “strict father” (conservative) morality, we care for people in part through discipline: reward and punishment. In his “nurturant parent” (“liberal”) morality, we care for people with empathy and by providing for their needs. Elaborating only a little further, for each morality system, Lakoff offers a series of ‘metaphors’ which describe various aspects of how we relate to each other. Conservatives, he says, rank many of these in a clear hierarchy of importance. He stops short of saying that “liberals” tend to keep their metaphors more in balance with each other but he offers no clear ranking. And, Lakoff avoids a hasty generalization by acknowledging that different conservatives and different “liberals” may emphasize different metaphors.[1]

Lakoff’s work was important in forming my early ideas on conservatism. It was celebrated at the time and he remains a popular figure on the not-so-far right. But his ideas seemingly have failed to gain traction outside of academia (where I think his notion of metaphor in human thinking seems to have prevailed over Noam Chomsky’s “natural grammar” hypothesis). In my dissertation, I only took up the conundrum of trying to understand conservative attitudes toward the poor in passing;[2] and thus it remains.

This all comes to the fore now with a Republican effort to repeal and replace Obamacare that seems not to be going well. Despite Republican control of the White House and both houses of Congress, there are numerous hurdles to a plan offered by Speaker of the House Paul Ryan and the effort may yet fail entirely.[3] The fissures here do not seem to align neatly with the tendencies of conservatism I described in my dissertation. Ryan apparently claims to be Catholic,[4] but expresses a neoliberal attitude[5] that seems to highlight some differences from capitalist libertarianism.[6]

But Nicholas Kristof neatly captures not-so-far right befuddlement at a Catholic, Ryan, advocating a program that will apparently deprive the poor of health care. In the process, he uses quotations attributed to Jesus in the Bible to highlight the apparent contradictions in a conversation with “Paul of Ryan,” who expresses Lakoff’s “strict father” morality toward the poor as justification for punishing them and rewarding the rich.[7] According to this “Paul of Ryan,”

[T]he Samaritan’s work is unsustainable and sends the wrong message. It teaches travelers to take dangerous roads, knowing that others will rescue them from self-destructive behaviors. This Samaritan also seems to think it right to redistribute money from those who are successful and give it to losers. That’s socialism! Meanwhile, if the rich man keeps his money, he can invest it and create jobs. So it’s an act of mercy for the rich man to hurry on and ignore the robbery victim.[8]

It’s a clever piece that will confirm the not-so-far right in its views. And it’s important to note some things it does not do. James Freeman alleges that it “simply casts the federal bureaucracy in the role of Jesus,”[9] but this is simply false. If we are to understand the story as Jesus as anything, it is as portraying an exemplar of how (miracles aside) we, all of us, not just Jesus and not just federal bureaucracy, should care for each other. And despite any pretensions otherwise, our entire system of social organization does exactly the opposite. In that passage, however, Freeman seems to understand caring for the poor as a job for Jesus and no one else.

That is what makes Freeman’s piece important. It is a rare explication of a conservative view of the social safety net. In really rather short article, Freeman captures a traditionalist conservative view that we should not meddle with the Christian god’s plan, which is assumed to place the rich over the poor and a capitalist libertarian view that promotes individualism and sees government as the enemy, while also differing from social conservatism:

The ancient book has numerous admonitions to perform charity and various condemnations of greed, but it’s not easy to find a passage in which Jesus says that government is the best vehicle to provide aid, or that anyone should force others to donate.

Even casual readers of the Bible may notice that Jesus doesn’t get along all that well with the political authorities of his time and (spoiler alert!) his relationship with government ends rather badly. Back then, tax collectors were not presumed to be the dedicated public servants that we appreciate so much today. And in our own time, social conservatives who think the U.S. Government has become hostile to religion—Christianity in particular—should consider what Jesus had to put up with.[10]

The trouble here, obviously, is that capitalists are plainly no substitute for Jesus either. Freeman recalls a quotation from the real Ryan: “In this war on poverty, poverty is winning.”[11] This particular claim is one I won’t take up today, but Freeman does not address that any system of exchange inherently privileges whomever has the greater ability to say no, that resulting privileges and handicaps accumulate,[12] and suffering among the poor thus increases while the rich live ever more comfortably.

Yes, government is a problem. but as horribly flawed as it is, its redistribution programs are the only currently available restraint on that widening inequality. And Freeman misses that government much more often acts on behalf of the rich, prosecuting and exploiting a war on the poor.[13] He ought not to complain.

Further, economic systems are human, not divine, creations. The very notion of exchange assumes that our fellow humans would, given the opportunity, be leeches, lazily taking while offering nothing in return, a suggestion that assumes the worst of humanity and more readily applies to rich capitalists and their so-called “management” than to workers. Poverty is a direct consequence of private property, which in the absence of redistribution, accumulates in ever fewer hands through the operation of systems of exchange. The rich very much owe the poor and it’s past time for them to pay up.

Which I guess might be something Jesus might say.

  1. [1]George Lakoff, Moral Politics: How Liberals and Conservatives Think, 2nd ed. (Chicago: University of Chicago, 2002).
  2. [2]David Benfell, “Conservative Views on Undocumented Migration” (doctoral dissertation, Saybrook, 2016). ProQuest (1765416126).
  3. [3]Lindsey McPherson, “CBO: Lower Deficit, More Uninsured Under House Health Plan,” Congressional Quarterly Roll Call, March 13, 2017,; Nate Silver, “Why It’s So Hard For The GOP To Agree On Health Care,” FiveThirtyEight, March 7, 2017,; Kelsey Snell, Sean Sullivan, and Mike DeBonis, “White House tries to salvage GOP health-care proposal as criticism mounts,” Washington Post, March 14, 2017,; Peter Sullivan, “Power struggle over ObamaCare repeal,” Hill, March 11, 2017,
  4. [4]Matthew Fox to Tikkun mailing list, “A Priestly Letter to Speaker Paul Ryan,” March 14, 2017,
  5. [5]Cherkis, J. (2012, August 11). Paul Ryan, Ayn Rand Fan, Brings Writer’s Philosophy To Presidential Stage. Huffington Post. Retrieved from; Derek Thompson, “Paul Ryan’s Budget, Simplified: Save the Rich, Spare the Old, Forget the Poor,” Atlantic, March 12, 2013,
  6. [6]Joan Walsh, “Paul Ryan: Randian poseur,” Salon, August 12, 2012,
  7. [7]Nicholas Kristof, “And Jesus Said Unto Paul of Ryan …” New York Times, March 16, 2017,
  8. [8]Nicholas Kristof, “And Jesus Said Unto Paul of Ryan …” New York Times, March 16, 2017,
  9. [9]James Freeman, “Mere Budgetary Christianity,” Wall Street Journal, March 17, 2017,
  10. [10]James Freeman, “Mere Budgetary Christianity,” Wall Street Journal, March 17, 2017,
  11. [11]Paul Ryan, quoted in James Freeman, “Mere Budgetary Christianity,” Wall Street Journal, March 17, 2017,
  12. [12]Max Weber, “Class, Status, Party,” in Social Theory: The Multicultural and Classic Readings, ed. Charles Lemert, 4th ed. (Boulder, CO: Westview, 2010), 119-129.
  13. [13]Herbert J. Gans, The War Against The Poor: The Underclass And Antipoverty Policy (New York: Basic, 1995).

One thought on “Government, religion, and the poor

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.