"For Love of Neighbor" is a new documentary film offering a hopeful vision for Christian engagement in politics. Click here to learn more.

The Conviction of Colbert

A few weeks ago, I was watching the always-funny Stephen Colbert, and was amused by a piece he did on Jesus being a liberal democrat. At the time, I chuckled a bit, shrugged off my disagreements, and moved on.

Now, however, after seeing the video has gained a bit of traction across the Web, I figured it might be worth commenting on. After all, liberal Christians aren’t the only ones who can have a bit of fun with something like this.

Watch the video here

There is plenty to grin about in Colbert’s schpeel, but there is also plenty of sincere nonsense. Yes, I realize that the Colbert Report is a comedy show, but just as Colbert seems to have struck a serious chord with many liberal democrats (whether intentionally or not), the reactions of those folks seems to have struck a funny bone in me.

Thus, here are the five key misunderstandings that can be found in Colbert’s four-minute sketch. And remember, this is just for the fun of it.

1. Lobbying for unemployment benefits amounts to charity (0:30) — Colbert begins by playing a now-famous video of Senator Jim McDermott, in which the senator rambles on about how opposing unemployment benefits is akin to robbing baby Jesus of his frankincense and myrrh (or something like that). But is this what unemployment benefits are really about? When we extend unemployment benefits, does it really count as an act of charity?

As someone who was recently receiving unemployment checks, I can assure you that I felt no voluntary sympathy or sacrifice coming from American taxpayers. Each time I filed for my checks, it was abundantly clear that there was no charitable impulse driving the dispersal (e.g. “Click here to apply for UI benefits.”). Likewise, now that I am once again a wage earner, I can assure you that I feel no charity whatsoever when taxes are automatically sucked out of my paycheck for the pet project of some beltway bureaucrat. If that is “charity,” Ebenezer Scrooge was doing his part.

2. Jesus wants us to give to others regardless of the circumstances (0:47) — I am no fan of Bill O’Reilly, but Colbert’s attempt to dig into O’Reilly’s recent column just flat out doesn’t work. Colbert says O’Reilly’s claims amount to “complete factual inaccuracy” (I won’t deny they aren’t well put), and tries to counter them with Jesus’ instruction to not withhold your coat, or his instruction to one specific individual to give all of his wealth to the poor. These specific instructions are certainly odd pieces to point toward if promoting unconditional (read: generalized, random, meaningless) charity is the goal. In both of these instances there is a direct, non-material purpose behind these acts.

That aside, we should remember that there is a difference between unconditional love and unconditional sacrifice. Christ’s death is perhaps the best example of how sacrifice must happen for a direct and productive purpose. God the Father could have loved us all to pieces, but the redemption of humankind wouldn’t have happened if he just sent off some groceries to the food shelf.

3. Jesus would not lobby for tax cuts for the rich (2:40) — I’m not sure what kind of tax policy Jesus would advocate, but I think the Bible is clear that Jesus showed specific concern for obedience through non-coerced sacrifice. The story of the rich young ruler (which Colbert previously mentioned) is a great example of this. Jesus makes financial demands on the rich man while also giving him full freedom to deny the commands and be a self-absorbed materialist. If Jesus were really a liberal democrat, he would have (1) told the rich man to give all of his money to the government, and (2) he would never let that dude walk away without paying up to Uncle Sam (“sick him, boys!!”).

4. Jesus was primarily concerned with redistribution (3:10) — Colbert’s allusion to this view is pretty subtle, but since most liberal folks promote it, I thought it’d be a fun one to talk about. Colbert jokes that “if anything happens to the Big Guy, we could end up with a socialist deity redistributing my loaves and fishes.” The flaw, of course, is that Jesus never did redistribute any loaves and fishes (or much else that I can think of). If he had, the disciples would have been stuck splitting seven measly pieces of food among 5,000 starving people.

Instead, Jesus saw the loaves and fishes like any good capitalist would: as an opportunity for creativity and production. It is precisely because Jesus did not rely on a materialistic, mechanistic system of redistribution (*cough* socialism! *cough*) that he was able to accomplish so much good for the poor (not to mention this wretched sinner). Let’s not forget, if ever there was someone who knew how to overcome scarcity, it was Jesus’ Dad.

5. Government redistribution is the primary means by which we should express our love for people (3:55) — Colbert’s final thoughts wrap up a theme that flows beneath his entire commentary and represents a confusion that is alive and well in many left-leaning Christian circles.

As Colbert says:

If this is going to be a Christian nation that doesn’t help the poor, either we’ve got to pretend that Jesus was just as selfish as we are, or we’ve got to acknowledge that he commanded us to love the poor and serve the needy without condition… and then admit that we just don’t want to do it.

Ah yes: Government redistribution! That most loving and charitable of mechanisms, capable of forcing all of America’s stingy misers toward true, genuine, and abundant Christian love!

The ironic part is that Americans do want to do it. We are the most charitable nation on the planet (redistribution doesn’t count), and such voluntary charity correlates strongly with being both Christian and conservative (I commented on this recently).

Perhaps for Colbert’s next series of jokes, he could come up with a funny bit on that group of people who like to outsource their charity to others. You know, like liberal democrats?