In a recent column for the Washington Post, Rev. Richard Cizik joins a growing chorus of progressive evangelicals in accusing Christian conservatives of showing little concern for the poor. Cizik, who describes himself as “an evangelical Christian who believes the Republican Party does not have a monopoly on moral values,” sees a gaping hole in the current GOP discussion. But although I would certainly agree that the discussion could improve (as our own Eric Teetsel has noted), this has nothing to do with the values themselves. Likewise, although I would also agree that Republicans don’t have a “monopoly on moral values,” it hardly follows that Cizik and his progressive brethren do. Unfortunately, that appears to be precisely Cizik’s tack:
Whether the Christian duty to love our neighbors is compatible with a political movement that embraces radical individualism and rejects the ethic of collective responsibility is a central question as the GOP attempts to cement the Tea Party and the religious right into a cohesive base. Tea Party activists and Republican leaders have consistently targeted for cutbacks vital government programs that protect the poor, the elderly, children and other vulnerable Americans. Yet calls for shared sacrifice and proposals to modestly raise taxes on the wealthiest Americans in order to fund investments and protections that promote the common good are derided as “class warfare.” This is what passes for family values?What Cizik so clearly misses is that a proper view of collective responsibility cannot exist without a proper view of individual responsibility. It’s not about “embracing” one and “rejecting” the other, as most conservatives well understand. It’s about starting in the right place and achieving collective virtue authentically rather than forcibly. If you doubt the need for such an integrated approach, look no further than the “Occupy” movement, in which masses of unproductive, self-absorbed blame-shifters assume radical, collective-centric poses so narrow that the “community” has become nothing more than a means for avoiding individual duties and fulfilling a lust for material security. Without a grasp of where responsibility begins, “promoting the common good” quickly diminishes into a short-sighted pig-out at the communal feeding trough. This is the type of “ethic” you get when you throw the individual out the window. This is the type of “collective responsibility” you get when you distort “individual responsibility” into being a right-wing code word for anti-Christian selfishness. This is the type of “shared sacrifice” you get when sacrifice means nothing more than one’s capacity to patiently endure the browbeating of the bureaucrat’s billy club. As I’ve argued before, the individual-community tension is not one that can be resolved through some convenient “either-or” bucketing or narrow-minded ideology worship a la Ayn Rand, Karl Marx or, apparently, Richard Cizik. Real individualism recognizes the value in pursuing a real common good, and when such an orientation is achieved, the government need not coerce the collective much at all. But hey, who am I to talk? After all, as Cizik goes on to so cleverly observe, such an approach is supported by nothing more than a twisted, conspiratorial scheme to brainwash well-meaning Christians into believing that hard work, free exchange, private charity, low debt and a stable currency have some kind of Biblical backing:
Social conservative leaders have shrewdly recalibrated for an election in which the economy is the top concern for voters. Baptizing as a “moral agenda” tax cuts for the wealthy, steep budget cuts to programs that save lives and deregulation of Wall Street takes a lot of nerve. But the Family Research Council — which organized last month’s Values Voter summit — and Christian conservative operatives advance a political agenda by suggesting that the priorities of corporations and the GOP fit snugly with the teachings of Jesus.(CAUTION: Having tuned in to many of the speeches at this year’s Values Voters summit, I myself am most certainly compromised by the event’s insincere, diabolical messaging. I am now nothing more than a pawn of big business and the Republican leadership, shamelessly cloaking my love for power and pet political causes in strategic Christian-y language. If you dare continue reading, do so with whatever discretion those wily “Christian conservative operatives” have allowed you to keep.) As Cizik continues:
This might be good politics, but it’s bad theology. Most “values voters” with even a minimal degree of biblical literacy recognize that the Hebrew prophets and Jesus warned the powerful not to afflict the poor and comfort the rich. These bedrock Judeo-Christian principles are flouted by conservatives who demand cuts to nutrition programs that help low-income women feed their children even as they defend tax loopholes for some of the world’s wealthiest people.Ah, yes. “Bad theology.” But nothing a little touting of Jesus’ obvious preference for Michelle Obama’s nutrition programs won’t fix! Or perhaps you’d prefer a lecture about your God-given right to a health insurance card? It’s in Job somewhere. Trust me. We are “afflicting the poor” and “comforting the rich?” We are flouting “bedrock Judeo-Christian principles?” Just what, might I ask, exclusively represents a “bedrock Judeo-Christian principle” in the current state-run nutrition programs? Just what, might I ask, represents Christ in the Great Society policies that have demolished the American family and diminished collective responsibility to the point where something as misplaced as a state-run “nutrition program” might even be assumed as an ideal for God’s people? But alas, Cizik is not at all interested in addressing the real reasonswe oppose certain programs and support others. Instead, he is content to rely on the same demagogic, straw-man argument we’ve seen from progressive Christians time and time again: that conservative Christians oppose progressive policies not because we find them ineffective or counterproductive, but because we hate the poor and love corporations. It’s not that we think supply side economics create strong economies and benefit everyoneacross the economic spectrum (including, ahem, the poor). It’s not that we think free exchange and accurate prices create opportunities for real, sustainable growth and economy recovery. It’s not that we think the modern public education system hurts the poor and minimum wage laws lead to poverty traps. It’s not that we think most progressive social programs lead to dehumanization, dependency and economic slavery. No. It’s because we have a fetish for fat cats and we’re brainwashed by clever marketing. Obviously. Indeed, rather than critiquing the Christian conservative’s view of what collective responsibility should look like, Cizik declares that we deny such responsibility altogether. Rather than address the actual theological, moral, economic and political concerns we have about Cizik’s favored progressive programs, he delves into a mix of condescension and legalistic judgmentalism. If Cizik is truly interested in a constructive conversation, he should recognize that it gets him nowhere to sideline our concerns about his “pro-poor” policies and elevate his progressive approach as the obvious fulfillment of the Sermon on the Mount. If he is really interested in persuading us toward his supposedly Christian outlook, he should start by explaining why and how these programs are, in fact, “pro-poor,” and how a proper Christian anthropology starts with coercion and manipulation. Instead of claiming our reasons to be purely political, he should explain how exactly his blatant desire to increase political power is somehow less so. But perhaps it isn’t. For how can the kazillions of dollars needed to fund each and every Cizik-ordained progressive social program possibly fit through the eye of a needle? With his version of a narrowly progressive and overly materialistic Jesus, all earthly utopias are possible. We, however, disagree, and doubt that Cizik’s religious version of top-down manipulation benefits anyone, especially the poor. In addition, we believe Jesus is concerned with much, much more. The next time Cizik wants to label conservative Christians as “anti-poor,” he should start his critique where ours begins.