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The Least of These

“I am conservative because I care about the poor.”

I remember when I first told a friend this, several years ago, and all of a sudden her jaw dropped and it looked as though her mind short-circuited.  No doubt many others would respond the same way—“Conservative?  Poor?  I thought that’s what liberals did.”  Well, me too.

A decade ago I was one of those liberals.  My thought process was simple, and, I thought, sound:  Jesus certainly cared about the poor.  Christians ought to care about the poor.  I hear a heckuva lot more liberals talking about trying to fix the problems of poverty than I do conservatives.  Heck, it seems a lot more poor people are liberals.  I want to be on the side of the poor.  Hence, I should be a liberal too.  And not one of those mushy Bill Clinton-type liberals—no, I’m going to vote for Nader.

I don’t want to be too critical—these are darn good, dare I say righteous, impulses, and I strongly commend the growing number of young Christians who share them.  As Christians, we certainly should care about the poor.  The Bible makes it clear, in the Beatitudes and elsewhere, God’s special concern for the poor, the vulnerable, the hungry, and the persecuted; for the weak, the sick, and the homeless; for orphans, widows, and refugees.  Catholic social doctrine even has a special phrase for this—“the preferential option for the poor.”[1]

Any serious politics—let alone one that dares to claim the label ‘Christian’—must begin with a concern for the poor and marginalized.  Certainly President Obama and his politicsembody this, and no doubt this was part of his appeal to many young new voters of faith last election.  Thank goodness the truncated gospel of the Religious Right is maturing, and that many evangelicals today are seeking a more robust gospel that takes account of the full range of concerns of the Kingdom of God.

So what gives?  Why did caring about the poor lead me from voting for Nader to five years later working for a conservative member of Congress?  “What gives” involves the complexity and nuance of modern politics, governing, and bureaucracy.  It involves the sad and tragic fact that claiming to care for someone, or even intending to care for them, is not the same as actually caring for them.  For serious citizens, and serious Christians, there are several more questions one must ask in order to compassionately and intelligently engage the public sphere.  These questions aim at truth; at reality; at the way things really are—a “Christian realism,” if you will.  Here are the two key questions, as I see the issue.

1) What is true poverty, in our day and age?  At least in the rich countries of the West, much more than material poverty exists.  What about cultural, and even religious, poverty?  In our own country, might not these be as salient, or perhaps more so, than the traditional variety?  What most prevents our fellow countrymen from living a life of human flourishing?

2) What can be done about poverty; to help the poor, the weak, and the sick, whether they be materially or culturally poor or sick?  What can be done by communities, and what can be done by the government?  What about churches and charities?  What works best?  Has liberalism worked for the poor?  For the most part, liberalism has dominated our nation’s social policy for more than three generations (though no doubt not as much as many liberals wanted).  What has worked, and what hasn’t?  How could we do better?  Might conservative alternatives be more successful?  Thinking prudentially (perhaps the supreme virtue of politics), which means work best to reach the desired ends?

Whether or not one eventually ends up in the same place I did, these questions deserve to be pondered seriously and prudently by all those who desire to be socially responsible Christians.  I look forward to exploring them together with the readers of this blog.

[1] “…This love of preference for the poor, and the decisions which it inspires in us, cannot but embrace the immense multitudes of the hungry, the needy, the homeless, those without medical care and, above all, those without hope of a better future. It is impossible not to take account of the existence of these realities. To ignore them would mean becoming like the “rich man” who pretended not to know the beggar Lazarus lying at his gate (cf. Lk 16:19-31).”  – John Paul II, Encyclical Letter Sollicitudo Rei Socialis, 42.