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Or How to Legislate Evil and Punish the Poor.
On August 26th, during the Republican National Convention, Vice President Mike Pence closed out his acceptance speech with a biblical sleight of hand. Speaking before a crowd at the Fort McHenry National Monument in Baltimore, he exclaimed, “Let’s fix our eyes on Old Glory and all she represents. Let’s fix our eyes on this land of heroes and let their courage inspire.” In doing so, he essentially rewrote a passage from the New Testament’s Book of Hebrews: “Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy set before Him endured the cross.”
There’s nothing new, of course, about an American politician melding religion and politics on the campaign trail. Still, Pence’s decision to replace Jesus with the Stars and Stripes raised eyebrows across a range of religious and political persuasions. Indeed, the melding of Old Glory and Christ provided the latest evidence of the rising influence of Christian nationalism in the age of Trump.
It’s no longer hard to find evidence of just how deeply Christian nationalism influences our politics and policymaking. During the pandemic, the Bible has repeatedly been used (and distorted) to justify Covid-19 denialism and government inaction, not to speak of outright repression. In late March, as cities were locking down and public health officials were recommending strict quarantine measures, one of Donald Trump’s first acts was to gather his followers at the White House for what was billed as a “National Day of Prayer” to give Americans the strength to press on through death and difficulty.
Later in the spring, protests against pandemic shutdowns, funded with dark money from the likes of the Koch Brothers, demanded that states reopen for business and social distancing guidelines be loosened. (Forget about masking of any sort.) At them, printed protest signs said things like: “Even Pharaoh Freed Slaves in a Plague” and “Texas will not take the Mark of the Beast.” And even as faith communities struggled admirably to adjust to zoom worship services, as well as remote pastoral care and memorials, President Trump continued to fan the flames of religious division, declaring in-person worship “essential,” no matter that legal experts questioned his authority to do so.
And speaking of his version of Christian nationalism, no one should forget the June spectacle in Lafayette Square near the White House, when Trump had racial-justice protestors tear-gassed so he could stroll to nearby St. John’s Church and pose proudly on its steps displaying a borrowed bible. Though he flashed it to the photographers, who can doubt how little time he’s spent within its pages. (Selling those same pages is another matter entirely. After all, a Bible he signed in the wake of that Lafayette Square event is now on sale for nearly $40,000.)
The Battle for the Bible in American History
To understand how power is wielded in America by wealthy politicians and their coteries of extremists in 2020, you have to consider the role of religion in our national life. An epic battle for the Bible is now underway in a country that has been largely ceded to white evangelical Christian nationalists. Through a well-funded network of churches and nonprofits, universities, and think tanks, and with direct lines to the nation’s highest political officials, they’ve had carte-blanche to set the terms of what passes for religious debate in this country and dictate what morality even means in our society.
Under Trump, such religious nationalism has reached a fever pitch as a reactionary movement that includes technocratic billionaires, televangelists, and armed militias has taken root with a simple enough message: God loves white Christian America, favors small government and big business, and rewards individualism and entrepreneurship. Meanwhile, the poor, people of color, and immigrants are blamed for society’s problems even as the rich get richer in what’s still the wealthiest country in the history of the world.
The dangers posed by today’s Christian nationalists are all too real, but the battle for the Bible itself is not new in America. In the 1700s and 1800s, slaveholders quoted the book of Philemon and lines from St. Paul’s epistles to claim that slavery was ordained by God. They also ripped the pages of Exodus from bibles they gave to the enslaved. During the Gilded Age of the nineteenth century, churches and politicians alike preached a “prosperity gospel” that extolled the virtues of industrial capitalism.
Decades later, segregationists continued to use stray biblical verses to rubberstamp Jim Crow practices, while in the late 1970s the Moral Majority helped to mainstream a new generation of Christian extremists into national politics. In my own youth, I remember politicians quoting Thessalonians in the lead up to the passage of the 1996 Welfare Reform Act as proof that God believes in work-requirements for public assistance programs.
Students of religion and history know that, although such theological battles have often tipped disastrously toward the forces of violence, deprivation, and hate, Christian religious thinking has also been a key ingredient in positive social change in this country. Escaped slave Harriet “Moses” Tubman understood the Underground Railroad as a Christian project of liberation, while escaped slave Frederick Douglass fought for abolition through churches across the north in the pre-Civil War years. A century later, near the end of his life, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.explained how, to achieve his universal dream of justice, a beloved community of God would be built through a “freedom church of the poor.”
After all, in every chapter of American history, abolitionists, workers, labor organizers, civil rights leaders, and other representatives of the oppressed have struggled for a better nation not just in streets and workplaces, but in the pulpit, too. In the wreckage of the present Trumpian moment, with a fascistic, white nationalism increasingly ascendant, people of conscience would do well to follow suit.
The “Psychological Bird” of Bad Religion
In my book Always with Us? What Jesus Really Said About the Poor, I focus on a reality that has long preoccupied me: how, in this country, the Bible has so often been manipulated to obscure its potentially emancipatory power; in particular, the way in which what theologian Jim Wallis has called the most famous biblical passage on the poor (from the Gospel of Matthew) — “the poor will be always with us” — has been misused.
Since I was a young girl, scarcely a week has passed in which I haven’t heard someone quoting Matthew as an explanation for why poverty is eternal and its mitigation reserved at best for charity or philanthropy (but certainly not for government). The logic of such thinking runs through so many of our religious institutions including what’s now known as “evangelical Christianity,” but also our legislatures, courts, military, schools, and more. It hasn’t just shaped the minds of young Christians but has helped to spiritualize (and cement in place) poverty, while implicitly or even explicitly justifyingever greater inequality in this society.
Today, the idea that poverty is the result of bad behavior, laziness, or sin rather than decisions made by those with power is distinctly ascendant in Donald Trump’s and Mitch McConnell’s Washington. Biblical passages like that one in Matthew have become another ideological tool brandished by reactionaries and the wealthy to deflect attention from this country’s systemic failures.
Consider, for example, the historic development of what’s often known as the “Bible Belt” (or alternatively the “Poverty Belt”). It sweeps across the South, from North Carolina to Mississippi, Tennessee to Alabama, home to poor people of every race. It represents the deepest, most contiguous area of poverty in the United States made possible in part by heretical theology, biblical misinterpretation, and Christian nationalism.
The convergence of poverty and religion in the Bible Belt has a long history, stretching back to the earliest settler-colonists in the slave era. It echoed through the system of Jim Crow that had the region in its grip until the Civil Rights years and the modern political concept of “the solid South” (once Democratic, now Republican). Within its bounds lies a brutal legacy of divide and conquer that, to this day, politicizes the Bible by claiming that poverty results from sins against God and teaches poor white people in particular that, although they may themselves have little or nothing, they are at least “better” than people of color.
At the end of the bloody march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, in 1965, Martin Luther King explained the age-old politics of division in the region this way:
“If it may be said of the slavery era that the white man took the world and gave the Negro Jesus, then it may be said of the Reconstruction era that the southern aristocracy took the world and gave the poor white man Jim Crow… And when his wrinkled stomach cried out for the food that his empty pockets could not provide, he ate Jim Crow, a psychological bird that told him that no matter how bad off he was, at least he was a white man, better than the black man… And his children, too, learned to feed upon Jim Crow, their last outpost of psychological oblivion.”
That “psychological bird” was seasoned and cooked in a volatile mix of racist pseudo-science, economic orthodoxy, and bad religion. In fact, it retained its enormous power in large part by using the Bible and a version of Christianity to validate plunder and human suffering on a staggering scale. De jure Jim Crow may no longer exist, but its history haunts America to this day, and the Bible continues to be weaponized to validate anti-poor, white racist political power.
As jobs and opportunity continue to vanish in twenty-first-century America and churches stand among the last truly functional institutions in many communities, the Bible, however interpreted, still influences daily life for millions. How it’s understood and preached affects the political and moral direction of the country. Consider that those Bible Belt states — where Christian nationalism (which regularly displays its own upside-down version of the Bible) now reigns supreme — account for more than 193 electoral college votes and so will play a key role in determining the fate of Donald Trump and Mike Pence in November.
I had my own experience with that version of biblical and theological interpretation and its growing role in our national politics in June 2019 during a hearing of the Budget Committee of the House of Representatives. Its subject was poverty in America and the economic realities of struggling families. A racially and geographically diverse group of leaders of the Poor People’s Campaign (of which I’m the co-chair) were invited to testify on those realities. Alongside us that day were two Black pastors invited by Republican congressmen to stand as examples of how faith and hard work is the only recipe for a good and stable life for the impoverished.
We had come to present what we’ve called the Poor People’s Moral Budget, a study showing that the United States does have the money to end poverty, hunger, homelessness, and more, just not the political will to do so. In response, members of the committee turned to the same tired stereotypesabout why so many of us in such a wealthy country are poor. Some cited the supposed failure of the 1960s War on Poverty as evidence that programs of social uplift just don’t work, while ignoring the dramatic way politicians had undercut those initiatives in the years that followed. Like those pastors, others replied with tales of their own success rising out of economic hardship via bootstrap individualism and they plugged Christian charity as the way to alleviate poverty. I listened to them all as they essentially promoted a heretical theology that claimed people suffer from poverty largely because they’re estranged from God and lack a deep enough faith in Jesus.
That day, the walls of that House committee room rang with empty words twisting what the Bible actually says about the poor. One Republican representative typically remarked that, although he was familiar with the Bible, he had never found anyplace in it “where Jesus tells Caesar to care for the poor.” Another all-too-typically suggested that Christian charity, not government-sponsored programs, is the key to alleviating poverty.
Someone less familiar with the arguments of such politicians might have been surprised to hear so many of them seeking theological cover. As a biblical scholar and a student of the history of social movements, I know well how religious texts actually instruct us to care for the poor and dispossessed. As a long-time organizer, I’ve learned that those in power now regularly, even desperately, seek to abuse and distort the liberating potential of our religious traditions.
Indeed, in response to that representative, Reverand William Barber, my Poor People’s Campaign co-chair, and I pointed out how interesting it was that he identified himself with Caesar (not necessarily the most flattering comparison imaginable, especially as biblical Christianity polemicizes against Caesar and the Roman empire). Then I detailed for him many of the passages and commandments in the Bible that urge us to organize society around the needs of the poor, forgive debts, pay workers a living wage, rather than favoring either the rich or “Caesar.” That, of course, is indeed the formula of the Trump era (where, in the last six pandemic months, the 643 wealthiest Americans raked in an extra $845 billion, raising their combined wealth by 29%). I also pointed out that the most effective poverty-reduction programs like Head Start are federally funded, neither philanthropic nor a matter of Christian charity.
Good News from the Poor
In the Poor People’s Campaign, we often start our organizing meetings by showing a series of color-coded maps of the country. The first has the states that have passed voter suppression laws since 2013; the next, those with the highest poverty rates; then, those that have not expanded Medicaid but have passed anti-LGBTQ laws. And so it goes. Our final map displays the states densest with self-identified evangelical Protestants.
I’m sure you won’t be surprised to learn that those maps overlap almost perfectly, chiefly in the Bible Belt, but also in the Midwest, the Mid-Atlantic states, and even in parts of the Northeast and West. The point is to show how inextricably connected the battle for voting rights, healthcare, and other critical resources is to the battle for the Bible. The stakes are measured in the health of the entire nation, because the same politicians who manipulate the Bible and the right to vote to win elections then pass immoral budgets and policies.
When Vice President Pence altered that line from the Book of Hebrews, he was charging headfirst onto that very blood-soaked battlefield with a desecrated Bible in hand. The question is: why should he and other Christian nationalists have the power to define Christianity? If they are so intent on “fixing their eyes on Old Glory,” shouldn’t they also fix their eyes on what Jesus actually said?
The Greek word evangelia, out of which “evangelical” comes, means bringing good news to those made poor by systems of exploitation. The Bible’s good news, also defined as gospel, talks again and again about captives being freed, slaves released, and all who are oppressed being taken care of. It’s said that were you to cut out every one of its pages that mentions poverty, the Bible would fall apart. And when you actually read the words on those pages, you see that the gospel doesn’t talk about the inevitability of poverty or the need for charity, but the responsibilities of the ruling authorities to all people and the possibility of abundance for all.
At a time when 43.5% of Americans are poor or experiencing fire, storm, health-care crisis, pandemic, eviction, or job loss from poverty, it couldn’t be more important for Americans to begin to reckon with this reality and our moral obligation to end it. Instead, politicians pass voter suppression laws, kick kids off food programs, and allow the poisoning of our water, air, and land, while Christian nationalist religious leaders bless such policies and cherry-pick biblical verses to justify them as all-American. Consider such a reality not simply a matter of a religious but a political, economic, and moral crisis that, in the midst of a pandemic, is pushing this country ever closer to the brink of spiritual death.
If America is still worth saving, this is no longer a battle anyone should sit out.
Liz Theoharis is a theologian, ordained minister, and anti-poverty activist. Director of the Kairos Center for Religions, Rights and Social Justice at Union Theological Seminary in New York City and co-chair of the Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival, she is the author of Always With Us? What Jesus Really Said About the Poor.
Copyright 2020 Liz Theoharis. First published in TomDispatch. Included in Vox Populi with permission.