A question for the pulpit today

James Freeman:

Nicholas Kristof of the New York Times is having fun implying that Speaker of the House Paul Ryan’s effort to replace ObamaCare is at odds with Mr. Ryan’s Catholic faith. The column is of a piece with the “Jesus was a socialist” arguments that bounce around the left half of the social media universe.

Without wrestling with any difficult questions of faith or logic, Mr. Kristof simply casts the federal bureaucracy in the role of Jesus. Then the Timesman proceeds to suggest through satire that by seeking to reduce outlays and improve incentives in federal programs, Mr. Ryan is defying the will of his God. Of course if federal agencies were ever actually given the statutory mission to do as Jesus would do, Mr. Kristof would be as horrified as anyone. But this seems to be a political season when people who spend much of the year driving religion out of public life abruptly drag it back in as they attempt to justify big government. It’s not necessarily persuasive.

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.

Fortunately, in part because of the influence of the Bible on America’s founders, we enjoy a form of government that is much more humane than the one that Jesus encountered. This raises the interesting question of what Jesus would say about our contemporary political debates. Perhaps he would gaze approvingly upon the $4 trillion annual federal budget and intone, “Whatever you do to the least of my appropriations, you do to me.” But would he still say that after examining all the line items? Beyond questions of specific allocations for Planned Parenthood and the like, would Jesus see even a relatively benign government like ours as superior to individual acts of charity in comforting the afflicted?

In contrast to Mr. Kristof’s drive-by, John Gehring nicely limns the issues at the heart of this debate in a 2015 piece for the National Catholic Reporter. He notes that the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops has condemned GOP attempts at budget-cutting but also mentions that a few church leaders are on Mr. Ryan’s side of the argument.

Mr. Gehring refers to a 2012 lecture Mr. Ryan delivered at Georgetown University. “Simply put, I do not believe that the preferential option for the poor means a preferential option for big government,” said the Speaker. “Look at the results of the government-centered approach to the war on poverty. One in six Americans are in poverty today – the highest rate in a generation. In this war on poverty, poverty is winning.” He concluded that “relying on distant government bureaucracies to lead this effort just hasn’t worked.”

 

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