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“The Cross And The Coin”: Why Conservatives Just Don’t Get Pope Francis’ Anti-Poverty Crusade

On Sunday, Pope Francis matter-of-factly announced that he was not actually a Marxist, telling Italy’s La Stampa, “The Marxist ideology is wrong. But I have met many Marxists in my life who are good people, so I don’t feel offended.” It was an incredible thing for a pope to proclaim about himself, especially since it was directed at one particularly loud group of critics: U.S. conservatives.

Since outlining his vision for the Catholic church in late November, Pope Francis has endured an amount of criticism from the American right wing commensurate only with the praise piled on by the remainder of global Christianity. For most, Francis’ moving exhortation to spread the gospel and engage personally with Jesus was a welcome and invigorating encouragement. But for many right wing pundits in America, Francis’ call to relieve global poverty through state intervention in markets was unconscionably troubling.

Francis’ message likely raises American conservative hackles because the American right wing has invented such a convincing façade of affinity between fiscal conservatism and Christianity over the last few decades. Though free markets, profit motives, and unrestrained accumulation of wealth have no immediate relationship with Christianity, the cross and the coin are nonetheless powerful, paired symbols of the American right wing. Catholic conservatives thus must carve a way around Francis’ difficult insistence that governments be harnessed toward the relief of poverty, not the creation of it.

A popular conservative criticism has thus been to accuse the Pope of having an unhealthy, non-theological affinity for the political left. Rush Limbaugh labeled Francis a “Marxist” for that reason, while Fox News’ Adam Shaw wrote him off as akin to President Barack Obama, derisively noting that “anti-Catholics in the left-wing media are in love with him.” Ross Douthat at The New York Times put the same argument more delicately, writing that Francis’ “plain language tilts leftward in ways that no serious reader can deny.”

It is no surprise that aligning Francis with the whole of the political left brings with it the arguments right wing critics usually lob against liberals: That the left is corrupt on the moral issues, such as abortion and gay marriage; that the left is incorrect as to how poverty comes to exist; and that the left means to replace Christian charity with soulless, dependency-producing state aid programs. Between Limbaugh, Shaw, and Douthat, Francis has been accused of each of these errors, all in an effort to drain the religious content from Francis’ message in order to dismiss him as just another leftist.

But the reality is that this method of criticism does little more than demonstrate the ordering of right wing priorities: Though they accuse Francis’ message of rising from an unduly political place, their arguments rely on a uniquely American political frame rather than a Christian one. Limbaugh, Shaw, and Douthat may claim to object to Francis as Christians, but they argue against him first and foremost as conservatives invested in the free market.

Douthat, for example, argues that global capitalism has been responsible for an overall reduction in poverty. But Francis’ exhortation never called for an elimination of capitalism, only that states, as creations of humankind, be structured so as to alleviate the poverty that arises after capitalism has done its work. For Francis, all institutions created by humanity — and yes, distributions of wealth are created, not spontaneous — must be intentionally shaped to further just goals. Since Francis’ notion of justice is informed purely by the teaching of Christ, just goals include establishing an equitable distribution of wealth that alleviates poverty and contributes to peace.

That Francis’ right wing Christian critics are informed by a uniquely American belief in the moral neutrality of markets and distributions is especially clear when they’re compared with their European Christian counterparts, whose intellectual traditions differ broadly from what Thomas Nagel has called America’s “everyday libertarian” approach to politics. When Pope Francis was still Cardinal Jose Bergoglio, the British party known as the Christian People’s Alliance stated the following in their 2010 platform:

The Christian Peoples Alliance believes that Britain will return to economic prosperity when government chooses instead to put human relationships in right order. This requires power, income, and wealth to be redistributed and for greater equality to be achieved. These are deeply spiritual convictions and reflect a Biblical pattern of priorities… [Christian People’s Alliance]

It would be disingenuous to label the British Christian People’s Alliance a left wing party: They’re opposed to abortion and support the teaching Christian values in public schools. But because they are firstly a Christian organization, their sentiments regarding the distribution of wealth track perfectly with those expressed by Francis, as is the case with numerous European Christian parties. This is because for the Pope as well as Christian groups organized outside of the American tradition, the primacy of Christian ethical thought is applied to all aspects of human existence, markets and the distribution of wealth included.

But the sanctity of markets is a foregone conclusion for his right wing critics. Their politics precede their religion, and their criticisms belie their accusation that Francis is the one who displays an overly strong affinity for politics. So far, no serious theological arguments have been raised by the right wing contra Francis, and I doubt any will be raised: For the Pope’s conservative critics in the U.S., the first concern is not religious.

 

By: Elizabeth Stoker, The Week, December 17, 2013

December 18, 2013 Posted by | Conservatives, Pope Francis, Poverty | , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“The Religious Right Is A Fraud”: There’s Nothing Christian About Michele Bachmann’s Values

Last week, the nation’s capital was host to Value Voters 2013 Summit, a three-day political conference for predominantly religious conservatives. Among the smattering of social and economic issues at hand, the overall tenor of the Summit focused on eliminating Obamacare, expanding the tangible presence of Christianity through the public arena and military and preventing the proliferation of easily available birth control and abortion. In speeches, lunches and breakout sessions, American’s Christian Right worked out strategies to bring the values of the federal government in line with their preferred Christian ethical dictates, using democracy as their chief tool.

It isn’t unusual for Christians living in democracies to use the vote to express their ethics, and to shape government to do the same. That the moral and ethical preferences of a given society should inform government is a foundational principle of democracy, after all. And American values voters are far from the first Christians to undertake the project of bringing their government’s policies in line with Christian ethics: European Christian parties have aimed to do the same for decades. But between American Christian voters and their European counterparts, a curious departure opens up: while European Christians generally see the anti-poverty mission of Christianity as worthy of political action, the American Christian Right inexplicably cordons off economics from the realm of Christian influence.

By all means, the American Christian Right is willing to leverage government authority to carry out a variety of Christian ethical projects, especially within the arena of family life. Michele Bachmann would make abortion illegal, and Rick Santorum has stated on multiple occasions that he supports laws against homosexual intercourse. But Christian politicians in the United States curtail their interest in making the gospel actionable when it comes to welfare. While the government should see to the moral uprightness of marriage, sex and family, the Value Voters 2013 Summit was notably bereft of talks on living wages, labor rights or basic incomes.

The notable exclusion of poverty from the Christian agenda would doubtlessly puzzle European Christians, whose support of Christian ethical approaches to family life have always been paired with a deep and vigorous concern for the poor. And, unlike their American counterparts, European Christians haven’t been willing to leave poverty up to individual charity or the market to handle. Quite the contrary: Just as public morality is an arena fit for intervention by a Christian-informed government, so too is welfare. Consider the British Christian People’s Alliance 2010 election manifesto, a document intended to explain the imminently Christian party’s policy goals:

“The Christian Peoples Alliance believes that Britain will return to economic prosperity when government chooses instead to put human relationships in right order. This requires power, income and wealth to be redistributed and for greater equality to be achieved. These are deeply spiritual convictions and reflect a Biblical pattern of priorities…By the end of the next Parliament, the CPA will establish the reduction of inequality as a national target, so that the ratios of the incomes of the top 20 per cent are reduced to no more than five and a half times the incomes of the bottom 20 per cent.”

The CPA election manifesto goes on to explain that their aversion to inequality arises from a uniquely Christian concern for the health of human relationships, which suffer under the weight of massive social inequality. Their position on inequality is hardly an anomaly among European Christian parties. In fact, the European Christian Political Movement (ECPM), a confederation of Christian parties from different European nations operating within the European Union, states very similar goals in its own programme:

“Social justice is a fundamental Biblical teaching and Christian-democrat notion. Social justice demands an equal regard for all. That implies a special concern for the needs of the poor, refugees, those who suffer and the powerless. It requires us to oppose exploitation and deprivation. It requires also that appropriate resources and opportunities are available. In this way, we meet the basic requirements of all and each person is able to take part in the life of the community.”

Toward that end, the European Christian Political Foundation, which is the official think tank of the ECPM, recently commissioned a publication entitled ‘After Capitalism’, which is summarized thus:

“‘After Capitalism’ seeks to rethink the foundations of a market economy and argues that the Bible’s central theme of relationships is the key to rebuilding a system that promotes economic well-being, financial stability and social cohesion.”

It is notable that the multitude of parties that make up the EPCM are not necessarily leftist or wholly liberal parties. They do not generally align themselves with openly socialist parties in their home countries, though their policies toward welfare and equality would likely be branded as such by American Christians. And so the question remains: If European Christians feel the anti-poverty mission of Christianity is as worthy of political action as the ethical values relating to family life, why doesn’t the American Christian Right feel the same?

Economic policy seems a strange place to wall off consideration of Christian ethics, but when it comes to policies that would expand welfare programs or extend particular benefits to the poor, the American Christian Right recoils, and tends to fall back on the rhetoric of personal accountability and individual liberty in matters of charity. But as European Christian parties have shown, limiting economic justice to the arena of charity is a political choice. If the government has a moral role — which the American Christian Right certainly believes it does — then why shouldn’t it participate in the same forms of care individual Christians are obligated to?

No principled reason can be given for the distinction the Christian Right draws between harnessing the state to pursue social objectives and harnessing it to pursue economic objectives. It is a uniquely American distinction as far as Christian politicking goes. What the distinction reveals is that so-called values voters are just a particular flavor of right-wing political culture, one that opts for Christian language and rhetoric when communicating its message. But in that case, it is their freestanding political commitments that inform their Christianity, not the other way around.

The answer to this riddle is therefore not so mysterious. Although nominally interested in harnessing the state to pursue Christian social objectives, the American Christian Right is not detached from the culture it has developed within. Their politics is not one that is Christian in origin; rather, it originates from the same place all other right-wing politics originates, but mobilizes Christian rhetoric and meanings post-hoc to justify its goals.

By: Elizabeth Stoker and Matt Bruenig, Salon, October 15, 2013

October 16, 2013 Posted by | Poverty, Religious Right | , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

   

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