Monday, November 05, 2012

Why the Bible told me to vote for Democrats...

Two things jumped out of the newspaper for me yesterday:

First, a small bit reporting that former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, an ordained Southern Baptist minister, warned Christians that their vote "will affect the future and be recorded in eternity" and they must cast a ballot that will "stand the test of fire."

Second, a full-page ad by the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association imploring "Vote Biblical Values Tuesday, November 6." The ad, signed personally by Billy Graham himself, advises that this may be his last election. "I believe it is vitally important that we cast our ballots for candidates who base their decisions on Biblical principles and support the nation of Israel." He goes on to clarify that this includes voting for those who protect the sanctity of life and support the "Biblical definition of marriage between a man and a woman."

Well, my apologies to the reverends, (the latter for which I have a great deal if respect) but the not so subtle indication that good Christians should vote for Republicans is not only further damaging to the Church by continuing to bind it to a brand of conservative politics which is overwhelmingly rejected by younger generations of believers and nonbelievers alike, but it really isn't supported by the Bible much at all. At least not how I read the Bible.

For all the highly publicized talk about gays and abortion, of which there is very little mention in the Bible, there is very little public discussion about wealth and poverty, the gap between the rich and the poor, and the values that should guide our decisions about economic policy. And on these topics the Scriptures have quite a lot to say:

In summary, Jesus seems to have a fairly strong opinion about the rich, and it's not super favorable.

In Luke 16:19-21, Jesus tells the parable about the Rich Man and Lazarus. The former has nice clothes and lives in luxury every day. The latter is a beggar laid at the gate of the Rich Man, longing to eat from the scraps of his table. The Rich Man dies and goes to hell, but Lazarus is escorted by angels to heaven. The Rich Man pleads for mercy, and Abraham basically tells him, you had your chance to follow Moses and the prophets, but you blew it, and now you're in hell.

In Matthew 25:31-46 Jesus gives us a visual of Judgment Day, when God will separate people as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. (Cake-themed spoiler alert: Sheep go to heaven, Goats go to hell.) He welcomes the sheep into heaven saying "For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me." The (righteous) sheep scratch their heads and say, um, God, we don't remember doing that for you. God replies "Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me." And to the goats, who apparently did not do these things for the least of these, He says, well, go to hell.

Now, neither of these passages, spoken directly from the Son of God, paint a picture of a God who is a squishy-feely deity of moral relativism. This is pretty blunt. The world may have chosen winners and losers in the economy, but God has chosen differently. Christ’s pending arrival on Earth is heralded by Mary in the Magnificat as a reordering of society by God: "He has brought down rulers from their thrones but has lifted up the humble. He has filled the hungry with good things but has sent the rich away empty." Luke 1:52-53 There are no asterisks here for the poor who are not working hard enough, or the poor who are expecting a handout. There is no praise for John Wayne-type rugged individualists, or capitalistic survival-of-the-fittest heroes. Apparently, those guys can go to hell. Beggars ascend to the table of Abraham in heaven and those who help the least of these--even people in prisons--are rewarded in eternity.

Does this mean all rich people are bad and going to hell? No, but they have an uphill road to get in to the Kingdom of God. When a young man with great wealth came to Jesus asking what he must do to get eternal life, Jesus reviews all the basic commandments with him (don't murder, steal, or commit adultery, honor your parents, love your neighbor as yourself) but the fellow keeps pushing. I've kept all those commandments, he says, what else must I do? "If you want to be perfect, sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then, come follow me." Matthew 19:21 Not the answer the young man was hoping for, and he walked away sad. "Truly I tell you," says Jesus, "it is hard for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of heaven." Matthew 18:23

Why is this? Well, we all have to make a choice: God or Money. "No one can serve two masters. Either he will hate the one and love the other, or you will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and money." Matthew 6:24

If indeed whatever we do for the least if these is what we do for God, then America has been pretty hell-bent on serving money instead of God over the last 40 years. Under President Eisenhower, the top marginal tax rate was 91%, under Kennedy, 71%, and in 1981 Reagan reduced that from 70% to 50%. Today it's only 35% for regular income, not capital gains or inheritance. What did we get for this? In 2007 right before the crash, the top 1% held 33.8% of the entire nation's wealth ($3.3 trillion), The next 9% held 37.3%, the bottom 90% all held only 28.5% of the nation's wealth. In fact, this analysis, done by the Fed, left out the top 400 wealthiest individuals who, alone, held $1.3 trillion in wealth, which is more than the entire bottom 50 percent. That's pretty messed up.

From an economic standpoint, it is a little hard to see how consumer demand and economic growth could be maintained with the vast majority of Americans competing over a shrinking sliver of national wealth. The answer was credit, and the rich got richer loaning money at high interest rates to the not-rich for mortgages and second mortgages. They bundled and resold the mortgages in poorly regulated transactions, all the while telling us that we could have whatever we wanted, whenever we wanted.

From a Biblical standpoint, the degradation of the poor as lazy and immoral is extremely at odds with how Jesus saw the world, especially when used to justify tax and economic policies that concentrate wealth and power to a few while increasingly ignoring those in need. Luke 6:20–21, 24–25; Luke 21:1-4; Luke 14:12-14 Nor is the exploitation of the poor looked upon favorably. Few sermons are preached on it anymore, but the Bible clearly calls usury (i.e. charging interest on loans) a sin. Exodus 22-25, Leviticus 25:35-37, Deuteronomy 23:19-20, Psalm 15:5, Ezekiel 18:17. And in this case, when the crash came, the wages of this sin took out a few 1-percenters, but devastated the lives of thousands upon thousands of 99-percenters. Indeed, we have all been struggling through the consequences ever since.

So when President Obama and the Democratic Congress passed historic legislation to regulate consumer finance and the banking industry, I don't see it as a loss of freedom, I see it as Biblical. When President Obama and the Democrats passed the Affordable Healthcare Act to extend health insurance to millions of Americans who couldn't afford it before, I don't see it as Socialism, I see it as Biblical. And when Paul Ryan's budget proposes massive cuts to services to the poor to pay for tax cuts for the wealthiest, I don't see that as Biblical, and you should not either.

And don't EVEN get me started on how some Republicans talk about immigrants. Exodus 22:21, Leviticus 19:33–34.

Mind you, the most basic tenant of being a Baptist, especially an American Baptist, is soul freedom, or the "priesthood of the believer." In short, each believer has the responsibility to read the Bible, pray to and listen for God, and use their own mind and reasoning to reach their conclusions about God's will. We have no Pope and very little doctrinal hierarchy, so Baptists do not traditionally believe in insisting on uniformity of religious thought. However, the public hasn't seen a very good demonstration of this basic tenet of Baptist faith in the last 30 years, and that is largely responsible for the record decline in membership and attendance in most Protestant churches by those age 35 and under.

So, with that in mind, let me say that I truly respect the views and passion of those who self identify as pro-life. When it came time to decide whether we wanted prenatal genetic screening for either of our pregnancies, my wife and I chose to pass. Abortion was never an option we would have chosen, regardless of what those tests could have told us. But, if someone in the government had made that choice for us, I think we would have felt less free.

Let me say that I understand the desire by many Americans to keep Society looking like it has since they and their grandparents were children. The national decline in the percentage of married couples is appalling, and saddening. Today, 40% of children are born out of wedlock, and the rate is far higher among minorities, with terrible long-term economic consequences. But the culprit for this decline in the institution seems more likely to be heterosexual cohabitation rather than the desire of same-sex couples to have the rights, responsibilities, and protections of marriage. I haven't heard too many sermons or stump speeches about the evils of "shacking-up" lately. Nor is there universal agreement as to the meaning of the few verses in the Bible to which some will point to justify their condemnation of homosexuals. Moreover, King David and King Solomon (who I am pretty sure are included in the pantheon of Saints) apparently didn’t get the memo about the Biblical definition of marriage between one man and only one woman. For that matter, neither did Joseph Smith, apparently.

Let me also say I respect those who want to make sure that government is not wasteful and inefficient and that government should not use more resources than are needed.  It is absolutely true that not every problem can or should be solved by government.  But I reject the idea that government of the people, by the people, and for the people, is inherently evil.  Nor do I accept the myth of poverty that pervades political talk these days.  Yes, we can afford to invest in infrastructure, combat global climate change and above all properly educate our children.  The resources are there, they've just been concentrated into the hands of too few.  Raising top marginal tax rates to the levels of the Clinton administration--or even the Reagan administration--won't turn us into Communists and it won't hurt the top earners all that much.  If a budget is a philosphical document or a statement of values, let our federal budget reflect not the values of Gordon Gekko, but rather the actual philosphy and values of Christ:  We take care of one another, especially the least of these.
So, being true to the core Baptist tenet of soul freedom, I have to say that I believe other Christians can study the Bible, pray to and listen for God, and reach a different conclusion in their faith and at the ballot box. But please, Reverends Huckabee and Graham, don't tell me that your reading of the Bible and how it applies to today's politics is the only right way.

I have yet to see any Biblical support for the economic policies of Republicans. Perhaps that can be the topic of future full-page newspaper ad. I suspect, however, it could barely fill a footnote.