Bernie Sanders, Evangelicals and Poverty

Sen. Bernie Sanders
U.S. Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) delivers an address to Liberty University students at the school in Lynchburg, Virginia, September 14, 2015. |

Correction Appended

Bernie Sanders spoke to Liberty University a few weeks back, presenting himself and his convictions boldly and honestly, and in response, a Liberty alumnus and Evangelical pastor "Tim" gave a rather impassioned speech about how his conservative Christian beliefs were now obliging him to vote for Bernie, because Bernie cares for the poor, the needy, and the weak. Salon offers a similar take on Bernie, saying that Bernie's speech is a political earthquake. But what's remarkable about these responses is that Bernie's moment is completely unremarkable.

I'm not commenting on Bernie's rhetorical stylings, and I'll take him at his word about his concern for the poor and needy. But it's not as if Christians who vote Republican have suddenly had scales torn from their eyes by Bernie's speech (except, apparently, pastor Tim). Many of these Christians have already been shouldering their duty to care for the poor and needy. It's just that they see this as a personal duty and not as the government's job. This makes sense of the fact that states dominated by Christian conservatives give more than their liberal counterparts. If Sanders and Pastor Tim are to be believed — wouldn't you expect the opposite?

The idea that Sanders's approach presents some kind of "twist," "earthquake," or "revelation" to Christians is somewhat insulting — as if Christians never before read Jesus's words and thought about their political positions at the same time.

It's similar to the "gotcha" articles written by pro-choice proponents who take pot-shots at pro-lifers for not caring about women, despite the fact that pro-lifers have founded countless crisis pregnancy centers throughout the nation, welcome the needy into their churches, and fund and run charities that help the poor and needy.

These bet-you-didn't-see-that-coming M. Night Shyamalan-esque pieces are not actually trying to win over the politically-conservative Christian or the pro-lifer. No, they are trying to convince the liberals and moderates that the conservative and pro-life positions are simplistic, inconsistent, unintelligent, and not in keeping with real Christian charity.

Unfortunately, it is the failure of rhetoric and teaching from politically-conservative and pro-life Christians that permits these weak arguments to gain any traction at all.

The responses we should be providing are straightforward and simple: Of course it is our Christian obligation to care for the poor and needy, and we should primarily do this as individuals, families, churches, and charities — not through the power of the government. And of course we should care for women, and we should do that primarily through meeting the real physical and spiritual needs of women as individuals, families, churches, and charities — not by "empowering" women to kill their children.

The failure is especially prevalent in our political discourse.

Sadly, many Christian, conservative, pro-life politicians feel that they need to provide a political solution for every problem they acknowledge. When confronted with the poor and needy, they either deny the problem, blame the victim, or argue that "the free market" will fix it all. Instead, they ought to speak boldly about the duties of individuals, families, churches, and local organizations to care for the poor and needy in their midst, and they should talk about how federal, state, and local governments can work to remove barriers and grease the skids for this much-needed aid.

Similarly they should speak not just about stopping abortion but also about how our healthcare and insurance systems can best be structured to provide for the health needs of women. They can point to crisis pregnancy centers, charities, and churches when people ask them what pro-lifers do for women.

Unfortunately the rhetorical failure of many politicians on the Right is not only due to a lack of knowledge or ability. The Salon article points to a fatal flaw among some Republicans today: the tendency to accept a hyper-libertarian Ayn Rand-esque view of society, to believe that altruism is inherently bad, and to see the poor and needy as people who simply need a free market and willpower to succeed. That message truly is antithetical to Christianity.

Thankfully the Salon article and the message of Bernie Sanders are both setting up a false dichotomy. It's not simply socialism vs. Randian libertarianism.

Contra-Rand, Christ does indeed call us to be altruistic. But contra-Bernie, this is a call for altruism on a personal level. Christ was telling us that we have a Christian duty to help the poor. He was not establishing a welfare state. A welfare state removes our duty as Christians and makes it all rather easy for us. Just pay your taxes and someone else will be paid to do the hard work of actually helping the needy. Likewise viewing the free market as Savior also provides a similarly easy abdication for the Christian.

The real difficulty, and part of the hard work of following Christ, is to take upon oneself the duty of helping and protecting the poor, the needy, and the helpless.

Correction: October 22, 2015

This article was originally published on October 15 with Erica Wanis as the author. The article was republished on October 22 under the correct author, Zachary Gappa.

Zachary Gappa is Consultant and Managing Editor for The John Jay Institute's Center for a Just Society

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