What would Jesus vote for?

By Mike Tudoreanu

Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

One of the most shocking developments in recent American politics is the rise of a brand of Christian conservatism that embraces extreme free-market economic views. Politicians like Paul Ryan, Ted Cruz and others claim to be inspired by Christian ideas while they advocate slashing food stamps for the poor, cutting Social Security, denying health care to those who can’t afford it and shutting down the government. As a Christian, I can’t imagine how anyone could so blatantly attempt to worship God and Mammon at the same time.

Now let me say that I am what is sometimes called a “theological conservative”, and although my own political views are socialist, I believe that Christianity is compatible with a wide range of different ideologies (after all, the Church existed long before any of our current political issues were even imagined). But there are limits. Christianity isn’t compatible with everything. In his last public sermon, Jesus talked about the Last Judgment and described eternal damnation as follows:

“Then He will also say to those on the left hand, ‘Depart from Me, you cursed, into the everlasting fire prepared for the devil and his angels: for I was hungry and you gave Me no food; I was thirsty and you gave Me no drink; I was a stranger and you did not take Me in, naked and you did not clothe Me, sick and in prison and you did not visit Me.’ […] Assuredly, I say to you, inasmuch as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’” (Matthew 25: 41-43;45)

Notice that the souls condemned to Hell are not guilty of a sinful action, but of inaction. They are not going to Hell for something they did, rather for not doing something they should have done. This passage clearly expresses the contradiction between the Christian view of morality and the individualistic view promoted by conservatives and libertarians.

In the individualistic view, “negative rights” reign supreme: the most important right is the right to be left alone, people have no obligations to help each other and the government must not impose any such obligations upon them. Each individual is supposed to be left alone to do what he likes with his person and property as long as he does not infringe upon the rights of others to do likewise. Giving anything to your fellow man or offering any kind of help is purely optional.

But Christ says no, you do not have a right to be left alone. No, you may not “live and let live.” You are required to help people; you are required to sacrifice your time, effort and wealth for others – even for strangers. The Christian view is that people have positive obligations toward each other and society. Laissez-faire is the philosophy of Hell.

The fact that Jesus explicitly threatens individualists with eternal damnation is particularly important, because this is an unusually harsh thing for him to say. In fact, the Gospels only mention two occasions when Jesus told stories about people being cast into Hell. The one quoted above is one of them. The other is the story of the rich man and Lazarus (Luke 16:19-31), which describes the rich man going to Hell after death. That’s right, the only two times that Jesus gave clear examples of people going to Hell, was when he was talking about people who failed to help the needy. This is how serious he considered the issue to be.

It’s also relevant that the only time Jesus physically assaulted people (with a whip, no less) was when he saw the money changers in the Temple. And he didn’t just berate them for being in the Temple; he called them thieves, which implies that they would have been thieves if they did their money-changing outside the Temple, too. It’s hard to get more anti-capitalist than that.

Yet it is common to hear members of the Christian right dismiss our duty to help each other as if it is no big deal, as if it is merely something that people may do if they wish but have a right to refuse. But helping the poor, the sick and the needy is not optional. It is an absolute moral duty. It is the least optional part of the entire teachings of Christ. It is the only part that Jesus considered so important that he explicitly threatened people with Hell for not doing it. If there is anything at all that Christians are obligated to do on Earth, this is it. If there is any part of Christian morality that ought to become government policy, this is it.

Some Christian conservatives say that helping the needy should be left up to private charity rather than being done by the government through taxes. You know the line: “the government has no right to take my money and give it to someone else.” This is an example of the anti-Christian classical liberal ideology that has infected the Church in America. In the Christian view, that money is not yours but God’s, and you have no right to keep any more of it than you need for a decent life. St. Basil the Great, one of the early Fathers of the Church from the 4th century, explained the issue as follows:

“If it is true that you have kept the law of charity from your childhood, as you claim, and that you have done as much for others as for yourself, then where does all your wealth come from? Care for the poor absorbs all available resources … So whoever loves his neighbor as himself owns no more than his neighbor does. But you have a great fortune. How can this be, unless you have put your own interests above those of others?”

Another fourth century Christian theologian, St. John Chrysostom (the author of the standard Sunday service of the Orthodox Church, among other things), was even more explicit: “Do not say ‘I am using what belongs to me.’ You are using what belongs to others. All the wealth of the world belongs to you and to the others in common, as the sun, air, earth, and all the rest.”

The founders of free market ideology understood Christianity’s emphasis on helping others as well, and for that reason they were enemies of Christianity. The militant atheism of Ayn Rand is well documented: she went to great lengths to attack the Christian principle of self-sacrifice in her books praising capitalism, and her ideas inspired the “Church of Satan” of Anton LaVey (which doesn’t actually believe in Satan, but rather uses him as a symbol). Less well-known are the anti-Christian views of the founders of libertarian economic thought. Ludwig von Mises wrote in 1922:

“A living Christianity cannot, it seems, exist side by side with Capitalism. Just as in the case of Eastern religions, Christianity must either overcome Capitalism or go under. Yet, in the fight against Capitalism today, there is no more effective war-cry than Socialism…”

If only other libertarian economists could be so honest! Mises, the abject worshipper of the market that he was, naturally saw this as a reason to reject and oppose Christianity, because it stands in the way of the god of profit. But he was right about one thing: Christianity and capitalism are natural enemies. The fact is that conservative Christians in the U.S. have been deceived into serving political forces that represent the worst enemy of our faith. To be sure, mainstream American liberalism has major problems and carries some anti-Christian ideas as well – but none are as fundamentally opposed to the teachings of Christ as the right-wing idea that free markets are good and that wealth belongs to individuals and not to society. It is the right, not the left, which proudly advocates the one thing that Jesus himself described as the road to Hell. Conservative Christianity – so admirable in preserving proper theology – must stop working for the enemy in the realm of politics.

Mike Tudoreanu is a Collegian columnist and can be reached at [email protected]