Sep 20, 2013

Religion in the politics of food stamps

Republicans in Congress voted Thursday to cut about $40 billion from the food stamp program that feeds America's poor. They passed a proposed change in rules that would make it harder to qualify for government assistance, reducing the cost of the anti-poverty program by about five percent. That change would affect more than three million people, according to the Congressional Budget Office.

The new rules are not likely to pass the Senate, and the White House has threatened to veto the bill if it goes to the president. Republicans in the House went ahead anyway, though, and took a stand.

That stand, notably, was not religious.

It was not defended with rhetoric referencing religious principles. The House Republicans almost completely avoided appealing to Christianity or the Bible. The arguments were overwhelmingly secular. A significant argument defending the food stamp program, on the other hand, did depend on a faith-based appeal. Religious leaders and religious activists have rallied to defend a liberal policy, while those on the Right appear almost entirely areligious.

The food stamp fight, the way it breaks down, goes against the standard characterization of religion's role in the political divide in America. Here, things are backwards.

The argument against food stamps is three-pronged. The first prong is that the program has grown out of control. The second is that it is bad for the economy, creating a culture of dependency. The third is that the assistance -- some? a lot? all of it? -- is going to people who don't need it.

These arguments are framed in empirical terms. One can accept the evidence and the interpretation of the evidence or not. It's not a moral question, but a logical one. These things can be measured, quantified and calculated. Various interpretations of the data can be weighed.

This is not to say that this is what happens. But these are the terms in which the argument is made.

There are, for examples, lots and lots of claims about the system being abused, but little evidence (beyond the anecdotal). But there could be evidence. It's a question of evidence. There is also a dispute about why people aren't looking for jobs. One side thinks these people are lazy and lack the incentive to work. The other side thinks there aren't jobs to look for. It's a question that could be answered by data -- those are the conditions of that argument. One could go out and count jobs and see how many there are, or design a system to track motivations, studying attitudinal changes in welfare recipients and/or people in a jobless environment as compared with a similarly situated control group, etc., etc.

There are faith-based arguments being made in this fight, though.

They're just not coming from the right. They're from the left, even that side tends to be much less religious, and gets characterized as the "secular left," called "godless Democrats" and "the party of Godlessness." Not only are they not godless or even all secular, the label "from the left" might not even be wholly correct for those making the religious argument for food stamps. These faith-based arguments are for a liberal anti-poverty policy, but it's not coming from people who necessarily all identify as liberal.

The National Association of Evangelicals isn't liberal, but makes the argument for the food stamp program.

The Catholic bishops aren't often associated with the left, but they're for food stamps. Bishop Stephen E. Blaire, from Stockton, Calif., speaking on behalf of the U.S. bishops, went so far as to say that even denying people with criminal records access to food stamps is morally wrong, "an affront to human dignity."

In a letter to Congressional leaders, Blaire said,
Adequate and nutritious food is a fundamental human right and a basic need that is integral to protecting the life and dignity of the human person. [The food stamp program] is one of the most effective and important federal programs to combat hunger in the nation by helping to feed millions of persons in need every year ... How the House chooses to address our nation's hunger and nutrition programs will have profound human and moral consequences. 
These religious leaders are, of course, making practical and empirical arguments, as well, but there is an emphasis on the moral claim. There's an emphasis on "profound human and moral consequences." The arguments about stats and measures are being underlined with a religious argument. The claim is that this is just not a matter of calculating enrollment projections or measuring poor people's willingness to work, it's also about the morality and ultimate cosmic rightness of feeding or not feeding hungry people.

An association of about 5,000 American clergy members and 65 leaders of religious organizations formed to lobby the House on this issue. They attempted to bring their religious authority to bear. They were not hesitant to cite faith in their messages to Congress.

The Episcopal Church wrote that "all persons belong to God" and "we must work to bring healing and wholeness to our brothers and sisters in Christ, so that together, we can grow into fullness of life."

Peter Vander Muelen, of the Christian Reformed Church, wrote that "We are called, as Christians, to protect the most vulnerable. It is with this commitment in mind that we urge you to protect millions who so desperately depend" on government assistance to eat.

The Presbyterian Church USA called the cuts an "intolerable violation of God's good creation."

Carlos Malave, of Christian Churches Together, cited the authority of the Bible: "The Bible calls us to care for our neighbor and remember 'the least of these.' The cuts included in the bill violate this principle."

This is backwards from how it often is, where religious authority is invoked to endorse positions on the right and to call into question the morality of opponents of those position. It's backwards to how the cultural divide is normally depicted. It also raises questions about the legitimacy of such arguments in the public square.

Republicans who are not normally concerned about religious influences on the body politic argued, in this case, that it was inappropriate to invoke Christianity. They accept that religion and religious motivations are OK in politics in principal, but reacted against what they saw as the misuse of their faith.

A Republican from Tennessee, for example, Representative Stephen Lee Fincher, argued that while "Jesus made it very clear we have a duty and obligation as Christians and as citizens of this country to take care of each other," that was an individual moral responsibility. It has no bearing on the government. "I think," Fincher said, "a fundamental argument we're having today is what's the duty of the federal government."

From Texas, Republican Representative Mike Conaway made the same argument. The New Testament does call for care for the poor, but, Conaway said, "I don't read it to speak to the United States government. And so I would take a little bit of umbrage with ... that. Clearly, you and I are charged that we do those kinds of things but [our government is not] charged with that."

This isn't exactly a call for the separation of church and state, nor an argument for barring clergy from speaking out on political issues. It is, though, a conservative Christian counter-argument to a religious argument for a policy proposal from the left.

This is one case, it seems clear, where the role of religion in American politics is different than normal. Or at least different than how it's normally depicted.

It shows how the alignments that currently exist are not inevitable. They're not as necessary as they sometimes seem.  There are specific social and historical reasons for the cultural divisions in place at the moment. But they're not as total as they're normally presented, and the alignment of religious parties with political interests isn't established from eternity.