Wednesday, June 28, 2017

The Social Gospel Christianity behind the New Deal, and the right-wing Christianity that abuses the poor and worships the rich

"... a rich man shall hardly enter into the kingdom of heaven... It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God."

--Jesus Christ, Matthew 19:23-24

"In the place of the palace of privilege we seek to build a temple out of faith and hope and charity."

--President Franklin Roosevelt, June 27, 1936, Acceptance Speech for the Renomination for the Presidency
Above: In 1936, perhaps in a nod to the Social Gospel movement, President Franklin Roosevelt said, "Better the occasional faults of a Government that lives in a spirit of charity than the consistent omissions of a Government frozen in the ice of its own indifference." Image courtesy of the Library of Congress.

Christian Values and American Government

Officially, there is a separation of church and state in America. But this wall of separation does not completely prevent policymakers from applying their belief systems to their government work. Sometimes it's done openly, for example, when members of Congress quote scripture to justify cutting off food assistance to the poor, but more often it's done in a subtle, even imperceptible manner, for example, when a policymaker makes everyday decisions based on his or her internal moral compass - a compass directed by religious upbringing. And since Christianity is the dominant religion in the United States, it's important to know what strain of Christianity is behind our national policymaking.

I grew up attending the Assemblies of God, a Pentecostal church. And though I found some of the practices rather frightening, for example, "speaking in tongues" and a constant obsession with the "End Times," I'll give credit where credit is due: They followed the teachings of Christ fervently. For example, there was an aversion to exorbitant material wealth, empathy for the poor, and zero racism (we had many black congregants, and I'm certain that played a role in my own feelings of racial equality).

There are many great Christians and Christian churches today, but there's also been a rise of a type of Christianity that is completely alien to me. A Christianity that scolds the poor, praises money, and backs vulgar authoritarians like Donald Trump, thereby sanctioning racism and xenophobia. This type of Christianity turns the morality I was taught in church on its head. For example, when I was in church, we would sing, "Jesus loves the little children, all the children of the world, red, brown, yellow, black and white, they are precious in His sight..." We were also taught to treat others as we would like to be treated, and to love our neighbors and even our enemies. And we were taught that it's easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than it is for a rich man to enter the kingdom of Heaven.

I thought these were fairly basic teachings, uniform among all Christian denominations. How is it then, that so many Christians today have given their support and devotion to a man like Donald Trump - a man who says he's "very greedy" and "loves money"; promotes violence at his rallies; implies that low-income Americans are incompetent; and demonizes poor migrant workers from Mexico (while saying little or nothing about the wealthy whites who hire them)? 

Below I discuss the Social Gospel movement behind the New Deal, and then the current right-wing trend towards a less sympathetic and more materialistic form of Christianity. Again, this history is important because Christianity plays such a large role in our culture and public policy.  

Harry Hopkins, the Social Gospel Movement, and the New Deal

Above: WPA Administrator Harry Hopkins (center, with no hat), at a Louisiana State University football game, 1936. Photo courtesy of the National Archives.

Harry Hopkins played an enormous role in the New Deal, arguably the largest. He was head of the Federal Emergency Relief Administration, head of the Civil Works Administration, and head of the Works Progress Administration. In these programs, he presided over hundreds of thousands of infrastructure, service, and art projects. He was also involved in other New Deal programs, for example, serving on the advisory committee for the Public Works of Art Project and serving on the board of directors for the Federal Surplus Commodities Corporation. Furthermore, he was one of the top members of the Committee on Economic Security, the group whose work resulted in the Social Security Act. And perhaps most importantly, he was a close friend and adviser to the president, and thus had a tremendous influence on Roosevelt's policy positions. FDR's Secretary of Labor, Frances Perkins, emphasized this in her 1946 book The Roosevelt I Knew:

"Hopkins became not only his relief administrator but his general assistant as no had been able to be. In many ways he filled the gap left by Louis Howe's death, but he had a much larger grasp of national and international affairs than did Howe. There was a temperamental sympathy between the men which made their relationship extremely easy as well as faithful and productive. Roosevelt was greatly enriched by Hopkins's knowledge, ability, and humane attitude towards all facets of life" (p. 191).

And so where did Hopkins get this "humane attitude towards all facets of life"? Well, the moral development of people comes from a complex mix of factors, of course, but one of the strongest influences on Hopkins' development was the Social Gospel movement of the late1800s / early 1900s, especially as it was taught at Grinnell College, the school he graduated from in 1912. Adherents to the the Social Gospel movement believed that Christian values could be applied to all aspects of life, even, for example, government policy. June Hopkins, Harry Hopkins' granddaughter, explains that "The intertwining of theology and ethics with politics and sociology at Grinnell College, so distinct in progressive reform, suggests a religious framework for Hopkins' social conscience" (June Hopkins, Harry Hopkins: Sudden Hero, Brash Reformer, New York: St. Martin's Press, 1999, p. 17).

The link between the Social Gospel movement and the New Deal seems clear: (a) Hopkins was taught (and also raised by his mother) in the Social Gospel movement, (b) he enters government service (as do other adherents to the Social Gospel), (c) he becomes a friend and adviser to the president, and (d) the New Deal begins in 1933 and develops over several years, strongly influenced by Hopkins. We can see how Christianity, especially the Social Gospel strain of Christianity, contributed to Social Security, massive infrastructure development (the WPA gave jobs and hope to millions of unemployed Americans to work on roads, bridges, airports, and more), federal unemployment insurance, laws against oppressive child labor, and much more (also see, "Social Gospel," Encyclopedia Britannica).

Social Gospel Christianity--specifically, its influence on the New Deal--went a long way towards making America a more civilized nation, and also contributed to the development of a strong middle-class. But in modern America, we've seen large portions of the Christian community reject many of the most important teachings of Christ, and then demonize the poor and create roadblocks to government solutions to poverty. Even worse, some Christian opportunists have targeted the poor for financial exploitation.

Right-Wing Variants of Christianity: Christofascism, Prosperity Gospel, and Cult of Personal Responsibility

Above: "The Worship of Mammon," a painting by Evelyn De Morgan, 1909. In the Bible, Matthew 6:24, it says, "No man can serve two masters... Ye cannot serve God and mammon." On the 1932 campaign trail, Franklin Roosevelt quoted a rabbi, and said, "Once the cry of so-called prosperity is heard in the land, we all become so stampeded by the spirit of the god Mammon, that we cannot serve the dictates of social conscience... We are here to serve notice that the economic order is the invention of man; and that it cannot dominate certain eternal principles of justice and of God." Image courtesy of Wikipedia

"Christofascism" is a term created by Dorothy Solle (1929-2003), a German scholar and theologian. It is--as the name makes clear--a mixing of Christianity with fascism. Fascism has different meanings to different people, but it's essentially an authoritarian form of government (and, I would argue, culture) where the rich and powerful control lower-income groups with oppressive laws and, if need be, violence. An example of fascist policy can be seen in modern American bankruptcy law (put into place by the political right, their wealthy donors, and also neoliberal Democrats like Joe Biden) where student loan debtors are frequently barred from bankruptcy relief, while wealthy Americans, like Donald Trump, can utilize bankruptcy multiple times for their type of debt. And many Christians in America not only stand by and let it happen, despite biblical teachings against usury and oppressive debt-holding, but actively support politicians who make these types of laws.

The current Republican attempts to scale back Medicaid, in order to give super-wealthy Americans massive tax breaks, and the refusal of conservative Christians to come out strongly against these efforts, is another example of Christofascism.

A sibling to Christofascism is Prosperity Gospel. Prosperity Gospel rejects Christ's teachings regarding wealth and materialism. Whereas Christ said it was easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God, Prosperity Gospel says God wants us to be materially wealthy, and that it's a sign he likes us. If you're not wealthy? Well, something is probably morally wrong with you and, if you fix your immorality, you'll find a well-paying job and get rich. Many evangelical leaders have become extraordinarily wealthy preaching Prosperity Gospel because a key component of the faith, very conveniently, is funding the pastor's extravagant lifestyle (see, e.g., "High-living North Carolina 'prosperity gospel' pastor indicted for bilking church in massive tax fraud scam," Raw Story, June 25, 2017 - the indicted pastor lived in a "$1.5 million condo" and had "three BMWs, two Ferraris, a Maserati and a Land Rover"). 

Prosperity Gospel is similar to Christofascism, insofar as it exalts wealth and power and, to one degree or another, frowns upon poverty. It's easy to see how Prosperity Gospel looks at someone like Donald Trump or the Koch brothers, and says, "See, God has smiled upon them!" and then looks at the homeless, the poor, and the unemployed, and says, "They've strayed from the moral light [and if they would just purchase my book & DVD set for $29.99, by calling the number above within the next 30 minutes, they'd find the path to riches and salvation!]."

Above: "Church at Pigeon Cove," a watercolor painting by Prescott Jones (1904-1981) created while he was in the WPA's Federal Art Project, 1936. There are many great churches and churchgoers across America, but seeing so many Christians abandon the teachings of Christ, in obeisance to Donald Trump, right-wing billionaires, and Republican politicians who routinely cast the poor as "takers" and "parasites" has left a very sour taste in my mouth. I don't think I'll ever view the Christian community, as a whole, the same way I did when I was growing up. Image courtesy of the Smithsonian American Art Museum.

Overarching much of Christofascism and Prosperity Gospel is what I like to call the Cult of Personal Responsibility (although I'm sure I'm not the first to use that terminology). This is a group of people that have the firm, fanatical, and ultimately absurd belief that if an individual is morally good, makes the right decisions, and works hard, everything will work out just fine. To the Cult of Personal Responsibility, market failures, job outsourcing, bad public policy, financial fraud, unforeseen health problems, and various other complexities of life, matter very little, if at all. It's always the individual who is at fault for his or her problems.

In 2011, Republican presidential candidate Herman Cain summed up the philosophy of the Cult of Personal Responsibility by saying, "Don't blame Wall Street. Don't blame the big banks. If you don’t have a job and you’re not rich, blame yourself." To Cain and other members of the Cult of Personal Responsibility (for example, Christofascists, Prosperity Gospel enthusiasts, and disciples of Ayn Rand), it mattered little that the big financial institutions profited from job outsourcing, or engaged in mortgage & securities fraud, insider trading, interest rate rigging, money laundering, price fixing, etc., before and during the Great Recession - it was still the individual's fault. They seemed to be saying, "It doesn't matter how much fraud is perpetrated, you simply have to adapt to it and work harder." This ideology ties in nicely to Christofascism and Prosperity Gospel, because it exalts and exonerates those with money and power, while placing all the burden and suspicion on those without money and power.

There is, of course, something to be said for personal responsibility. If we willfully do something wrong, there should be some sort of consequence. But when the burden of personal responsibility is disproportionately (or solely) placed upon lower-income Americans, in order to divert attention away from institutionalized unfairness or white collar crime, or to forever withhold assistance from those who need help, it becomes cruel and preposterous.

The Right-Wing Christian myth that churches, charity, and philanthropy will sufficiently replace government assistance programs

  Above: "Governmental Aid to the Needy," an oil painting by Tom Lea (1907-2001), created while he was in the New Deal's Public Works of Art Project, ca. 1933-1934. Image courtesy of the General Services Administration and the New Mexico Museum of Art.

Many followers of Christofascism, Prosperity Gospel, and the Cult of Personal Responsibility tell us that the government doesn't need to help the downtrodden and, indeed, has no business doing so. They tell us that once they do away with government assistance programs, churches, charities, and philanthropy will pick up the slack. There are a few problems with this line of reasoning:

First and foremost, the U.S. Constitution gives Congress the power to tax and spend for the general welfare (Article 1, Section 8), and the Supreme Court has firmly established the principle that it's up to Congress to determine what the general welfare consists of.

Second (and ironically), charitable giving tends to decline during recessions - the very time it's needed the most.

Third, super-wealthy Americans, on average, give less to charity, as a percentage of their income, than non-wealthy Americans. This is an especially big problem during the present era of extreme income & wealth inequality, where more and more money has been vacuumed into fewer and fewer hands. The money has shifted from those who give more to those who give less.

Fourth, the super-wealthy are so insulated from the problems of middle and low-income America, that they really don't know how to give their charitable dollars away for maximum impact, at least with respect to human needs.

Fifth, churches and charities have already proven that they cannot fill in for government neglect. When millions of Americans needed jobs during the Great Depression and more recently, the Great Recession, churches, charities, and philanthropists didn't hire them in any significant numbers. Why not? And when hundreds of millions of Americans have needed health insurance over the past many decades, churches, charities, and philanthropists could not (or would not) provide it - hence the development of Medicare, Medicaid, CHIP, and the Affordable Care Act (and hopefully, someday, Medicare-for-All).

Bread for the World, a Christian anti-hunger organization, recently calculated that every religious congregation in America would have to raise about three-quarters of a million dollars to offset proposed cuts in the Trump budget. Reverend David Beckmann, president of Bread for the World, said: "There is no way our country's 350,000 religious congregations can make up for the cuts in the services that help hungry, poor, and other vulnerable people. Congress should not justify budget cuts by saying that churches and charities can pick up the slack. They cannot... The notion that is often repeated by members of Congress, and by some conservative church leaders, is that [churches] are going to fill in, that they're going to take over for government. It's just nonsense."   

What's healthier for our culture? Social Gospel? Or Christofascism, Prosperity Gospel, and the Cult of Personal Responsibility?

Above: A WPA poster, rallying the nation to help stop the fascist powers of Germany, Italy, and Japan. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress.

In the introduction to Inge Scholl's book The White Rose: Munich 1942-1943, Dorothy Solle, the scholar behind the term "Christofascism," explained that "The conservative Christian parties smoothed Hitler's path to power. Ten years later Germany was a hotbed of robbers and rapists who waged war against all of Europe, while specifically targeting Eastern Europe for their more gruesome atrocities" (p. xi, 1983 reprint).

Solle's observation should serve as a cautionary tale, and indicates that Social Gospel, as practiced by New Dealers, is a far more healthy Christian approach to government & culture than Christofascism, Prosperity Gospel, or the Cult of Personal Responsibility. Social Gospel promotes healthy interactions between government and the governed, and between the citizens themselves, while Christofascism, Prosperity Gospel, and the Cult of Personal Responsibility abuse the poor, and also promotes division and contempt, between the so-called "worthy" and the so-called "unworthy," or, as Congressman Paul Ryan and other conservatives like to put it, between the "makers" and the "takers."     

Hopefully, over the coming decades and centuries, we can take the most empathetic principles from all religions and ethical codes, and apply them to government, as well as to our daily interactions with each other. This would be, if you will, a sort of Social Gospel of all positive human beliefs.

In any event, we must get away from the right-wing versions of Christianity that ridicule and damn the poor. Our nation, and our souls, depend on it.

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