There’s a reason so many Republican politicians seem to bring a religious fervor to their efforts to gut public institutions and social welfare spending. The modern day Religious Right draws much of its ideology from Christian Reconstructionists who teach that God gave specific duties to the government, the church, and the family.
According to this theological worldview, education and taking care of the poor are the responsibility of families and churches, and it is unbiblical for the government to take on these roles. That meshes well with the view of “constitutional conservatives” who believe, for example, the Constitution does not authorize any federal government role in education.
A stark example of the increasingly indistinct line between conservative Republicans and hard-core Christian Reconstructionists and dominionists (who believe the right kind of Christians are meant to have dominion over every aspect of society) can be found in the recent Republican primary victory of Michael Petrouka in a race for a county council seat in an Anne Arundel County, Maryland. Peroutka believes that any law that runs counter to God’s law is invalid, and that the Maryland General Assembly is itself no longer a valid legislative body. Here’s a concise summation of his approach to government:
Since civil government is ordained by God in order to protect God-given rights, then the function of civil government is to obey God and to enforce God’s law – PERIOD.
It is not the role of civil government to house, feed, clothe, educate or give heath care to…ANYBODY!
This religion-inflected ideological view of government is not relegated to inhabitants of the far-right fringe like Peroutka. David Barton, an influential Republican activist and “historian” who helped write the GOP’s national platform in 2012, claims that the Constitution was drawn directly from the Bible and the sermons of colonial preachers, and that its focus on individual freedom reflects the founders’ theology of individual salvation. In this view, the Tea Party’s belief in a radically limited federal government is not only a question of constitutional interpretation, it is a mandate of Holy Scripture.
Just this month, Barton promoted these views on “Praise the Lord,” the flagship program of the Trinity Broadcasting Network, which bills itself as the world’s largest religious network and America’s most-watched faith channel. “In the Bible, Jesus has a teaching about minimum wage,” Barton said. “In the Bible, Jesus has two teachings on capital gains tax.” The Bible, according to Barton, opposes those taxes as well as estate taxes and progressive income taxes. A flat tax is “what the Bible supports.”
On the same show Barton denounced government spending on welfare. “It’s not the government’s responsibility to take care of the poor and needy,” he said, “it’s the church’s responsibility.”
According to Barton, there are 205 verses in the Bible that instruct the family or church to take care of the poor, but not the government. “The government is told to do only one thing with taking care of the poor and that one thing is to make sure that when the poor come into court they get justice. That’s the only thing government is told….What we’re doing right now is for the first time in America we have ignored what the Bible says, the Bible says you don’t work, you don’t eat.” He went on to say that people “not having to work and getting free money…violates everything the Bible tells us” about dealing with the poor.
These themes are repeated in Social Justice: How Good Intentions Undermine Justice and Gospel, a booklet published last year by the Family Research Council, Concerned Women for America, and the anti-environmentalist Cornwall Alliance. The booklet, written by Cornwall’s Calvin Beisner (according to him, at the request of the Family Research Council), was distributed at last month’s “Road to Majority” conference, which was organized by Ralph Reed’s Faith and Freedom Coalition.
The premise of the booklet is that “social justice” is contrary to “Biblical justice.” If that sounds familiar, you may be recalling Glenn Beck’s diatribes against “social justice” a few years ago, when he urged people to leave their church if its website included the phrases “social justice” or “economic justice.”
It is wrong, Beisner writes, to try to mitigate inequality “through force of government.” Why? “Because God ordained the state to dispense justice, and the church to dispense grace.” According to Beisner, giving someone “unearned” benefits is grace, not justice. People should graciously serve the poor, he writes. “But if care for the needy is made a matter of justice to the needy rather than to God, then grace becomes law. Then, the needy—and those who merely profess to be needy—may claim the benefits of grace as their due by justice.”
In other words, government has no right to tax someone in order to help feed someone else.
That is a widely shared belief on the Religious Right. Speakers at Religious Right conferences like Reed’s June event, and Republican Members of Congress, can be heard justifying cuts in food stamps with an appeal to the Bible passage that David Barton quoted on TBN. That verse, depending on your translation, says something like “he who will not work shall not eat.”
Reps. Kevin Cramer and Rep. Stephen Fincher of Tennessee cited that verse last year. Fincher said, “The role of citizens, of Christianity, of humanity, is to take care of each other, not for Washington to steal from those in the country and give to others in the country.” In equating taxation for social services with theft, Fincher echoes Barton, Beisner, and others. (In context, by the way, the work-to-eat verse referred to early Christians who were so confident of the imminent return of Christ that they quit doing anything.)
Poor people turning to the government, Beisner writes in his anti-social-justice booklet, results in “the stultifying effects of wealth redistribution by the coercive power of the state.” Even worse, he says, “it blinds [poor people] to their deepest need: the grace of God offered in the gospel of Jesus Christ.”
This is another theme of the Republican Party’s right wing. Sharron Angle, the GOP’s 2010 Senate nominee in Nevada, said during her campaign that entitlement programs are “idolatry” because they “make government our God.” Farris Wilks, the Texas fracking billionaire who gives huge amounts to the Heritage Foundaiton and other right-wing groups, declares that “the Torah is set up on the free enterprise system” and that “Yahweh never intended for us as a people to be afraid and reliant on government.” Former Sen. Jim DeMint, who now heads the Heritage Foundation, says “the bigger government gets, the smaller God gets.”
Heritage is just one of the institutions working to make right-wing economics an article of faith just like opposition to gay rights and abortion. The Freedom Federation, one of the many right-wing entities created in the wake of Barack Obama’s 2008 election, brings both "mainstream" and fringe Religious Right groups together with the Koch-funded Americans for Prosperity. The Freedom Federation’s “Declaration of American Values” includes not only the expected rhetoric about traditional values, but also opposition to progressive taxation.
John Lofton, a right-wing pundit, is the spokesperson for Republican county council candidate Peroutka, and for Peroutka’s Christian Reconstructionist Institute on the Constitution, which has trained Tea Party activists on the biblical basis of the Constitution. Lofton has spoken on “God and Government” at Liberty University’s Helms School of Government. In 2012, in reference to an article about evangelicals disagreeing on budget priorities, Lofton wrote that “there should be no disagreement among those who believe the Bible is true. Because it is crystal clear that in God’s Word He gives NO AUTHORITY to civil government (Caesar) to give health, education or welfare to ANYBODY. If people need help, it is the role of the Church – God’s people – to provide this help and NOT government.”
Tea Party? Religious Right? GOP? Or all of the above?