Biblical Economics

Bernie Sanders At Liberty U & Pope Francis At CATO

U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders, who is running for the Democratic presidential nomination, spoke on Monday morning at Liberty University. Liberty was founded by Jerry Falwell and has, under his son’s leadership, grown to be a huge and influential part of the Religious Right’s cultural infrastructure. The school has a tradition of drawing attention to itself by inviting politicians to its mandatory student convocations.

Sanders stated upfront and unapologetically that he is pro-choice and pro-gay and that he knew most of the people in the audience disagreed with him about that. His speech focused on the themes of economic hardship and inequality, urging students to grapple with the morality and injustice of poverty, huge income and wage gaps, children dying for lack of health care and Republican budget proposals to slash safety-net spending for poor children and families. Sanders, who was raised Jewish but currently claims no religious ties, quoted Pope Francis’s critique of the global economy and warnings against the “idolatry” of money.

Sanders was received politely, but there was plenty of resistance to his message, and not just on abortion or marriage equality.  Nick Corasaniti at the New York Times reported from the event:

“Calling on us to help the neediest, that resonates with me as a Christian,” said Quincy Thompson, the student body president, who had a chance to briefly meet Mr. Sanders after the event. “But as a Christian, I think the responsibility to help them falls to the church, not the government.”

The idea that helping the poor is not a job for the government but for the church is a core teaching of Christian Reconstructionism that has spread throughout the Religious Right, the Tea Party, and the Republican Party, carried by people like David Barton and Michael Peroutka.

Liberty’s President Jerry Falwell, Jr. also took exception to Sanders’ approach to economics, sticking with the gospel of small government:

“I think it was Margaret Thatcher who said that the problem with socialism is that eventually you run out of other people’s money,” Mr. Falwell said in an interview after the event, making the case that he thought working toward a limited government and lowering taxes would “create the tide that rises all ships.”

A different strain of the Right took on a similar theme on Tuesday, when panelists at the libertarian CATO Institute, whose lobby features a quote from Ayn Rand, addressed Pope Francis’ critique of the  global economic system at an event titled, “Blessing or Scourge? Capitalism through the Eyes of Pope Francis.” Francis will visit Washington, D.C. next week.

Catholic University of America President John Garvey and National Catholic Reporter columnist Michael Sean Winters portrayed Francis’ statements as well within the tradition of Catholic social justice teaching and in line with comments from his papal predecessors.

Jay Richards is an assistant professor in the business school at Catholic University and a senior fellow at the creationist Discovery Institute who authored a 2010 book called “Money, Greed, and God: Why Capitalism Is the Solution and Not the Problem.” Richards, whose Twitter handle is @FreemarketJay, suggested that Francis’ views on capitalism may have been distorted by his experience in Argentina, which Richards says ranks near the bottom on “economic freedom” indicators. The pope’s beef is not really with free-market capitalism, he says, but with the kind of cronyism and corporatism found in his home country— an argument that has been advanced by other Catholic conservatives but doesn’t reflect the scope of Francis’s critique of current global economic and financial systems.

The CATO panel was moderated by Marian Tupy, editor of CATO’s project. Tupy argued that the pope is ignoring evidence that capitalism has lifted millions of people out of poverty. Two of Tupy's articles critical of Francis’s economic critiques were distributed at the event, one of which concluded condescendingly, “Pope Francis has a big heart, but his credibility as a voice of justice and morality would be immeasurably improved if he based his statements on facts.”



Ben Carson's Bible-Based Tax System and Other GOP Adventures In 'Biblical Economics'

In last night’s Republican presidential debate, retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson said he would base a new tax system on the biblical system of tithing. “I think God is a pretty fair guy,” he said.

And he said, you know, if you give me a tithe, it doesn’t matter how much you make. If you’ve had a bumper crop, you don’t owe me triple tithes. And if you’ve had no crops at all, you don’t owe me no tithes. So there must be something inherently fair about that.

And that’s why I’ve advocated a proportional tax system. You make $10 billion, you pay a billion. You make $10, you pay one. And everybody gets treated the same way. And you get rid of the deductions, you get rid of all the loopholes, and…

Carson has plenty of company on the far right. The American Family Association’s Bryan Fischer has declared, “God believes in a flat tax.” On his radio show last year, Fischer said, “That’s what a tithe is, it’s a tax.”

Of course, that kind of flat tax would amount to a massive tax cut for the richest Americans and a tax hike on the poorest. So it’s not terribly surprising the Koch brothers’ Americans for Prosperity has teamed up with the Religious Right to promote the idea that progressive taxation is an un-Christian idea. AFP joined Religious Right groups to create the Freedom Federation, one of the right-wing coalitions that sprung up in opposition to Barack Obama’s election as president. The coalition’s founding “Declaration of American Values” declares its allegiance to a system of taxes that is “not progressive in nature.”

David Barton, the pseudo-historian, GOP activist, and Glenn Beck ally, is a major promoter of the idea that the Bible opposes progressive taxes, capital gains taxes, and minimum wage. Barton’s views are grounded in the philosophy of Christian Reconstructionism, a movement whose thinking has infused both the Religious Right and Tea Party movements with its notion that God gave the family, not the government, responsibility for education — and the church, not the government, responsibility for taking care of the poor. 

That’s how we have Republican members of Congress supporting cuts in food stamps by appealing to the Bible. And how we get Samuel Rodriguez, the most prominent conservative Hispanic evangelical leader, saying that a desire to “punish success” — i.e. progressive taxes — “is anti-Christian and anti-American.”

This notion that laissez-faire economics, small government, and flat taxes are divine mandates, and that taxation is theft, is also how we end up with the Heritage Foundation promoting the idea that “[t]hose who esteem the Bible should also applaud St. Milton Friedman and other Church of Chicago prelates, because their insights amplify what the Bible suggests about economics.” And the idea that unions and collective bargaining are unbiblical is how we get Religious Right groups celebrating Scott Walker’s war on unions.

Koch Brothers’ LIBRE Initiative Pushes Free-Market Gospel To Latinos

The LIBRE Initiative is the Latino outreach program of the Koch brothers’ political network. With millions of dollars from the Kochs and their allies since its founding in 2011, LIBRE has established a presence in 10 states and spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on deceptive political ads. Its ultimate goal, shared with the broader network of Koch organizations, is to build political power by electing anti-government conservatives to office at all levels. LIBRE’s job is to help right-wingers into office by a) convincing more Latinos to support anti-government candidates, and/or b) discouraging other Latinos from bothering to vote by running attack ads on progressive candidates.

LIBRE is also part of another right-wing tactic – convincing religious voters that opposition to progressive taxes, unions, and government regulation are actually biblical positions. LIBRE's executive director Daniel Garza himself does this, asking in an interview with a newspaper at Pat Robertson’s Regent University, “Why should the principles espoused by Gloria Steinem or Ralph Nader have more supremacy over those espoused by Jesus Christ in the Bible?”

LIBRE has a director of faith outreach, John Mendez, who preaches this free-market gospelto religious and Tea Party groups. Mendez explained in an interview with the Pacific Justice Institute that “we come in and inform them and teach them on those principles of economic freedom and free enterprise from not only a constitutional perspective, but also a biblical perspective.” He told ThinkProgressthat Scripture says “you should not be dependent on government.”

Another LIBRE spokesperson, Rachel Campos-Duffy, spoke at a conservative evangelical gathering in 2013, where she criticized school breakfast programs for low income students, saying they infringed on family bonding. She has since backed Republican cuts in food stamp funding.

Garza has enlisted others as well, including Latino evangelical leader Samuel Rodriguez, who says in a 2011 LIBRE video that Hispanic people are being enslaved by big government and that it is both anti-Christian and anti-American to “punish success” – code for progressive taxation.

Garza and Rodriguez commiserate over the fact that the Hispanic community no longer embraces the values of family and entrepreneurship brought to this country by immigrant parents and grandparents, and they blame dependency on government. Says Rodriguez, “We become assimilated and acculturated, not to the good values but to the bad values of government dependency. We become acculturated and assimilated and integrated to the ideas of the New Deal, and big uber-government.”

Rodriguez refers to the Christian Reconstructionist notion that the government must not do things that the Bible says are the role of the family. He decries “the current reality of uber-subsidization, the role of government taking over the role of God and family.” When government replaces man’s role as bread-winner, and people depend on government, he says, “We are basically being enslaved by big government, and by uber-subsidization.”

Rodriguez says the family is in peril because “government is growing in our lives. We need to go back to the formula that made us great, which is the idea of our faith in the Lord and economic liberty, economic freedom.” He says government dependency is leading to the continued destruction of the Hispanic community as a community that “embodies the idea of la familia” into one that embodies “failure, misery, poverty, both economic poverty, but spiritual, mental, emotional and collective corporate poverty.”

In a 2014 LIBRE video telling the story of Garza’s family, much is made of his father’s “noble” refusal to accept assistance from the government. In his interview with Garza, Rodriguez also implies that there is something shameful about accepting welfare: “We need to rebuke the welfare presence, and embrace the presence of scripture, and of family, and of education…we really need to free ourselves from that slave mentality of Egypt….”

Garza asks when Latinos began to see rich people as the enemy, and Rodriguez blames liberals and a liberal media. He says wealth is a sign of God’s blessing. “It’s anti-Christian to think that people that have been blessed…that they are wrong….Blessed people are a manifestation of scripture….In scripture there is an incredible amount of support for the idea that, yes, provision and abundance comes from God…”

Rodriguez said that many have taken Jesus’s saying that it is more difficult for a rich man to make it to heaven “completely out of context.” Says Rodriguez, “We’re beyond that. We understand that one verse does not establish doctrine.” Jesus’s ministry, he says, had some “financial resourcing” from “resourceful fisherman,” tax collectors, and others who invested in his ministry. Adds Rodriguez, “We cannot punish success…For us to want to actually want to punish success is anti-Christian and anti-American.”

Fischer: 'God Believes In A Flat Tax'

Bryan Fischer kicked off his radio program today with a reading from the Book of Deuteronomy which, he claimed, proves that God supports a flat tax.

Echoing the sorts of claims that we routinely hear from David Barton, Fischer read from Deuteronomy 14, in which God instructed the Israelites to "be sure to set aside a tenth of all that your fields produce each year," citing it as evidence that "God believes in a flat tax."

"That's what a tithe is, it's a tax," Fischer said. "It's a tax on the labor of your hands, it's a tax on the fruit of your labor. It's a tax on the grapes that you produce, the grain that you harvest, the wine that you produce, the oil that your olive trees produce. It's a ten percent tax. It was a flat tax":

Hobby Lobby And 'Biblical Economics'

Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg wrote in her dissent in the Hobby Lobby case that the Court’s conservative majority had “ventured into a minefield” with its decision. Many of those mines have already been placed by right-wing leaders who claim a religious grounding not only for anti-gay, anti-abortion, and anti-contraception positions, but also for opposition to collective bargaining, minimum wage laws, progressive taxation and government involvement in the alleviation of poverty.

In Hobby Lobby, the Court found for the first time that for-profit corporations have religious rights just like real people and can therefore make claims under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act that they should be exempt from laws that burden their corporate “exercise” of religion. In her dissent, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg was deeply skeptical of Justice Samuel Alito’s assertion that the decision was limited only to the contraception mandate and only for closely held corporations.

“Suppose an employer’s sincerely held religious belief is offended by health coverage of vaccines, or paying the minimum wage, or according women equal pay for substantially similar work?” she asked. How would the Court justify applying its logic only to religious views about contraception?  “Indeed, approving some religious claims while deeming others unworthy of accommodation could be ‘perceived as favoring one religion over another,’ the very ‘risk the Establishment Clause was designed to preclude.’”

Ginsburg’s questions are not merely rhetorical. Conservative Catholic and evangelical leaders who have signed the Manhattan Declaration, including some U.S. bishops, declare themselves willing to engage in civil disobedience – maybe even martyrdom – in order to avoid any participation in abortion or any “anti-life act.” Nor, they declare, “will we bend to any rule purporting to force us to bless immoral sexual partnerships, treat them as marriages or the equivalent, or refrain from proclaiming the truth, as we know it, about morality and immorality and marriage and the family.”

Alito’s majority opinion says Hobby Lobby does not extend the right to religion-based discrimination on account of a person’s race, but is conspicuously silent on other kinds of discrimination. That silence raises concerns that business owners could use the Hobby Lobby decision to opt out of a future federal LGBT civil rights law, or the Obama administration’s executive order against anti-LGBT discrimination by federal contractors.

Indeed, especially in light of Alito’s mention in Hobby Lobby that RFRA applies to the District of Columbia as a federal enclave, such a claim could be brought today to seek an exemption from D.C.’s Human Rights Act that prohibits discrimination based on sexual orientation.  What happens if and when a local bishop instructs Catholic business owners that it would be sinful to treat legally married gay employees the same as other married couples, or an evangelical businessman declares he will not “bend” to DC’s Human Rights Act?

As Zoe Carpenter writes for The Nation,

Business owners now have a new basis for trying to evade anti-discrimination laws and their responsibilities to their employees. Religious liberty is already the rallying cry for conservatives looking for a legal way to discriminate against LGBT Americans; other business owners have tried to use religion to justify opposition to minimum-wage laws and Social Security taxes. Faith groups are already trying to capitalize on the Hobby Lobby decision out of court; on Wednesday, a group of religious leaders asked the Obama administration for an exemption from a forthcoming federal order barring federal contractors from discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity.

To be clear, the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act that was used as the basis for the Hobby Lobby decision applies only to federal and District of Columbia laws and regulations, including presidential executive orders, not to state laws.

The stories of business owners being told they cannot exempt themselves from anti-discrimination laws have mostly involved questions about state-level civil rights and religious freedom statutes. Earlier this year the US Supreme Court declined to review a New Mexico Supreme Court ruling that a wedding photography business had violated anti-discrimination law when it refused to photograph a same-sex commitment ceremony.

Although Hobby Lobby does not apply directly to state laws, it could influence state courts weighing religious claims by business owners in states with their own versions of RFRA.

The clash between religious conservatives and advocates for LGBT equality has been well publicized. But the minefield Ginsburg refers to extends well beyond traditional “social issues.” Religious Right leaders have been working hard to convince conservative evangelicals that the Tea Party’s anti-government, anti-union, anti-welfare agenda is grounded in the Bible – an effort that started well before the Tea Party arrived on the scene.

David Barton is an influential Republican activist and “historian” who helped write the GOP’s national platform in 2012. Barton’s “Christian nation” approach to history has been denounced by historians and scholars, including some who are themselves evangelical Christians, but it is embraced by conservative politicians who extol a divinely inspired American exceptionalism. Barton teaches that Jesus and the Bible are opposed to progressive taxation, minimum wage laws, collective bargaining, and “socialist union kind of stuff.” 

In addition, “mainstream” Religious Right leaders and conservative politicians are increasingly allied with a group of Pentecostal leaders who promote a “dominionist” theology that says God requires the right kind of Christians to take dominion over every aspect of society, including the business world. Many of them were sponsors of, and participants in, the prayer rally that Texas Gov. Rick Perry used to launch his ill-fated 2012 presidential campaign.

Thanks to previous Supreme Court decisions, alluded to and affirmed by Alito’s majority opinion in Hobby Lobby, the Court has for now seemingly closed the door to companies making a religious challenge to paying Social Security and federal income taxes based on their objection to a particular government program funded with those taxes. But the same might not be true for more targeted taxes and fees, or for laws regulating company behavior or the relationships between companies and their employees.

Opposition to unions has deep roots in Christian Reconstructionism, which has influenced the Religious Right’s ideology and political agenda. An early Christian Coalition Leadership manual, co-authored by Republican operative Ralph Reed in 1990, is a stunning example. A section titled “God’s Delegated Authority in the World” argues that “God established His pattern for work as well as in the family and in the church.” It cites four Bible passages instructing slaves to be obedient to their masters, including this one:

Slaves, submit yourselves to your masters with all respect, not only to those who are good and considerate, but also to those who are harsh. For it is commendable if a man bears up under the pain of unjust suffering because he is conscious of God. 

The conclusion to be drawn from these slaves-obey-your-masters passages?

Of course, slavery was abolished in this country many years ago, so we must apply these principles to the way Americans work today, to employees and employers: Christians have a responsibility to submit to the authority of their employers, since they are designated as part of God’s plan for the exercise of authority on the earth by man. 

More recently, Religious Right leaders have cheered on corporate-funded attacks on unions in Wisconsin and Michigan. Does the Hobby Lobby ruling open another front in the right-wing war on workers? It is not uncommon for companies to refuse to cooperate with union organizers or negotiate with a properly organized union. Imagine that a business owner objects to a National Labor Relations Board finding that they have violated the National Labor Relations Act by arguing in federal court that their company’s religious beliefs prohibit them from dealing with unions?

It’s not as far-fetched as it might seem. Since long before the Hobby Lobby case created an open invitation to business owners to raise religious objections to bargaining with unions, the National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation has encouraged workers to raise religious objections to requirements that they join or financially support a union. Here’s an excerpt from their pamphlet, “Union Dues and Religious Do Nots.”

To determine whether your beliefs are religious instead of political or philosophical, ask yourself whether your beliefs are based upon your obligations to God. Do you simply dislike unions or hate this particular union’s politics? Or, does your desire to stand apart from the union arise from your relationship to God? If your beliefs arise from your decision to obey God, they are religious. 

It is possible that conservative courts may not give the same weight to religious claims about anti-gay discrimination or the Bible’s opposition to unions or minimum wage laws as they did to Hobby Lobby’s anti-contraception claims. Those claims were based on the owners’ belief – one that runs counter to medical scientific consensus – that some of the most effective forms of birth control work by causing abortions, and are therefore the moral equivalent of murder.

But as Justice Ginsburg pointed out, it is not clear how courts will differentiate between different types of claims. And it will be easier for claims to meet the new, lower threshold created by the Court in effectively altering the “substantial burden” test.

As Justice Ginsburg pointed out, rather than having to show that a person’s, or corporation’s, practice of religion has been burdened, they simply need to show that a law is “incompatible with” the person’s religious beliefs. Additionally, it seems that a wide array of regulations, conceivably including minimum wage laws, could be threatened by Alito’s reliance on the idea that having the government pay for the cost of implementing a regulation is less restrictive than having the company  bear the cost of a regulation it objects to.   

It is also not clear that the decision will remain “limited” to the 90 percent of American companies that qualify as closely held, which employ more than half of the nation’s workforce. The Court explicitly acknowledged the possibility that publicly traded corporations could raise such claims, but argued that it would be “unlikely.” But in this new world in which corporate religious claims can be made against government regulation, what is to prevent the CEO or board of a publicly traded organization from finding religion with regard to, say, greenhouse gas emissions?

The Evangelical Declaration on Global Warming, promoted by the anti-environmentalist Cornwall Alliance, declares as a matter of faith that earth’s ecosystem is not fragile and that efforts to reduce global warming, like regulating the emission of carbon dioxide, are not only “fruitless” and “harmful” but would discourage economic growth and therefore violate Biblical requirements to protect the poor from harm.

Justice Alito’s opinion rejects Justice Ginsburg’s characterization of the ruling’s “startling breadth.” But it is undeniable that the Court majority has opened the door to owners of for-profit corporations making an array of claims under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act. 

Justice Ginsburg writes in her dissent, “Little doubt that RFRA claims will proliferate, for the Court’s expansive notion of corporate personhood—combined with its other errors in construing RFRA—invites for-profit entities to seek religion-based exemptions from regulations they deem offensive to their faith.” For today’s right-wing leaders, who claim religious grounding for just about every aspect of their political ideology, there aren’t many forms of regulation that would be off-limits.

Fischer: 'Capitalism is Built on the Teaching of Jesus Himself'

Yesterday, NPR's "Morning Edition" ran a story about the practice, especially among conservatives, to use Biblical passages as justification for their right-wing economic agenda. 

This is something we have been writing about for a while and our colleague Peter Montgomery was even quoted in the NPR piece, so it was pretty interesting to see Bryan Fischer suddenly join the movement today on his radio program when he declared that the "secret of capitalism" came right out of Mark 10:45, which says that "For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many."

In fact, said Fischer, the entire concept of capitalism "is built on the teaching of Jesus himself" and this passage is even the source for the idea that the customer is always right:

The Lesson of Matthew 20 is not that 'Labor is Rewarded'

As we have noted multiple times before, the "experts" over at WallBuilders routinely teach that just about every aspect of our government and culture has been explicitly based on Biblical principles.  Thus we are constantly hearing that the three branches of government and separation of powers, our due process clause, elections, all manner of other Constitutional provisions and various other institutions were explicitly rooted in the Bible.

David Barton in particular constantly teaches that our free market economic system came directly out of the Bible and routinely cites Bible passages to justify that claim.  In fact, Barton frequently cites the the famous "Parable of the Workers in the Vineyard" from Matthew 20 to justify employment discrimination, the right of employers to treat their workers unfairly, and the elimination of the minimum wage.

As we have pointed out time and time again, the message Jesus is teaching in this parable is that "the Kingdom of Heaven is like a landowner" who pays all of his works the same amount, regardless of how much they worked. The entire point is that no matter how late in one's life one comes to Christ, the Heavenly reward is the same; those who embraced Christ on their deathbed will receive the same eternal reward as those who were Christians all of their lives because of God's generous love.

Recently, Rick Green, Barton's colleague and co-host at "WallBuilders Live," was speaking to a church in North Dakota and making similar claims about how our government and social institutions all originated in the Bible.  So it was no surprise that Green likewise made the case that our free market economy is rooted in Matthew 20, though he added yet another interpretation of this passage when he flashed a PowerPoint slide on the screen claiming the lesson of this parable is that "labor is rewarded":

Has Green even read Matthew 20?  The parable is about workers being hired at different points thorough out the day to work in a vineyard and then all getting paid the same amount, regardless of how long they had worked.  This is equal pay for unequal work, plain and simple. It makes sense when understood as a parable about God's generous love, but sounds like Communism when help up as an economic principle.  So how can this passage possibly be interpreted as a Biblical free market principle that "labor is rewarded" when, if interpreted as though an economic lens, it is actually teaching the exact opposite? 

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