by John W. Adams
In two recent articles in the New Republic, one in March the other in July, Elizabeth Stoker Bruenig wrote about Republican governor John Kasich of Ohio and his religiously motivated decisions to accept Medicaid expansion in order to assist more than 200,000 Ohioans and the governor’s support for President Barack Obama’s proposal to assist undocumented workers. With Kasich’s recent announcement to run for the Republican nomination for president, it is a good time revisit the subject. Bruenig noted that the Right was unhappy about his decision and his reasoning. Kasich explained to reporters in 2013 his reasons for supporting the expansion: “when you die and get to the meeting with Saint Peter, he’s probably not going to ask you much about what you did about keeping government small. But he is going to ask you what you did for the poor. You better have a good answer. ”
Kasich merged the image of Peter guarding the gates of heaven with the parable Jesus taught in Matthew 25 in which the Son of Man judges the sheep and the goats according to how they treated the poor. His remarks further reflect the social teachings of his Roman Catholic upbringing. Bruenig argues that the reason religious conservatives did not like what he did and why he did it is because his reasons challenged the prevailing narrative about Jesus among conservatives. For the conservatives of the far Right, Jesus promoted charity and generosity toward the poor as an example of individual conduct, but never advocated the use of state power to achieve these goals. Since taxes are involuntary, conservatives view any programs funded by taxes, such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, to have no moral meaning. Only voluntary giving can be seen as morally significant, and as Breunig describes, should be “transmitted voluntarily through the community.” It is not difficult to find confirmation of this view among many conservative politicians.
In May of 2013, during a debate around food stamps, Representative Juan Vargas (D-California) cited Mathew 25 and the Christian duty to serve the poor as justification to rescind cuts Republicans made to the federal program. Representative Mike Conaway (R-Texas) responded, saying, “I read this chapter of Matthew 25 to speak to me as an individual. I don't read it to speak to the United States government. And so I would take a little bit of umbrage with you on that. Clearly, you and I are charged that we do those kinds of things but [our government is not] charged with that.”
In his work Christian Socialism, John Cort identified Matthew 25 as the scriptural cornerstone of the Christian socialist and regarded it as the summation of the teachings and ministry of Jesus. For Cort, the “works” of feeding the poor and helping the disadvantaged described in Mathew 25 are not optional activities of the Christian but essential actions in order to fulfill justice. Both Vargas and Kasich make reference to this essential teaching as a principle guide for their reasoning, unlike Conaway who denies the social implications of the passage. These examples throw the moral inadequacy of the far Right into sharp relief.
The fundamental flaw in the conservative approach to charity as transmitted voluntarily through the community is its understanding of responsibility. The conservative view expressed by Conaway is grounded in the moral belief that economic resources should always be privately owned and controlled, and that it is not the responsibility of the group to enhance or in any way assist those with insufficient resources get what they need. Conservatives accept only a morality of personal choice, and choosing not to help a poor person is frequently seen as exercising a right not to help. Conservatives have no difficulty using morality with prohibitions; they are happy to say “No” to something such as marriage equality for moral reasons. Kasich, however, has challenged this narrative of moral responsibility by being proactive.
Socialism, and Christian socialism in particular, advocate a proactive ethic to social issues. Morality is not purely individualistic; it is communal as well. Some issues are primarily a matter of individual ethics but others are more communal. Walter Rauschenbusch, the great Social Gospel preacher and Christian Socialist, said, “Wealth is to a nation what manure is to a farm. If the farmer spreads it evenly over the soil, it will enrich the whole. If he were to leave it in heaps, the land would be impoverished.” When addressing poverty, it is insufficient to simply hand out bread. We must ask why people are poor and then act to reverse this reality. Reversing poverty or other social ills requires altering systems and institutions.
Conaway and most of the far Right have no problem acknowledging that there are poor people, but they deny the social reality of poverty as a systemic problem. They deny our communal responsibility to address a communal problem. Kasich seems to at least acknowledge the reality. In an interview with Scott Simon on National Public Radio on July 25, 2015, Kasich described his faith by saying, “I'm a believer in the do's - you know, love your neighbor, love your enemy. I don't spend a lot of time thinking on the don'ts 'cause I can't get the do's right.” Normally, I would ignore such statements from a Republican as rhetorical flourish, but considering what he’s done in the past, could this be something different? I would argue that only a fundamental change away from a capitalist structure will solve the problems of poverty, but Kasich’s sentiment is in line both with his Roman Catholic tradition and the U.S. Social Gospel.
Let us be clear: Kasich is a not a socialist of any kind. But the moral intuition at the heart of Christian socialism does not hold to party affiliation or social location. It will reveal itself in unusual places. There are currents of leftist ethics flowing through our political world, and we should not ignore them. I disagree with Kasich on reproductive rights, taxes, and his anti-union legislation in Ohio. However, I have been pleased with his support of Medicaid expansion, Obama’s immigration program, and his non-judgmental “let’s move on” attitude about marriage equality. All of this is to say that he could represent something different in Republican politics. If he follows his moral intuition and listens to the better angels of his nature, he has the opportunity to inject into Republican culture an alternative Christian social ethic that could challenge the far-right, fundamentalist Christian ethics of prohibition and judgment that have come to dominate the GOP.
John W. Adams earned his Master of Divinity from Union Theological Seminary in New York City. He has served as a pastor of congregations and as a campus minister. He currently resides with his family in Tacoma, Washington, where he works with the developmentally disabled.