I had breakfast the other day with a good friend who also happens to be an Evangelical Christian pastor. I know that in this era of labels and stereotypes, that descriptor suggests a rigid literalist convinced of his own righteousness, selective in his reading of biblical injunctions and focused on issues like pornography and gay marriage. My friend is a wonderful human being who most emphatically does not fit that picture.
Not surprisingly, our conversation turned to the long lines of self-professed Christians who had just turned out for “Chik-Fil-A Appreciation Day,” and we regretfully noted the absence of similar numbers offering to volunteer at area homeless shelters or food pantries. (Eating a chicken sandwich to demonstrate support for homophobia wasn’t my friend’s preferred form of Christian witness.)
As we were talking about the so-called “culture warriors,” and their evident lack of concern for the less fortunate, it occurred to me that callousness isn’t just a phenomenon of self-righteous “religious” figures. Political discourse around these issues has also changed rather dramatically during my lifetime.
Perhaps my memory is faulty, but when I first became politically active, policy disputes tended to focus on the merits of solutions to agreed-upon problems. Republicans and Democrats alike agreed, for example, that there is a social obligation to address the issue of poverty. The arguments centered on methods to ameliorate the problem–whether particular government programs were effective, whether they had unintended economic or social consequences or were similarly flawed. I don’t recall anyone saying “Who cares about poor people? They aren’t worthy of our efforts or attention. They’re poor because they’re lazy, or lack ‘middle class values’ or because they’re morally defective.”
Today, we do hear variants of that message.
It isn’t just that “actions speak louder than words,” although there is plenty of that. I hardly need to point out that legislators around the country are competing to see who can offer the most mean-spritited measures–efforts to defund Planned Parenthood and deny thousands of poor women access to breast cancer screenings, efforts to cut food stamps for poor children while protecting obscene subsidies for oil companies, refusal to create health insurance exchanges that would make insurance affordable for those who cannot get it now, and literally hundreds of other proposals that make clear their lack of concern for “the least of us.”
Verbal contempt for the poor has also become an accepted part of political rhetoric.
These days, when people like my friend express compassion and concern for marginalized or impoverished people, the response is frequently hostile and dismissive. The compassionate are mocked as “bleeding heart liberals,” too naive to recognize the lesser value of people who are a “drag on the economy.”
I don’t know when the conversation changed from “what should be done?” to “why bother with losers?” I don’t know when “good Christians” decided to ignore “I am my brothers’ keeper” in favor of “I’ve got mine and I’m keeping it.”
I don’t know when “religion” meant judging your neighbor rather than helping him, but the change might explain why fewer young people are identifying with organized religion these days.