I came across a recent Facebook post that has really stuck with me. It shows the face of a young girl. She’s being asked “are you Jewish? Muslim? Christian?” and she responds “I’m hungry.”
It made me wonder when, if ever, the culture warriors of every tribe will learn to look at other humans as humans–beings with needs and talents common to our shared humanity. It’s a question that becomes especially pertinent in times of war, but people’s penchant for inhumanity–for labeling strangers as “other”– isn’t limited to such times.
It also isn’t limited to our ethnic or religious differences. Far too many Americans also think of themselves as distinct from poor people–a different form of tribalism, and one that is particularly cruel, because it encourages comfortable folks to dismiss the needs of the impoverished–or worse, to blame them for their neediness.
We see it in our politics. Republican politicians recently went on record dismissing evidence that government shutdowns disproportionately hurt poor women and children. In September of this year, when it last looked as if the GOP would engineer such a shutdown, the administration warned that millions of the country’s most vulnerable women and children would lose their nutrition benefits. The Women, Infants and Children nutrition program—which serves pregnant, postpartum, and breastfeeding mothers and their children under the age of 6—would run out of federal funding if the government shut down.
Those pious “pro life” Republicans dismissed the warning and instead used low-income mothers and their children as pawns in a game of shutdown chicken.
Speaking of “piety”–The New Republic recently reported that a “new, antisocial strain of the prosperity gospel is making its way into pulpits and breeding new hostility toward the least fortunate Americans.”
Chief among the new doctrines is the idea that God rewards “seeding”—that is, the “sowing” of financial donations to churches, or favored online preachers—with a material harvest in return. The prosperity gospel might sound as old-fashioned—and feel as familiar—as a preacher in a three-piece suit, but a new and cynical version is making a comeback across ministries both old and new; among people who go to church and those who get their faith online.
A recent survey by Lifeway Research found that 52 percent of American churchgoing Protestants say their church teaches God will bless them if they give more money to their church and charities. That figure is up from 38 percent of churchgoers in 2017.
We’ve seen some of this before, of course, but apparently, the prosperity gospel is also being “weaponized by some of the most right-wing elements in conservative religious circles as a form of retribution.”
In May, Jason Mattera, son of Joseph Mattera, one of the most influential modern prophets of the New Apostolic Reformation—which emerged from the Pentecostal-Charismatic tradition that is sweeping all of evangelical Christianity before it—wrote a piece outlining a new direction for prosperity theology. In the article, titled “A Biblical View of Work and Welfare,” Mattera junior opined that, while Christians should help to alleviate poverty, they are not “under any obligation to help indolent bums.” Such people, he added “are not entitled to our generosity.”
While the concept of prosperity gospel has always held some latent hostility to the poor—that your circumstances belie a lack of faith or at least that you’re not doing it right—Mattera’s view highlights an escalation of prosperity-gospel thinking that says the quiet part out loud.
In Mattera’s vision, which appears rooted as much in right-wing talking points as in theological ideas, “there are clear worldview implications for Christians to consider on the topic of work and welfare.” A hereditary influencer who made his name creating a “whites-only scholarship” while at college, he concedes that Christians should be at “the tip of the spear” when it comes to looking after the poor but largely for other Christians. The unfortunate, he writes, “have chosen the path of poverty.”
This is no war on poverty–it’s a war on poor people.
The belief that people are poor because they are morally defective isn’t new–it is integral to the bastardized Calvinism that permeated early America, and it was barely veiled in George W. Bush’s approach to welfare reform. Its appeal is obvious: if your hunger is due to your own inadequacy, you have no moral claim on those of us whose comfortable situations are evidence of our moral superiority.
And if that hungry young girl isn’t even a Christian…she certainly doesn’t deserve to be fed…