Jesus Christ!


Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, writing in the Atlantic, has figured out that Jesus Christ wants you to be a Democrat. There are, you see, 2500 passages in the New Testament that call on us to care about other people. Rick Perry (and presumably others of his Republican ilk) ignores those passages, according to Ms. Townsend, when he voices “concerted opposition to government social programs”.

Now, of course Rick Perry is no more concertedly opposed to government social programs than is Kathleen Kennedy Townsend; instead, they disagree about how those programs should be structured and how extensive they should be. Not even Ms. Townsend (unless she is an even greater lunatic than she appears to be) believes that such programs should be unlimited, so her disagreement with Rick Perry is largely over where to draw the lines. Somewhere in those 2500 New Testament passages, she’s managed to discern an endorsement for her own preferred lines over Governor Perry’s. Quite a discerning reader she must be.

But it gets worse: According to Ms. Townsend’s reading of the Bible, we ought to “use all the tools we have at hand to help the poor, the sick and the hungry” — and I’m guessing that’s not someplace Kathleen Kennedy Townsend wants to go. That’s because using all the tools at hand to help the poor, the sick and the hungry means unleashing the power of capitalism. Regarding the poor and hungry, it means eliminating barriers to trade and immigration, reducing or eliminating capital taxation, and eliminating or drastically restructuring most federal regulations. Regarding the sick, it means curbing the power of the FDA, eliminating the tax deduction for employer-provided health insurance, and committing ourselves not to regulate the prices of prescription drugs. As a general rule, it means diminishing the power of the political class that Kathleen Kennedy Townsend has devoted her life to serving.

Ms. Townsend might disagree with me about whether those are really the most effective ways to help the poor, the sick and the hungry. If so, I’m pretty sure she’s wrong. So should I conclude, as she does of her own ideological opponents, that (in defiance of the admonitions of Jesus Christ!) she just doesn’t care? Or would jumping to such a conclusion about one’s political adversaries just violate another set of New Testament precepts — you know, the ones about being charitable?

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29 Responses to “Jesus Christ!”


  1. 1 1 Henry

    It’s not surprising that people interpret whatever they want from their favourite texts. Here are the number of search results for Googling “Jesus was a []”

    Democrat – 55,100
    Republican – 1,560,000
    Liberal – 1,170,000
    Conservative – 1,410,000
    Libertarian – 63,000
    Socialist – 363,000
    Communist – 123,000
    Fascist – 293,000
    Nazi – 5,630
    Muslim – 1,170,000
    Trekkie – 4
    Potato – 10
    Dog – 2,000,000

    The plurality choice is clear. Jesus was not a Democrat, Republican or of any other ideology, but a domesticated carnivorous mammal.

  2. 2 2 Matthew

    Kathleen also ignores the passages that state that charitable activity must be carried out under a person’s free will. And for that matter, casting the first stone.

  3. 3 3 Harold

    “but does he overlook the parts of the Bible that do not support his political beliefs?”. I can’t believe she even needed to ask – every Christian does, just as every Muslim does so with the Koran etc.

    It has always mystified me that in the USA the Republicans seem to own Jesus – maybe they just make more noise about it. Looking at what he is reported to have said he would be much more of a socialist. I am assuming that he is not in fact God, and therefore does not know everything. He was also around long before much economic theory was developed. The emphasis of his teachings is mainly aimed at helping the poor, charity and criticising the rich and powerful. I believe that if you could transport Jesus through time to present day USA he would prefer the Democrats to the Republicans.

    That is a separate question to how best to achieve these aims. Your argument at the end is illogical:
    She disagrees with you about the best way to help the poor.
    You are right.
    Therefore she does not want to help the poor.

  4. 4 4 Craig

    What part about “My kingdom is not of this world” don’t these people get? If this is not taking His name in vain, what is? Conscripting Jesus for partisan warfare doesn’t sanctify politics, it profanes religion.

  5. 5 5 Steve Landsburg

    Harold:

    Your argument at the end is illogical:
    She disagrees with you about the best way to help the poor.
    You are right.
    Therefore she does not want to help the poor.

    I’m a little unsure what point you’re trying to make here, but in case we’re not communicating, let me clarify my point, which is that this is exactly the argument KKT is making, and that it is neither logical nor charitable.

  6. 6 6 nobody.really

    What public policies best promote the interests of the poor? Seems like an empirical question to me. In what jurisdictions do we find the poor living in the best circumstances? And what public policies do we find in those jurisdictions?

    Do poor people have better lives in Northern states or in Southern ones? Do poor people have better lives in the US or in Europe?

  7. 7 7 Steve Landsburg

    nobody.really:

    Do poor people have better lives in Northern states or in Southern ones? Do poor people have better lives in the US or in Europe?

    Start with the easier question: Did poor people have better lives in 1800 or in 2010?

  8. 8 8 Mark

    “Now, of course Rick Perry is no more concertedly opposed to government social programs than is Kathleen Kennedy Townsend; instead, they disagree about how those programs should be structured and how extensive they should be. ”

    So Perry is not more opposed to social programs, but he just doesn’t think they should be as extensive? What does that mean????

    Do you really believe that all people have the same amount of concern for the poor, but each structures it in a different way?

  9. 9 9 nobody.really

    In other news:

    According to Matt. 5:17-18, Jesus said, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished.”

    And if you’re curious about Old Testament laws governing social safety nets, check this out.

  10. 10 10 Harold

    Steve – sorry, I misread it. KKT is assuming that Perry’s motivation is not to help the poor by cutting social welfare policies.

    “Start with the easier question: Did poor people have better lives in 1800 or in 2010?” Poor people have better lives now, and there are more social welfare policies and employment regulation now. Should we conclude that it these policies that are the cause?

  11. 11 11 nobody.really

    Did poor people have better lives in 1800 or in 2010?

    I’d guess they have better lives today. I’m open to considering data on the question.

    But I don’t see how this helps the discussion.

  12. 12 12 Steve Landsburg

    Harold:

    Poor people have better lives now, and there are more social welfare policies and employment regulation now. Should we conclude that it these policies that are the cause?

    I typed this thinking that of course people have better lives now, and of course capitalism is the reason. I do believe that, but of course you’re right that without more evidence or argument, one could equally well point to social welfare policies and employment regulation. Touche.

  13. 13 13 neil wilson

    You are really off the deep end this time.

    Jesus didn’t say grow the economy so the poor will be better off. I know you think that is what he said but he didn’t.

    Jesus said feed the hungry.
    Jesus said sell all that you have and follow me.
    Jesus said when you take care of the least of my brethen you are taking care of me.

    Jesus threw the money changers out of the temple. Obviously, there was a demand for their services so Jesus HURT the economy.

    Now, the economy might have fallen apart if we did what Jesus said but you can’t pretend that Jesus did not want the rich to give to the poor TODAY.

    You can’t be a good Christian and a good Republican at the same time.

  14. 14 14 johnson85

    To Neil Wilson,

    I hate to respond to such an idiotic argument, but I can’t help myself. Not a biblical scholar, but I’m pretty sure advocating that people with guns take money from some people and give it to others was not exactly what Jesus had in mind when he said “feed the hungry”, “sell all that you have and follow me”, “when you take care of the least of my brethen you are taking care of me,” etc. I think the generally accepted interpretation of those passages would be that Jesus was calling on people to use their own resources and time to help others.

    Also, as an aside, the only research I’m aware of shows that Democrats are much less charitable than republicans (it’s mostly that religious are more charitable than non-religious, and there is a big overlap between religious and republican in the U.S.), so if you’re going to make a stupid argument about christianity and political affiliation, you should probably go with “Democrats are too stingy to be good Christians.”

  15. 15 15 Dave

    Jesus probably didn’t say anything because he likely didn’t exist

  16. 16 16 Super-Fly

    With regards to the “It’s easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle” maxim, what constitutes a rich man? Surely if Jesus saw us, (pretty much) everyone in this country is living like a king to begin with. Are we all doomed?

  17. 17 17 Will A

    The difference between the hardcore religious left and hardcore religious wrong right has nothing to do with wanting to helping the poor.

    The hardcore religious right teaches there is only one way to be saved and that those who are saved are favored by god and those who aren’t saved (Muslims, Hindus, Ralph Nader, etc.) will be punished by god. Creating systems for conversion and forcing people to live in ways that please god is their mission.

    Historically, this belief has made it easier for the Christian right to get involved in politics since their motivation is to apply the “one” right way of doing things onto other people.

    Also, since they have a theology of there are those who are favored and those who aren’t favored, it made it easy for those on the religious right 19th century America to support slavery.

    The Christian left teaches that there may be multiple ways to be saved, that God really doesn’t play favorites but loves everyone. Creating systems that increase tolerance and social justice is their mission.

    The Christian left tend to reject systems that they see as creating segregation between groups of people (cast systems, capitalism, etc.)

    Also, the belief that there are multiple ways to accomplish things makes it almost impossible for the religious left to take over a party.

    Prof. Landsburg:
    In her article, Kathleen Kennedy Townsend never mentions Democrats. Your statement seems to be based on the fact that you see Democrats as being some how opposite to Republicans.

    It would probably be more appropriate to assume that Kathleen Kennedy Townsend wants us to be socialist.

  18. 18 18 caveat bettor

    A lot of what Jesus proscribed was relevant the kingdom of God and/or the church; not so much the government.

    Is Townsend suggesting that the government interprets the Bible ahead of the Constitution? I’m suspecting not.

  19. 19 19 Seth

    “What public policies best promote the interests of the poor? Seems like an empirical question to me.”

    If it is an empirical question, it seems too open to subjective judgement based on how you define ‘promote the interests of the poor’ and what phase of the social program that you happen to be in.

    To me, it seems to be more an incentives and affordability questions. Why weren’t there social welfare programs in 1800? My guess is that they couldn’t afford them. So, what made it possible to afford social programs that we could not be afforded in 1800? Big government, of course. Not really. What enabled big government?

  20. 20 20 nobody.really

    I’m pretty sure advocating that people with guns take money from some people and give it to others was not exactly what Jesus had in mind when he said “feed the hungry”, “sell all that you have and follow me”, “when you take care of the least of my brethren you are taking care of me,” etc. I think the generally accepted interpretation of those passages would be that Jesus was calling on people to use their own resources and time to help others.

    Also, as an aside, the only research I’m aware of shows that Democrats are much less charitable than republicans (it’s mostly that religious are more charitable than non-religious, and there is a big overlap between religious and republican in the U.S.), so if you’re going to make a stupid argument about christianity and political affiliation, you should probably go with “Democrats are too stingy to be good Christians.”

    An interesting question: To what extent did Jesus focus on means, and to what extent did he focus on ends?

    I’ve read that, in contrast to people in Northern (and predominantly Democratic) states, people in Southern (and predominantly Republican) states are less willing to support tax-funded social safety nets, but report on tax returns that they give a larger share of their income to charitable organizations. And I’ve read that Northern states tend to achieve better social outcomes than Southern states.

    When Jesus exhorted people to care for the least of these your brethren, did he intend for people to focus on the needs of the needy – or on the needs of the donor? Is the goal to achieve good outcomes for the recipients of charity – or good karma for the donors of charity?

    People disagree. Consequently I’m not surprised to see some people pursue policies that have a track record of achieving good social outcomes – even if these policies provide little opportunities for demonstrating personal virtue. And I’m not surprised that other people favor policies that maximize opportunities for demonstrating personal virtue – even if those policies don’t have the best track record for alleviating distress.

    I confess a fondness for achieving good social outcomes, but I acknowledge that Jesus gave mixed signals. At Mark 12:41-44, Jesus praises the offerings of a poor widow over the larger offerings, simply because it represented a greater sacrifice. That is, Jesus focused on the giver, not the recipient. So I find support for various positions here.

  21. 21 21 Will A

    @ Super-fly: (hopefully with way less typos)

    “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.” is said after someone who is rich asks to follow Jesus and Jesus tells him to give up everything he owns.

    It’s possible that the point of the text is that for this man, his wealth was preventing him from achieving what God wants for his life. It’s possible that if a philanderer came up to Jesus and asked to follow him that Jesus would tell him to stop sleeping around.

    America spends way more on defense than anyone else. If the point of the text is getting rid of what is preventing you from doing what God wants you to do and if God wants those in the U.S. to help the poorest in the world, then fear of the loss of our wealth is preventing us from fully doing what Gods wants us to do.

    Under this interpretation, America isn’t “doomed”, other than the fact that it lives with fear that it doesn’t need to have.

  22. 22 22 Will A

    @ Prof. Landsburg:

    Also, the question on 1800 vs. 2010 seems like a loaded question.

    Better questions would be (by better I mean loaded to the point I want made):
    - Into which societies would it have been the best to be born poor in 1800 and in 2010?
    - To what extent did these societies share wealth?

  23. 23 23 nobody.really

    “What public policies best promote the interests of the poor? Seems like an empirical question to me.”

    If it is an empirical question, it seems too open to subjective judgment based on how you define ‘promote the interests of the poor’ and what phase of the social program that you happen to be in.

    Fair enough. I merely mean to suggest that, instead of simply navel-gazing, we consider actual evidence.

    So no, I don’t mean to suggest that you test for the variable “good social outcomes.” I mean to suggest that you pick whatever variables you care about achieving, and then look at jurisdictions that seem to achieve them best. Do you care about life expectancy, or education levels, or productivity, or divorce, or violent crime? Then I suggest we look to see where we find the best results for any of these variables. Then consider the public policies in that jurisdiction that are arguably related to promoting that end, and consider whether we could expect to promote those ends in other jurisdictions by adopting similar policies.

    No, this is no guarantee of finding optimal social policies, but it seems like a more fruitful avenue of research than pontification.

  24. 24 24 dave

    i wonder if john mccain traces his ancestry back to the biblical cain?
    there must be some political capital to be earned by professing ones connection to the divine. i think humans have been doing this as justification for oppressing other humans since the dawn of ‘civilization’

  25. 25 25 Seth

    nobody.really – I like evidence too. But it’s rare to find clear answers there. You still need pontification to interpret the results and there’s usually more than one way to interpret.

    I personally like “true measures”. I think these are measures that implicitly capture the truth by observing how people are actually behaving. Non-true measures are subject to our own personal preferences on what we think represents a good outcome. For example, we may think longer life expectancies is a good goal, but apparently smokers don’t agree with us.

    I think one of the truest measures of social policy is population growth, maybe even migration patterns.

  26. 26 26 nobody.really

    I like evidence too. But it’s rare to find clear answers there.

    Yeah. As far as I can tell, the only field in which we can find really clear answers is mathematics — and the longer I read this blog, the less sure I am of that.

  27. 27 27 Steve White

    I’m a big fan so I’m just throwing this out there, don’t take it personally: but don’t you regularly call people who don’t support more open immigration racists? I think you’ve done more or less the same thing as Kennedy more than once–it’s an easy mistake to make and you probably should acknowledge she’s doing something pretty common, if wrong.

  28. 28 28 Jerry

    “Did poor people have better lives in 1800 or in 2010?”

    White male poor people in the US had better opportunities in 1800 than in 2010. They had the opportunity to be mostly independent on their own–risky, but what isn’t?

    Everyone else in the US has better opportunities today.

    Elsewhere, it may not make a difference. Depends where–and who–you are.

  29. 29 29 Steve Landsburg

    Jerry:

    White male poor people in the US had better opportunities in 1800 than in 2010. They had the opportunity to be mostly independent on their own–risky, but what isn’t?

    What was their life expectancy?

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