“There’s not a Hand in this town, sir, man, woman, or child, but has one ultimate object in life. That object is, to be fed on turtle soup and venison with a gold spoon. Now, they’re not a-going—none of ’em—ever to be fed on turtle soup and venison with a gold spoon. And now you know the place.”–Josiah Bounderby in Charles Dickens’ Hard Times
Josiah Bounderby of Coketown, the wealthy industrialist in Charles Dickens’ Hard Times, holds two mutually exclusive opinions that govern nearly all of his thoughts. First, he believes that poverty is a choice, and that anyone who wants a better life can do what he did and become a factory owner. Second, he believes that people who want to improve their lives are greedy agitators trying to pick his pocket. To all such people, he attributes the single motive of wanting “to to be fed on turtle and soup and venison with a gold spoon.” Who could support such extravagant choices in cuisine and cutlery?
Here in the Midwest, Bounderbyism is making a comeback–big time–in the shape of laws restricting what people on public assistance can buy. In Missouri, the Bounderbyian refrain “turtle soup and venison” has become “steak and seafood” in legislation proposed to prevent either commodity from being purchased with food stamps. And the governor of my home state of Kansas recently signed a law that prevents welfare recipients from, among other things, seeing movies or going swimming. Implicit in these initiatives is the curious assertion that the welfare state has been subsidizing wild extravagance. Poverty has gotten too fun, the lawmakers suggest, and we’ve got to make it suck again or everybody will want to be poor.
This is was what Bounderby believed too. The words have changed a bit (does anyone still think that turtle soup is a good thing?), but the song remains the same.
Let me be clear here that I am not suggesting that people be permitted to live the high life on the government’s dime. There have always been restrictions in place on what can be purchased with food stamps and other benefits, and given the modest amounts that people in these programs receive, the market is perfectly capable of curbing extravagance. In fact, it has done so for years. Read charitably, these laws are dramatic solutions in search of an actual problem.
Bur neither the Missouri nor the Kansas laws have been designed to solve real problems. It makes no policy sense at all to proscribe “steak and seafood”–categories of food that each contain hundreds of items, many of them neither luxurious nor expensive. There is a much better way to prevent people on public assistance from making extravagant purchases: simply limit the amount of that assistance in a way that requires careful budgeting, ensuring that bad choices will have swift consequences. This, in fact, is how the system has worked in most states-for years–including both Missouri and Kansas.
The real purpose of this legislation, and the unconscionable demagoguery accompanying it, is to rally voters around a very old story: the one about the lazy poor people (“them”) who have been abusing the system and living in luxury while good decent people (“us”) slave away to support their every excess. This is not the only narrative about poverty available in the world, of course. In fact, there is one that opposes it in every detail; Christians call it the New Testament.
But wait! Both the Missouri and Kansas bills were championed by politicians who have built their careers on presenting America as a “Christian Nation.” And neither Rick Brattin of Missouri or Sam Brownback of Kansas has been shy about trying to govern as a Christian. But the fights they have picked have been about making America Christian as a matter of identity–a nation that prays in public and disapproves of gay marriage and gives everybody a T-shirt with a big “J” on the front.
None of this identity-based Christian fandom appears to have translated into a desire to create a Christian nation as a matter of practice–one that, as a nation, does Christian things like caring for the poor or healing the sick. Far too many of our politicians today want America to be Christian; far too few want it to do Christianity. Identity markers are all one needs for culture war.
One can certainly argue, of course, that the government has no responsibility to care for the poor or heal the sick or otherwise enact anybody’s religious principles—but then let’s have no more nonsense about being a “Christian Nation.” But even a secular state (and, for the record, I do advocate a secular state) must create policies based on ethical imperatives. And one of the great things about ethical imperatives like “don’t let children starve to death” is that you don’t have to belong to any particular religion to believe them. Caring for vulnerable people is something that everybody can get behind: Christians, Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhist, and secular humanists all take a dim view of starvation.
It matters how we talk about these issues in the public square, not just because it matters what we decide (which it does), but because the conversations themselves can do real damage to families and communities. We fail as disciples when we frame the discussion in ways that blame the poor for their poverty, or generate resentment against laps of imaginary luxury, or make human dignity the price of receiving aid. Christian discipleship has always been largely about how we treat the poor and vulnerable. This applies to our direct dealings with one another, of course, but it applies just as much when we are participating in our political systems and debating social policies.
In the majestic 13th chapter of 1 Corinthians, Paul draws a profound distinction between “charity” (agape) and “almsgiving.” “Having charity” means seeing other people as God sees them—as divine beings worthy of dignity and compassion. Material assistance that proceeds from such assumptions can be religiously meaningful. “Giving alms” simply means letting other people have some of our stuff, often out of a sense of religious or civic duty. And, Paul says, “though I bestow all my goods to feed the poor . . . and have not charity, it profiteth me nothing.”
The difference between charity and almsgiving is ultimately the difference between compassion and pity, and, therefore, between Zion and Babylon. And it is the difference between Jesus Christ of Nazareth and Josiah Bounderby of Coketown. As the bard once said, “Man! What Dickensian lives we live.”
 Before proposing the “steak and seafood” bill, Missouri legislator Rick Brattin introduced legislation to exempt fundamentalist students from studying evolution in public schools and to require women seeking abortions to obtain notarized permission from the biological father. And Sam Brownback, the unapologetically Christian governor of Kansas who signed the legislation, also recently signed an executive order removing civil-rights protection from LGBT citizens.