More local produce coming soon to SNAP recipients in Michigan. (Jessica Tefft for The Washington Post)
Recently, I wrote about a Democratic Representative of Congress who used biblical arguments for doing something about global warming to counter a Republican Representative’s biblical arguments for doing nothing about global warming. I advocated for evidence-based decisions rather than faith-based decisions, which put me on the do-something side.
Now we have a Republican who used biblical arguments against food stamps to counter Democrats who used biblical arguments for food stamps. During a meeting of the House Agricultural Committee, Tennessee Rep. Stephen Fincher quoted from Matthew and Thessalonians that the poor will always be with us and that those unwilling to work shall not eat. Fincher acknowledged that caring for the hungry might be something for Christians to do, but not with government money. While I strongly support separation of church and state, I think that’s a rather bizarre framing of the concept. Private support for the least among us can be for religious or secular reasons, but I hope we will never have a government that ignores the least among us.
Unfortunately, biblical arguments have become so commonplace in politics that they are hardly worth noting. This one, however, has an added dimension. Although Fincher complained about Washington stealing taxpayer money from some and giving it to others, he had no problem with Washington giving him $3.48 million of taxpayer dollars since 1999 for farm subsidies. Last year he reportedly received over $70,000, which I assume he needed more than those low-income people he wants to cut from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.
It’s easy for powerful members of Congress to help themselves to such largess and justify it biblically with “God helps those who help themselves.” That’s not really in the Bible, but no matter. It sounds like it could be, and that’s good enough. If Rep. Fincher were to read his Bible carefully, he might find a word or two about hypocrites.
Interdisciplinary courses, especially those that can lead to good jobs, are popular at colleges and universities. So I propose one that combines political science with religious studies. The course would have four components:
Choose about a dozen hot political issues such as taxes, healthcare, education, science, environment, gay rights, women’s rights, homeland security, immigration, war, foreign aid, religious freedom, church/state separation, climate change, gun control, capital punishment, drugs, etc.
Take a side on each issue and write a persuasive position paper, using only biblical arguments. You may add other holy books to reinforce your case.
Take the opposite side on each issue, and do the same.
Finally, write papers for and against each side based solely on evidence.
Successful completion of the course might lead to post-college placement as an intern or a political consultant, and maybe even a career in politics.
Speechwriters regularly insert biblical phrases to justify political positions. It’s easy to cite a biblical source for any stance, but I hope students who can’t find good secular arguments for a policy will end up embracing an alternative policy. Otherwise, perhaps they should consider ministerial careers.
One of my favorite political quotes comes from Jamie Raskin, a law professor who testified at a Maryland State Senate hearing in 2006 about gay marriage. At the end of his testimony, Republican State Senator Nancy Jacobs said: “Mr. Raskin, my Bible says marriage is only between a man and a woman. What do you have to say about that?”
Raskin replied: “Senator, when you took your oath of office, you placed your hand on the Bible and swore to uphold the Constitution. You did not place your hand on the Constitution and swear to uphold the Bible.”
If I believed in a God with a sense of humor, I would think such a God had something to do with Jamie Raskin later becoming a Democratic State Senator from Maryland. And as a Constitutional law professor as well as a humanist, Raskin obviously knew when he swore to uphold the Constitution that he was not obliged to place his hand on a Bible or on any other document.
Herb Silverman is founder and President Emeritus of the Secular Coalition for America, author of “Candidate Without a Prayer: An Autobiography of a Jewish Atheist in the Bible Belt,” and Distinguished Professor Emeritus of Mathematics at the College of Charleston.