Paul Ryan’s Bible, Jim Wallis’, Or None of the Above?

Rep. Paul Ryan refused a Bible—handily notated so he could pick out the passages on the poor—offered to him by James Salt of Catholics United, at Ralph Reed’s Faith and Freedom Coalition conference last week. Salt was working with Faithful America, an affiliated organization of Faith in Public Life.

Some progressives think this is noteworthy, or at least revealing about Ryan’s true faith. Digby, for example, highlighted it on her blog, which I found curious since she’s been so critical of what she terms “the Religion Industrial Complex.” Digby, like me, has been critical of Democrats skewing right on reproductive and LGBT rights, supposedly to win over moderate evangelical and Catholic voters, to inconclusive results.

Before Salt’s video went viral, a group of religious leaders held a press conference across the street from Reed’s conference. A tiny fraction of the reporters who had swarmed on Reed’s conference attended, to hear four religious leaders, including Faith in Public Life/Faithful America’s Jennifer Butler and Sojourners’ Jim Wallis, denounce Ryan’s budget.

While Salt’s stunt with Ryan could be seen as satisfying, Wallis could just as easily have been confronted by a Bible-wielding activist. Where, such an activist could have inquired, does this Bible say that LGBT people should not be welcomed at church?

Never mind that the anointing of Wallis as a “progressive Christian” has been pilloried by progressive Christians angered by his refusal to run the Believe Out Loud LGBT welcome ad. Never mind that religious feminists cringe when you bring up Wallis’ name. Never mind that he’s been no friend of the reproductive rights movement. Wallis is the leader of a “progressive Christian group,” according to the Nation’s George Zornick, who covered the Faith and Freedom conference.

When these “faith leaders” stand up against Republican corporatism, progressives love it. But while it might be satisfying to hear a counter-biblical argument to the gospel of the Koch Brothers, if you’re judging policy based on scripture, it could well be argued that some of these “faith leaders” have got it completely wrong on other issues. And on those issues—particularly LGBT rights and access to abortion and family planning services—these same progressives cheering the Christian anti-Ryanism would be hard-pressed to cheer bringing the Bible into policy debates.

At the press conference on Friday, Butler focused on Ryan’s affection for Ayn Rand, an atheist and anti-religionist, and the heroine of the hyper-individualistic, anti-government wing of the Tea Party movement. But Rand is not a hero to the religious right, if she is even on their radar screen. Indeed, for many on the religious right, support for Ryan’s government-slashing budget is found . . . in their Bibles.

The anti-Ryan religious leaders seem to think that focusing on Ryan’s affection for Rand will turn religious people against him. Perhaps his love of an evil atheist would be persuasive enough, although if you’re not a fan of free-market worship, you weren’t likely to be a fan of Ryan, Rand or no Rand. And if they think conservative Christians will be put off by Ryan’s admiration for an atheist, well, evangelical Christians and secular libertarians have co-existed in the conservative movement for decades. The evangelicals tolerate it, because, minus the atheism, they buy it, too.

As Jeff Sharlet showed in his book The Family, the founder of that powerful organization, Abraham Vereide, got his start as a union-buster and opponent of the New Deal. The Family, or Fellowship, offers religious succor, counsel, and cover to Washington’s most powerful people, and its annual National Prayer Breakfast is attended by Democrats and Republicans alike. In a 2008 interview, Sharlet described how Vereide “had come to the conclusion that this [social gospel] was going nowhere, because of the Great Depression, which in his mind was clearly a punishment from God, for disobedience. The greatest form of disobedience was labor organizations.” Sharlet continued:

JS: If you try and regulate economics, well then you’re interfering with God’s free will. This is of course an idea that’s very attractive to the wealthy elites he [Vereide] starts ministering to.

SP: Vereide was the original source of the anti-union ideas?

JS: He’s given a vision. He’s obsessed with Harry Bridges, the great union organizer. One night in 1935, after the great strike of 1934, Vereide says God gave him a vision that Christianity has spent 2,000 years looking in the wrong direction.

SP: Helping the poor, you mean?

JS: Yes. The down and out, the suffering, the weak, and the poor. God doesn’t want to have soup kitchens or social welfare programs, God doesn’t like what FDR is doing. What about the up-and-out? Don’t they deserve love as well? Doesn’t Henry Ford need somebody to love him?

Who needs Ayn Rand when you have The Family?

Even for rank and file religious right activists, who draw on Christian Reconstructionism and Christian anti-communism born in the Cold War and surviving today, the government should stay out of these social compacts. One argument goes that anyone who takes money from the government is “idle” and a sinner. Another argument has it that Romans 13 describes “God-ordained” tasks, or “jurisdictions” for government, the church, and family, and the government exceeds that authority from God when it provides a social safety net. Yet another variation on this theme (amplified last year by the Heritage Foundation) is the Reagan-esque idea that government safety nets promote “dependency,” while evangelizing the poor will bring them to Jesus and—voila!—out of poverty.

As I argued last year, writing about liberal-leaning religious groups countering Glenn Beck’s attack on social justice, the debate about the role of government should rooted in policy, not theology. As Peter Laarman has noted in these pages, in support of a robust defense of government, liberal and moderate Christian leaders “know in their heart of hearts that only government can take strong and decisive action to end poverty and mass suffering, but they are in some degree of denial about it, in part because. . . . They, too, rather fancy the idea of an independent sphere for private faith-based charities—they mostly go along, after all, with the horrendously obfuscatory and constitutionally dubious Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships.”

Let me be clear: I think it’s important for faith groups to amplify that certain other faith groups, who wield political power, don’t represent everyone of that faith. Catholics United, for example, countered the opposition of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops when it opposed a health care reform bill that conservatives falsely claimed included federal funding of abortion services. At the same time, Catholics United won’t address the USCCB’s stance on abortion or contraception, but Catholics for Choice certainly does. The spoils shouldn’t all go to the powerful organizations who claim to represent all their minions; American Catholics, in particular, are hardly a politically homogenous lot, as Salt v. Ryan shows, and as any debate between either of them and Catholics for Choice’s Jon O’Brien would show.

But for policy arguments, as opposed to countering monopolistic claims of who represents whom, resorting to the Bible has both its limits and its pitfalls. If progressives heart Jim Wallis for denouncing Paul Ryan because his budget “doesn’t reflect the Jesus that I know,” then what do they do when Wallis insists that “people of faith” are opposed to federal funding of abortion services for poor women, who are seeking abortions at increasing rates, a phenomenon that will likely get worse if Republicans succeed in cutting off their access to family planning services? Is the biblical mandate to help the poor no good in that case? Or should we look to the Bible of Catholics for Choice or the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice, who oppose the Hyde Amendment, which for three decades has barred federal funding to pay for abortions for poor women? Other progressive Christians get understandably grumpy when they’re laboring in the trenches to support women’s reproductive rights, while Wallis worked with conservatives to support the Stupak amendment.

Surely it’s important to make clear that Paul Ryan’s budget—whether influenced by Rand or a conservative theology—does not reflect the values, both religious and secular, of a great many Americans. But the same could be said of the unrelenting attacks on women’s access to abortion and family planning, and revived attempts to ban same-sex marriage in the states. When I asked the group at the press conference what they thought of the stronger emphases of the Faith and Freedom conference—anti-same-sex marriage, anti-choice and family planning, anti-separation of church and state—Butler stated that Faith in Public Life supported the separation of church and state and Wallis would say only that Ryan’s budget wasn’t “pro-life.” Only afterwards did the Rev. Derrick Harkins of Nineteenth Street Baptist Church tell me he was opposed to the attack on Planned Parenthood, even though he considers himself pro-life. But the anti-poverty Christian groups like Sojourners and Faith in Public Life have been silent about the Republican assault on reproductive freedom, particularly of poor women.

When you wave a Bible in someone’s face, just remember that someone can wave one in yours, too.

Sarah Posner, author of God’s Profits: Faith, Fraud, and the Republican Crusade for Values Voters, covers politics and religion. Her work has appeared in The Washington Post, The Guardian, The Atlantic, The American ProspectThe NationSalon, and other publications. Follow her on TwitterRSS feed Email