The Common Good

How House Republicans Are Preaching A False Gospel About Food Stamps

Date: September 25, 2013

As lawmakers on Capitol Hill continue to battle over whether or not to cut funding for federal food assistance programs, House Republicans are wielding a bizarre new weapon in their attempt to gut government services that help the poor: bad Bible skills.

Last Friday, Kevin Tengesdal, a Bismark, North Dakota-based actor and activist, posted a comment on the official Facebook wall of Rep. Kevin Cramer (R-ND) criticizing the congressman’s recent vote to cut the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program – or SNAP, also known as food stamps – by $39 billion dollars.

Tengesdal appealed to the lawmaker’s Christian faith by quoting Matthew 25: 36-43, a biblical passage in which Jesus compels his followers to, among other things, feed the hungry. Cramer responded by posting a Bible verse of his own—2 Thessalonians 3-10: “For even when we are with you, we would give you this command: If you are not willing to work, let him not eat.”

As North Dakota faith bloggers were quick to point out, Cramer was taking the passage wildly out of context. The author of 2 Thessalonians was not condemning the poor, but rather attempting to convince ancient Christians who had become idle in anticipation of Jesus’ Second Coming to get back to work, lest their neighbors “look down on the new Christians with suspicion.”

Cramer’s sloppy theology is only the latest in a series of attempts by Republican House members to use the Bible to justify cutting programs that help feed the poor. Rep. Stephen Fincher (R-TN) also cited the 2 Thessalonians passage to support cutting SNAP at a hearing in May, a move that was widely condemned by religion writers, Tennessee faith leaders, and faith-based activists such as Rev. Jim Wallis of the Sojourners, a Christian advocacy group. Rep. Doug LaMalfa (R-CA) quoted Ephesians 2:8-9 at the same meeting, erroneously arguing that scripture instructs followers to care for the poor only as individuals instead of through government programs. Finally, in September, Rep. Reid Ribble (R-WI) went so far as to publicly reprimand Sister Simone Campbell—a Catholic nun and executive director of NETWORK, a Catholic social justice lobby—as she testified before House Budget Committee on the merits of government programs such as SNAP.

“What is the church doing wrong that they have to come to the government to get so much help?” Rep. Ribble asked.

Taken together, the comments made by these Republican lawmakers represent dangerous theology and even worse policy. They collectively argue that God somehow believes that people are poor because they deserve it – that is, because they refuse to work – and that churches and private charities have enough resources to feed America’s hungry without the help of government programs such as SNAP.

But this position has little basis in reality or in Christian scripture. Religious leaders have long been among the most vocal supporters of SNAP, with groups such as Circle of Protection – a massive coalition of Catholic, Mainline Protestant, and Evangelical faith leaders dedicated to protecting government programs that help the poor – writing letters and launching campaigns urging Congress to restore funding for food stamps and honor Jesus’ clear scriptural call to care for the “least of these.” This echoes the sentiments of countless other prominent religious leaders, including Pope Francis, who tweeted in July: “The measure of the greatness of a society is found in the way it treats those most in need, those who have nothing apart from their poverty.”

Caring for the poor also resonates with those in pews. When polled, huge majorities of every major American religious group agree that the government should do more to reduce the gap between the rich and the poor, and even the majority of White Evangelicals oppose cutting federal programs that help the impoverished.

The presumption that churches and private charities can somehow shoulder the massive burden of feeding American’s poor is also patently false. Many faith-based charities already rely on government funding to function. (Catholic Charities, one of largest charities in the country, gets almost 70 percent of its operating budget from federal funds.) When Congress threatened to slash funding for SNAP last year, Bread for the World, a Christian nonprofit organization dedicated to eradicating poverty, estimated that the cuts would cost every church in America an extra $50,000 every year for the next ten years just to cover the additional charge of feeding more of America’s poor.

The cuts to SNAP that passed the House last week are estimated to have a similar effect if signed into law:

“Thousands of Bible passages urge help and justice toward people in need, and virtually all the houses of worship in the country are involved in charitable feeding,” said Rev. David Beckmann, head of Bread for the World, in an email to Think Progress. “But the House’s proposed cut in food assistance is roughly equivalent to all the food assistance that all the churches and food banks in the country are able to mobilize.”