This column explores the themes in Jim Wallis' new book Christ in Crisis: Why We Need to Reclaim Jesus (HarperOne) available Sept. 24.
President Trump’s hands, it seems for now, are tied by Congress — but that hasn’t stopped him from advancing an agenda that harms those who Jesus called “the least of these.” He’s simply shifted tactics.
Last week’s column (and this video more than 130,000 of you have viewed) said our real choice in this moment isn’t between candidates and parties, but between anti-Christ politics and the politics of Jesus. I said it’s time to start a national conversation about this choice, and it’s clear from all your comments, and the what I’m hearing from leaders who have reached out personally, that many of you agree.
Here’s what we’re up against now — especially the most vulnerable among us.
The current divided government that we see in the U.S. as a result of the 2018 midterm elections has made it markedly more difficult for the president to advance his agenda through new laws and decisions on Congress. Given the contempt he and so many of his supporters have shown towards so many groups of vulnerable people, the new obstructions to Trump’s agenda in the Congress is more than welcome. Unfortunately, the Trump administration’s response to having its legislative agenda stymied has largely been a shift to unilateral executive actions on the administrative and regulatory front rather than any reconsidering of the wisdom or morality of visiting harm on society’s most vulnerable.
These executive actions get much less attention and fanfare than a new law being debated, voted on, and then passed or failed: and it’s also too often the case that government actions which affect marginalized people get the least attention from the press and the public. But thanks to the tireless work of many of our friends, activists, and allied organizations, a clear picture has emerged in recent months of both what the Trump administration is trying to do and how it is trying to do it. The administration’s clearest goals take the form of adding new requirements and regulations to programs that benefit vulnerable people in order to slash the number of people on them, cutting aid to familes with food insecurity, reducing enrollment in and preventing the further expansion of Medicaid — the program that provides health care coverage to low-income Americans — and spreading fear among immigrants from receiving any needed public assistance even for limited periods of time.
In last week’s framing of the politics of Jesus and anti-Christ politics — and in my new book Christ in Crisis — I want to strike a careful balance between spiritual discernment and political analysis.
On one hand, it is time to discuss our political crisis in terms of the deeper spiritual crisis that undergirds it — a battle between our better angels and worst demons. Not to do so is to miss the profound underlying causes and stakes that are at work in this fearful time for our nation and world.
On the other hand, zooming out to consider the highest and deepest forces that are in play risks becoming too abstract and removed from the very real human suffering that is happening as a practical consequence of the current political ascendancy of anti-Christ politics. Thus, I think it’s essential to connect the two — to show how the anti-Christ spirit of this age finds its expression in government policy, and how that policy creates enormous suffering in the very people Christ commands us to protect.
Here are the facts — please read them as they are important to the survival of poor people and families.
On SNAP, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (formerly known as food stamps), the administration has proposed two rules that would take away food assistance from nearly 4 million people. One rule proposed in July would take away basic food assistance from an estimated 3.1 million people if successfully implemented by tightening eligibility requirements. Those losing access to SNAP would be “mainly working families with children, seniors, and individuals with disabilities,” according to the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities. Under a second proposed rule, another 750,000 people could be cut off the program after three months if they live in a particularly high unemployment area and are unable to find steady work. Taken together this is an explicit attack on poor and hungry people as a matter of government policy, disguised as saving money or encouraging work. When Jesus tells us how we treat the hungry is how we treat him, it is literally anti-Christ to threaten to punish those living in the communities where it is hardest to find a job with hunger if they do not find a job.
On Medicaid, the Trump administration has been actively encouraging states for many months now to apply for permission to add onerous work requirements to a program that is supposed to give poor people access to affordable health care. Many of those efforts are currently tied up in court battles, but if ultimately successful the administration could take health care away from hundreds of thousands of people without passing any new laws through Congress. Nationwide, the sum total of the administration’s efforts to make public health care benefits harder to access for the poor can be seen in a drop of 1.7 million in enrollment in Medicaid and the Children’s Health Insurance Program over the last two years, a drop too steep to be explained by lower unemployment.
The Trump administration is also manipulating public benefit programs for housing and other benefits to align with its virulently anti-immigrant agenda by making the fear that undocumented people and those who love them feel ever broader and more pervasive. The “public charge” rule changes it announced last month, is aimed at rejecting individuals seeking legal entry to the U.S. or shifting their status from permanent residency if they have ever received various public benefits. Of course, this could make it more difficult for immigrants to legally enter the country or rejoin family. Perhaps equally important is the fear these sorts of rules and announcements create in households where at least one person is undocumented.
There is widespread fear in immigrant communities and in the advocacy community that this public charge rule is deliberately designed to have a chilling effect on people who are otherwise eligible for benefits like SNAP or Medicaid enrolling if they share a household with an undocumented person. As a Los Angeles Times story explains it, “convincing parents they don’t have to opt out of benefits for their children has felt like a monumental task at a time when family separations, the threat of raids and President Trump’s harsh rhetoric toward immigrants have created a deep sense of fear.” We don’t have to guess about this — providers across the country have already seen drops in enrollment just since the rule was first proposed last year. Let’s not make any mistake about what’s going on here: people already vulnerable and on the margins of society are being pushed further into the margins, further into the shadows of society as a matter of government policy. If treating the “stranger” from Matthew 25 in this way isn’t anti-Christ politics, I’m not sure what would be.
We have been doing briefings with national and local faith-based leaders and organizations on this stark strategic shift to attack those protected by safety nets — from the legislative process where access and advocacy is possible, to and executive strategy which by-passes Congress and any puplic accountability.
These literally anti-Christ politics were confirmed by an extraordinary briefing at our office for the Circle of Protection steering committee retreat, from the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities with Bob Greenstein, Ellen Nissenbaum and, their chief analyst in the presentation, Sharon Parrott. They clearly revealed a fundamental shift from legislative policy for safety nets determined by laws passed or not passed in Congress, to a new executive/legislative/regulatory direction which has become a deliberate assault on the poor and vulnerable from the White House—not even accountable to the House and Senate. The most direct targets are three of the Matthew 25 populations: the hungry (massive cuts in SNAP/food stamps planned), the sick (dramatic cutting of people from Medicaid), and the stranger (multiple orders aimed against immigrants). This direct attack on targeted peoples is meanspirited, deliberately cruel, and will result in serious hurt and harm, even with people losing their lives. It is so harsh that most of it would never be passed by the Congress or even a Republican Senate.
The political facts prove the spiritual evil of targeting and excluding the most vulnerable and needy. They results of White House policy choices demonstrate the reality of what I am calling anti-Christ politics vs. the politics of Jesus. Making the connections between politics and faith is the vocation of this new book — in a political crisis where the gospel of Jesus is at stake.
We cannot allow ourselves to become numb to the sheer breadth of the assault on vulnerable people. It’s as if the administration sat down with the Sermon on the Mount and Matthew 25, looked at everything Jesus says, and then told all of their agencies under their control. ”now go and figure out how to do the exact opposite of this.”