During a broad conversation on how to overcome poverty at Georgetown University last week, President Barack Obama made a few comments about how Fox News talks about poor people. Here’s what he said:
“ … over the last 40 years, sadly, I think there’s been an effort to either make folks mad at folks at the top, or to be mad at folks at the bottom. And I think the effort to suggest that the poor are sponges, leeches, don’t want to work, are lazy, are undeserving, got traction. … I have to say that if you watch Fox News on a regular basis, it is a constant menu — they will find folks who make me mad … They’re like, I don’t want to work, I just want a free Obama phone — or whatever. And that becomes an entire narrative … very rarely do you hear an interview of a waitress — which is much more typical — who’s raising a couple of kids and is doing everything right but still can’t pay the bills.
Fox’s response to the president was outrage that he would single them out and accuse them of demonizing the poor. Jon Stewart captured Fox’s reaction on his show last week. One example was Stuart Varney’s reaction to Obama’s remarks, claiming the network only looks at and critiques the programs, not the people, characterizing the hosts as the “honest messengers.”
Stewart’s segment on this is well worth watching (if you aren’t easily offended by his typically colorful and sometimes profane language). Other groups have meticulously documented Fox’s characterizations of poor people. Here are some examples that Stewart and others have lifted up of language Fox News has aired to describe “the poor:”
“America’s poor are actually living the good life.”
“A nation of Takers.”
“The moocher class.”
“People who sleep ‘til noon.”
“The handout nation rolls on.”
“The image we have of poor people as starving and living in squalor really is not accurate. Many of them have things, what they lack is the richness of spirit.” (That was Stuart Varney.)
“These programs do make people lazy.”
"The true causes of poverty... are these: poor education, addiction, irresponsible behavior, and laziness"
“Addictive behavior, laziness and apathy all override social justice programs."
“They get food stamps, it makes it easy for them to sponge off of their girlfriends and spouses.”
“The more of the leeches that he [Obama] can get to vote for him …” "the 'Takers' are able to out-vote the 'Makers.'"
I find these characteristic caricatures morally and religiously offensive in speaking of those whom Jesus called “the least of these.” So I thought it might be spiritually helpful to compare Fox’s language about the poor to the language of Christ, both in substance and tone, and the deep feelings that these completely contrary languages, and their comparison, reveals. You’ve heard Fox on the poor; now hear Jesus:
“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor” (Luke 4:18).
“The blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them” (Matthew 11:5).
“If you wish to be perfect, go, sell your possessions, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me” (Matthew 19:21).
“Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God. Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you will be filled. Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh.” (Luke 6:20-21).
“When you give a luncheon or a dinner, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbors, in case they may invite you in return, and you would be repaid. But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. And you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you, for you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.” (Luke 14:12-14).
“Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me” (Matthew 25:34-36).
“Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me” (Matthew 25:40).
Honest discussions about the best approaches to overcome poverty are important and needed — and that’s what President Obama was doing at Georgetown, even sitting in a panel discussion about solutions with a both a liberal and a conservative who disagrees with him. Addressing both personal and social responsibility, family and economic issues, education and racism is crucial. But blaming and demonizing the poor is not called for — it is shameful. There’s the choice here, so as Christians, let’s make that choice—between the theology of Fox and the theology of Jesus.
Jim Wallis is president of Sojourners. His book, The (Un)Common Good: How the Gospel Brings Hope to a World Divided, the updated and revised paperback version of On God’s Side, is available now. Follow Jim on Twitter @JimWallis.