'The Survival of the Fittest'

Jesus was a political revolutionary—not the meek figure he is commonly portrayed as—whose teachings have been diluted, if not corrupted, by those in positions of power, writes Obery Hendricks, professor of biblical interpretation at New York Theological Seminary. Following is an excerpt from his new book, The Politics of Jesus.

Despite their very public professions of Christian faith, conservatives seem to owe their ideas and attitudes toward poverty more to the ideas of Herbert Spencer, the British philosopher, than to Jesus and the Bible. Although he lived and wrote in England, Spencer had great influence on American political thought in the last decades of the 19th century. A measure of his enduring influence is that his notion of the “survival of the fittest” remains an important part of our social lexicon (the phrase was coined by Spencer, not Charles Darwin).

Spencer argued that the pressures of impoverishment and constant struggling for subsistence were actually a positive thing that, in the end, would have a positive result: It would lead to human advancement, for the crucible of poverty would allow only the best from each generation to survive. Those with the most skill, intelligence, ingenuity, and tenacity would rise, while those of lesser talent, smarts, and character would fall by the wayside. In other words, only humanity’s strongest and “fittest” would survive. But in order to allow this superior caste to evolve naturally, Spencer reasoned, it was important that the poor be given no assistance at all. No matter how harsh their plight, no matter how many pressures and conditions were beyond their control, they should be allowed to rise or fall on their own.

Charity was allowed in Spencer’s scheme, because he thought that performing charitable acts might further enhance the moral character of the fittest who had already risen. Besides, charity was only a temporary intervention that would have no effect on the ultimate evolutionary outcome. But government aid to the poor in any sustained form would only slow the evolutionary process. So for Spencer, public welfare laws were strictly to be prohibited, as were public education and the regulation of housing conditions, no matter how squalid those conditions. There were to be absolutely no measures to promote equality of any kind, even equality of opportunity for social and economic advancement. For Spencer, it was equality that was the enemy of humanity, rather than inequality.

Spencer’s thought had “an electrifying effect” in America in the 1880s and 1890s. Spencer’s ideas and policy perspectives were embraced by a number of American politicians, and his thought became an integral part of American social philosophy. Not only does his notion of “survival of the fittest” continue in our social and political consciousness, his attitude toward poverty does as well, principally in conservatism’s view of poverty. For instance, echoes of Spencer can be clearly heard in Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum’s statement in opposition to increased funding for child care for the poor: “Making people struggle a bit is not necessarily the worst thing.”

Can one imagine Jesus or any of the biblical prophets ever speaking about the poor without compassion and love, anger and outrage? Yet many of America’s conservative politicians have done this without shame or remorse. It brings to mind the question posed in the first letter of John: “How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses to help?” (1 John 3:17).

From The Politics of Jesus, by Obery M. Hendricks Jr. Reprinted with permission from Doubleday. Copyright 2006.

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