Conventional conservative ideology posits that individuals hold their own fate in their hands. If they're poor, they're responsible for earning wealth. If they're sick, they're responsible for procuring healing medicine. If they're ignorant, they're responsible for getting their own education.
And on the whole, there's not a lot to argue about with this basic assumption about the human condition, is there? Indeed, personal responsibility is essential for being a productive citizen and contributor to society. It's also a key component for what the Bible calls wise and Godly living. So there you have it - a neat little lifestyle philosophy tied up with a bow and presented to each person on earth by our beneficent Republicans - complete with endorsements from none other than God Himself. And Glenn Beck.
(Sorry - just had to get that jab in to all my Beck fans.)
Right-Wing Money Fixation?
So when it comes to talking about a social Gospel, redistribution of wealth, and entitlement programs, a lot of conservatives think they're on solid ground when they criticize government safety nets, taxation, Social Security, and the Democratic Party in general. Even people of faith - who fear socialism and big government more than they fear their own sin - feel justified in complaining about how our government spends our money on people who aren't like us.
And to a certain degree, being Americans and benefiting from one of the most voter-centric constitutions in the world, we have a right and a duty to ensure that our government is responsive to our opinions and dictates, not the other way around. We have the enviable freedom to second-guess policy and lobby for our own. We have an obligation to vote based on Biblical principles and personal convictions, and we should never take for granted the opportunities we have to abide by high levels of personal responsibility for the sake of ourselves, our families, our communities, and our faith.
Yet for years, I've had the nagging suspicion that people of faith who vote Republican are motivated more by financial greed than mere ethics. Conservatives like to fuss about social depravity and sagging morality when it comes to hot topics like gay marriage, stem cell research, high taxes, abortion, government-run healthcare, unaccountable politicians, and the like. And I'm opposed to all of these things.
But when it comes to how we're supposed to deal with people less fortunate than ourselves, conservatives still charge down the path of intolerance, indifference, belligerence, and even disdain. Conservatives seem to view society by financial factors more than any other. Where somebody lives, who they marry, what they drive, how educated they claim to be, and the job they hold can be evaluated by money: how much they have, or how much they don't.
For some historians, the grand idea is that America, as the land of opportunity, can help mute money's pull on social polarity by virtue of the fact that we don't have castes and honorific titles. You can be the child of a destitute welfare mom and become incredibly wealthy without anyone saying that's not your place. The dream of financial success probably remains less elusive in the United States than anyplace else on Earth.
Yet the idea that poor people may deserve to be poor, and that unlimited wealth is just out there waiting to be earned, makes a lot of sense when you view the world through financial lenses. However, when we evaluate reality on the basis of money, we come awfully close to being lovers of money, if not being in an illicit affair with it.
Men at Ease
Now, before you think I'm wandering down the path of Communism, consider the passage that was in my Scripture reading this morning. I've even provided several different translations of Job 12:5:
· New International Version:
Men at ease have contempt for misfortune as the fate of those whose feet are slipping.
· English Standard Version:
In the thought of one who is at ease there is contempt for misfortune; it is ready for those whose feet slip.
· New Revised Standard:
Those at ease have contempt for misfortune, but it is ready for those whose feet are unstable.
For most of us, "misfortune" can easily be translated "poverty" because that's what we fear the most. Yeah, sure, right-wing talking heads may say they mostly fear the loss of freedom, but that's partly because their income stream would dry up without it.
Many Americans also translate "ease" as "financial security," or at least, "financial stability." We've worked hard, we've enjoyed the fruits of our labor, and we're entitled to enjoy vintage alcoholic beverages poolside while Jeeves polishes the Rolls behind manicured hedges.
Of course, only a small fraction of Americans actually have enough wealth to enjoy what we consider to be the finer things of life. But masses of conservatives still pine for those things, and we've gotten used to assuming that if there's anyplace in the world where an average Joe can work his way up to such luxury, it's the United States. As my brother is fond of saying in reference to wealth, "I've never had a job offer from somebody poorer than me."
So it doesn't really matter how much money you have, but the attitude you hold while also holding your money. According to Job, who knew a thing or two about having - and losing - wealth, people who are financially comfortable tend to belittle those who are in trouble. And I'm not wrong, am I, in accusing virtually all of us conservatives for holding that attitude to a certain degree?
It's as if the wealthier we get, the more we forget that not everyone in a capitalist society can be rich. Think about it: if everyone was equally wealthy, then we'd have... socialism?
Capitalism Is Still a Sliding Scale
Even if we're not talking about "misfortune" in a financially-literal sense, the corollaries still hold true for many conservatives, doesn't it? What about all of those social programs many right-wingers blithely discredit as socialist entitlements, unfairly raising taxes for the wealthy so unproductive poor folk can get something for nothing? (OK, so maybe we're still talking money here, which just proves my point that conservatives worry about their money too much.)
For example, critics of Social Security say its recipients are simply reaping a lifetime of poor-paying jobs. If they need Medicare, that means they haven't saved enough for private healthcare. But what's so wrong about making sure people have something to live on in their old age? Particularly people who, for whatever reason their job wasn't valued as highly as yours, didn't have the six-figure incomes and 401k-matching? Not everyone who is poor is - or was - lazy. Consider the example of your chauffeur, Jeeves: did you pay him a hefty salary well beyond the cost of living, so he could invest some of it for his retirement? Or did you provide him with a pension? Could he afford to pay for his own healthcare?
Or, suppose you terminated Jeeves to drive yourself around. Should unemployed people starve rather than be provided unemployment benefits? After all, aren’t unemployed people simply lazy? Doesn’t unemployment pay much more than a real job?
What's really rich about this debate is that many of those who hold this view are the corporate big-shots who've hacked away at their staffing and helped create the high unemployment rate we have today. But beware: just because you can't get fired doesn't mean that, in this increasingly unfair world, you do an honest day's work. Probably moreso than ever before, simply having a good job and a high income is no guarantee that you're actually worthy of them.
Fella, Can Ya Spare a Grand?
Indeed, we cannot look down on people we consider to be less fortunate. People of integrity can be poor as dirt, facing incomprehensible struggles, while greedy liars can be wallowing in wealth that would shame better people. Drunken louts can be slothful bums, while imaginative innovators can create entirely new industries. But we can't always tell just by looking at the outside.
Some conservatives claim that they're not in love with money; they just believe that what's mine is mine until I decide to give it away. Only people of faith know that's not true, either. What's ours has been given to us, no matter how hard we've worked. If it's been given to us, it's not really ours, is it? So we're to acknowledge the desire of the One who's given that money to us, and be its trustees, instead of its jailers.
Not without discretion, of course. But not disdainfully, either.