Conservative columnist Michael Medved, addressing his audience at Townhall.com wants to know whose side god is on in American politics.
The context of Medved’s argument is important for two reasons. First, because it represents the further encroachment of religion into the political sphere, exactly the sort of thing the Founding Fathers hoped to discourage. Second, he is an Orthodox Jew addressing a largely conservative Christian audience by way of an appeal to divine writ while ignoring the input of the New Testament.
At the heart of his argument is Scripture. No doubt Mr. Medved is quite familiar with what the Bible demands. He seems less aware of the Constitution and what it demands. As anyone who has actually read the Constitution knows, Mr. Medved’s is a meaningless question. God doesn’t enter into it. God does not get a vote.
But let’s entertain his concerns for a moment.
What worries Mr. Medved seems to worry most conservatives these days, namely, that the rich are being unfairly treated by American society in general and by liberals in particular. He says God doesn’t like that. Conservatives seem pretty concerned by the poor lately, not for them, you understand, but because of them. And to hear Mr. Medved’s side of things, God agrees.
Mr. Medved reveals that he has an extensive knowledge of the Hebrew Bible, what Christians call the Old Testament. Being Jewish, he understandably ignores the message of Jesus and the New Testament. But if the argument is that the Old Testament has relevant to our political debates, then it’s only reasonable to consider the New Testament message as well, concerning the poor.
Jesus, a poor Galilean peasant, after all, makes his opinion known. Jesus, who despised the rich priestly caste, threatened the Temple and the power structure of his native Israel, seemed pretty clear what his opinion of the rich vs. the poor was. One thing you don’t see is Jesus identifying with the rich.
Conservative Christians don’t like this. They jump on tables at even the mention of liberation theology. Their Anglo-Saxon Jesus would never threaten the rich! Glenn Beck was in hysterics discussing liberation theology and to hear him tell it, Jesus didn’t give a damn about social justice. After all, the poor threaten the status quo and the status quo demands that the rich shall not be touched.
Mr. Medved claims that the American political landscape comes down to two opposing definitions of justice. As he puts it, liberals=just outcomes, conservatives=just procedures. Naturally, the liberal method of offering justice is through class warfare.
“Liberals accept unequal, potentially unfair treatment by government in order to achieve fair results; conservatives accept unequal, potentially unfair results so long as every citizen receives fair and comparable treatment by government.”
But this isn’t true. Conservatives embrace not only unfair treatment but unfair results. It is inarguable that a different set of rules exist for rich and poor in this country, and these rules are underwritten and supported by Republican Party’s anti-union politics and its corporate sponsors. The game is rigged; different laws, different penalties, different loopholes. Mr. Medved’s “fair and comparable treatment by government” is a myth.
But Mr. Medved believes he has found a tie-breaker: the Bible, and this is where his already flawed argument falls to the ground. We live in a country with constitutionally guaranteed separation of Church and State, where the federal government is legally bound to favor no one religion over another. The Bible, therefore, has no place in the political debate. Appealing to God is as relevant as calling your opponent “unrighteous,” another recent Republican tactic.
Religion has no place in politics, even if all parties accept the relevancy of the Bible, and this obviously does not obtain in a very pluralistic and diverse American religious landscape.
Yet Mr. Medved insists that “key Biblical passages provide a strong indication that conservative concepts of economic justice comport far more closely to the religious and philosophical foundations of western civilization.” He goes on to add that “If the Bible is indeed the word of God (as a big majority of Americans say they believe it is), then it’s difficult to escape the conclusion that the Almighty would cast his all-important ballot for Republicans.”
Here is another flaw in Mr. Medved’s argument: the mythic America meme. Neither Judaism nor Christianity provides the foundations of western civilization, and have even less to do with American government.
A glaring problem is the inconvenient fact of the European Enlightenment, which overturned the old status quo, and the American Revolution, which threw off the last vestiges of State-sponsored religion on these shores. I know conservatives like Medved hate being reminded of this, but liberal values are not founded on the Bible, but on ideas of liberty (absent from the Bible) and individual human rights (also glaringly absent from the Bible).
Medved, flailing in the dark and unable to find his copy of the Constitution, pulls out the Torah. Leviticus 19:15: “You shall not commit a perversion of justice; you shall not favor the poor and you shall not honor the great; with righteousness (Tzedek) shall you judge your fellow.”
I could quote Matthew right back at him but the problem for Medved here isn’t really Matthew but that neither Leviticus nor Matthew is in the Constitution. American law is not based on Biblical law and Biblical passages cannot be legislated into American law. What Leviticus or Matthew may or may not be saying is irrelevant to the debate, as is the question of whose side God might be on.
In a different age, Mr. Medved’s assertion might carry weight. But the Enlightenment changed all that; the Founders framed a secular nation composed of largely protestant Christians with also a few Jews, Catholics, Deists and others and in the process freed us not only from the Bible but from the Qur’an, the Avesta or any other holy text you might care to name. Believe what you want, but in terms of national policy all religions are irrelevant. They have to be.
The Constitution says so.