Last week our governor and some members of the legislature gathered at the statehouse to experience a day of prayer. Participants prayed that the work of the legislature would serve the will of the Lord. There were also prayers that the legislature not enact laws that reinforce a dependency on government.
Earlier in April the often outspoken and frequently quoted Department of Children and Families Secretary Phyllis Gilmore posted a comment on the department’s Facebook page that alleged the problems of the poor families her department is mandated to serve were largely due to dependency created by left wing enthusiasts for assistance payments. She asserted that the department and the Brownback administration were instead providing support, guidance and training to help these families to find and keep good-paying jobs.
Last week as U.S. House Republicans celebrated passage of their alternative to the Affordable Care Act many members of the body and the new Secretary of Health and Human Services, former Georgia Congressman Dr. Tom Price, praised reduction of governmental “interference” in health care. Many conservative members of Congress spoke approvingly of the bill’s intrinsic Social Darwinism meant to reaffirm medical care as a market exercise and thereby reduce socially borne expenses like immigrants having babies that increase Medicaid costs and lead to welfare payments. A few IK columns ago our colleague Michael Smith wrote about Kansas’s new physician-Congressman Dr. Roger Marshall who, in March, told the medical trade periodical STAT that poor people and homeless people, “just morally, spiritually, socially ... don’t want health care.”
I confess that I am no scholar of religion, but these remarks prompted me to think about the intersection of politics and religious belief. That crossroad here in Kansas has been particularly busy. The current struggles over taxation, school finance, public assistance and support of people on the lower end of the socio-economic distribution, and the general debate over government involvement in health care all publicly display religious overtones. Among our conservative elected officials the most common set of religious values influencing their political arguments and judgments are those of the Calvinist tradition.
Central to the teachings of John Calvin are pre-ordination and the concept of The Elect. The Elect are people pre-determined to join God in the heavenly hereafter and they are known and recognized in this secular life by their material well-being, good health, virtuous lives and charitable inclinations. Since Calvin taught that nothing mortal man can do will alter the fate determined by God, and God would not waste his blessing on the unvirtuous, all those who lived less virtuous, unsuccessful and poorer lives are clearly not the Elect and are doomed to damnation in the afterlife.
It seems to me that the remainder, the “Unelect,” are now living in the unenviable circumstance of being ruled by these folks who believe they are members of the Elect with elections to validate their status. I don’t know if John Calvin was right. Like so many prophets before and since, he’s failed to provide us with an update on his circumstances. But I do believe that the effects of this moral certitude are pernicious. We may not all make it to the heavenly hereafter, but in the here and now there is plenty of both scientific and spiritual evidence to suggest that the whole herd benefits in this life from improving the life prospects for the least of us. Using fate and politics to assign personal fault to the few and exonerate our superior selves from a collective responsibility to assist, support and uplift the impoverished and the less able is both inhumane and damned un-Christian.
Dr. Mark Peterson teaches political science at the college level in Topeka.