Tony Perkins Uses Bible to Baptize Conservative Economics
As the economy relegates social issues to the back-burner, Religious Right leaders are baptizing the Tea Party’s agenda of punishing the vulnerable in order to further enrich the wealthiest Americans. Toward this end, Tony Perkins wrote a post on CNN’s Belief Blog this week arguing that “Jesus was a free-marketer.”
To make this point, Perkins offers a noncontextual exegesis of the parable of the ten minas in Luke 19. Rather than a figurative lesson about using Spiritual gifts to grow the church, Perkins interprets the story as proof that God rewards industrious businesspeople with fantastic wealth and punishes lazy people. He also offers this dubious, troubling description of the nature of our modern capitalist society:
Jesus rejected collectivism and the mentality that has occupied America for the last few decades: that everyone gets a trophy – equal outcomes for inequitable performance. There are winners and yes, there are losers. And wins and losses are determined by the diligence and determination of the individual. [emphasis added]
This, in a nutshell, is what I call The Big Lie about our economic system – the argument that everyone gets what they deserve, that poverty and prosperity alike are truly earned.
Taken to its logical conclusion, Perkins’s argument means that there was a sudden massive collapse of individual work ethic in Fall of 2008 that led to millions of layoffs. It concludes that those who currently can’t find work have only themselves to blame (never mind the fact that job-seekers outnumber job openings more than 4-to-1). Perkins’s argument suggests that a difference in work ethic is what keeps 49 million Americans in poverty and allocates to the richest 400 Americans more wealth than the bottom 50 percent. In other words, it’s pure fantasy that serves no other purpose than to deny the existence of economic injustice.
Perkins also clearly argues that this system is not inevitably sinful:
Some would argue that such an approach encourages abuses, the likes of which we have seen on Wall Street. While some egregious abuses have taken place, they are not inevitable or intrinsic to free enterprise. [emphasis added]
This claim ignores that corruption and predatory practices are ubiquitous features of not only free-market capitalism, but also the entirety of human history. I’m sure Perkins recognizes that we are a fallen people, but his economic philosophy doesn’t seem to square with this belief.
Two immutable aspects of human nature are that we have a strong desire to pursue narrow self-interest, but are also social beings who seek the moral approval of our neighbors. Free-market capitalism, in theory, reconciles these impulses by harnessing our selfishness in a way that establishes an inherently fair economic and social order. The problem, in practice, is that it simply doesn’t work. The continued prosperity of the bankers whose greed crashed the economy and the ongoing hardships faced by teachers and nurses who’ve lost their jobs through no fault of their own, are but two small pieces of evidence.
I don’t mean to imply that hard work has nothing to do with prosperity. It absolutely does. I know of many very rich people who work very hard, and have also met poor people who don’t. But the inverse is also true. Reducing success and failure to consequences of personal virtues is foolish at best and dishonest at worst. And Perkins should be ashamed of himself for using the Bible to perpetuate this myth.