"The truth will set you free. But first it will piss you off."

Gloria Steinem

Friday, December 18, 2015


Part II:  If It’s Not Racism, It Might Be Religion.  Or History.

Last week I explained one reason why I do not consider my Facebook friends who post objections to welfare and “Section 8” to be racists employing code words.  I spoke of the rhetorical trick that such an automatic accusation too often is.  I said I would ignore this trick and continue to take my Facebook friends at face value, and implored you to do the same.  That was the proper response, but it did sidestep the central issue: can you oppose welfare (in its urban racial context, mind you) and point to anything positive to support your position?  You most definitely can, and this week I very briefly outline why opposition to welfare has considerable history on its side.

If your starting point is why a Christian can oppose helping his fellow man, it’s a long story, and you have to go back rather far.  As with most differences between Christianity and what Jesus actually said, that largely begins with Saint Paul, but I’m going to skip ahead and begin with the Protestant Reformation.  Out of this event arose a great many religious sects; for American history, the most important were those we broadly describe as “Calvinist.”  From their focus on “predestination” arose what is called “The Protestant Work Ethic,” the belief that hard work—and success—are signs of “the elect,” those who will be saved.  The significance of this ideology in American history cannot be overestimated.  It was well suited to people who were abandoning everything and crossing an ocean to build a “City on a Hill” in an unknown land. 

The Puritans were the first to bring that religious aspect to the new world, but a rather more secular method of saying much the same thing had already made an appearance in the new world, at Jamestown, Virginia.  This first English settlement initially followed what we term “the Spanish Model”; i.e., the arrivals were mostly young men who expected to simply collect (or seize) the gold that was lying around and make their fortunes.  They found no gold, and soon realized that finding something to eat was even more important.  “The Starving Time” (recent evidence has surfaced that cannibalism was practiced) produced a leader in John Smith, whose enduring contribution to American history was the expression he supposedly coined to solve the problem:  “They who do not work, neither shall they eat.  He did rework a New Testament aphorism, but the judgment on those who did not work would be made by men, not God.

The religious and the secular attitudes toward those who did not labor combined to form the core of the American myth: a nation of individuals, who, untrammeled by the ancient constraints of the old world, could seek their individual fortunes as they may.  From Jamestown and Massachusetts through the period of the American frontier, this was more fact than myth.  When land could not be found locally (today we would say “jobs”), you could always “lit out for the territory,” as Mark Twain put it.  In the almost total absence of charity (or much law, for that matter), a man’s fate was indeed in his own hands, and hard work was the most likely path to a better one.  The myth grew, and was burnished over and over again with that uniquely American combination of Protestantism, individuality and manifest destiny.  But as the frontier closed, times changed and continued to change.  That oh so human longing for the better times of our youth implanted a pure form of the myth into the American psyche even as the reality became steadily one of interconnection, not independence.

The Protestant Work Ethic suffered something of a beating during the Great Society years, but American history after 1980 demonstrates a clear resurgence and even an intensification of the belief.  The Reagan revolution harnessed the growing belief that the Great Society had not implanted the Protestant Work Ethic in the irresponsible poor, but had simply increased the number of “welfare queens.”  The central rationale for opposing welfare shifted; such aid not only did not instill a hard-working, gratification-delaying attitude among its recipients, it made the poor dependent, knowing they could consume even without working.  Senator Rand Paul (R, KY) has repeatedly made this point, arguing that welfare is a “disservice” to the poor.  The result of this trend has been polarization—and mutual antipathy—between “the workers and the free loaders.” 

The Protestant Work Ethic long ago ceased to be confined to Calvinists, or even Protestants.  A great many Catholics (despite their Pope)—and even a number of Jews—subscribe to it.  It is interlocked with aphorisms everybody knows (“God helps those who help themselves,” “If you give a man a fish…”) and the rags-to-riches stories that have always inspired us.  After more than three centuries of myth polishing, several of its components have changed, of course.  The Calvinist demonstration of a frugal and modest lifestyle has fallen by the wayside.  This is the Age of Consumption.  If you’ve got it, flaunt it, you worked hard for it (or inherited it), you deserve it. 

Yet despite enormous historical change and all the evidence of a tilted playing field (Donald Trump got his start with $1 million from his father, and damn few of the ghetto-born become millionaires), belief in the importance of an individual’s efforts has not waned.  Today, amid our showing off, we abhor those that consume, but do not labor.  That’s because the taxes of those who do labor are given to those that don’t, or so the common belief goes.  That’s not wrong, just greatly exaggerated, but it is a belief deeply held by many sincere, decent people. 

Then there is the reality that work doesn’t always deliver what leisure seems to.  Those who work for a living see those who don’t standing in front of them in the checkout line and handing the clerk some paper that isn’t money.  Also, as Senator James Inhofe (R, OK) phrased it, “people who are perfectly capable of working are buying thing like beer.”  From this stems repeated attempts to restrict what welfare recipients can purchase, how much they can withdraw from an ATM, and the like.  While I am sure there is a moral concern over the evil influence of beer and a bad diet involved in this, I think anger at comparative lifestyles for the work involved is still the real motive.

Thus the dispute is only superficially a financial one.  Morality, religion and The American Way underpin the arguments.  Representative Steve Southerland (Rep, Fla), a leading proponent of cutting welfare, argues that “The explosion of food stamps in this country is not just a fiscal issue for me.  This is a defining moral issue of our time,” and he is far from alone. 

All of this is not to separate racism from the development of the American myth; that is not possible, and I do not attempt to do so.  And I am sure it is also true that some simply employ the “welfare is a disservice to the poor” argument to hide their true motives, perhaps even from themselves.  So, in the end, it comes down to what I argued last week and several times before: take people as individuals, assume nothing, listen to what they say and take them at face value until proven otherwise, and then do so to individuals, not groups they seem to represent.


With the year draws to a close, because I have non-Christian friends, and always seek inclusivity, I want to wish everyone a Happy Holiday Season.  You’ll hear from me again on New Year’s Day.

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