Romney and the politics of the poor

Campaign 2012

Mitt Romney's not a bad man. He just sounds like it sometimes.

Like when he says, "I'm not concerned about the very poor." Does he kick beggars? Of course not. He was talking about where he would focus his efforts for economic recovery (see video clip below):

"I'm not concerned about the very poor. There's a safety net there, and if it needs repair I'll fix it. I'm not concerned about the very rich; they're doing just fine. I'm concerned about the heart of America, the 95 percent of Americans who are right now struggling."

But how could the frontrunner for the Republican Party's presidential nomination allow those words in any context to come out of his mouth in public? Are the poor an abstraction to him, people he just doesn't think about much at all? But whether the poor are 5 percent of the population, as he suggested, or 15 percent as the Census Bureau would have us believe, they are a pressing moral issue for anyone who holds responsibility for government.

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In a fallen world, God establishes government to protect us against each other, but especially the weak against the strong. Thus, an important part of the job for anyone in government is to defend the poor. The biblical writers often show a special concern for them, in particular that rulers guard the poor against those who would take advantage of their vulnerability ("devour" them, Proverbs 30:14) and ensure their fair treatment in court (Exodus 23:6).

By contrast, Gov. Romney, like most Republicans and virtually all Democrats, thinks the poor are no longer his concern once they have a state-provided system of properly functioning "safety nets." But the problem with safety nets is they often become either hammocks or snares. Too many people don't bounce out of them and onto their feet. They take up multigenerational residency in them, and those safety nets are administered by masses of bureaucrats who are happy to keep these people as clients indefinitely. Government provides more effectively for the poor when it protects their ability to provide for themselves, ensuring a genuinely fair process and securing stable communities.

Interestingly, God, who calls rulers His servants (Romans 13), says nothing about government safety nets. The Bible exhorts people instead to private charity. People are to lend and give freely to a neighbor who falls into poverty (Deuteronomy15:7-11). Many passages instruct people not to harvest too thoroughly so that the poor can glean for themselves what was left behind (Deuteronomy 24:19-22; Isaiah 3:14). This was private charity, but it required hard work from anyone who wanted to receive it. The Apostle Paul cautioned churches to reserve diaconal support only for the truly helpless (1 Timothy 5:3-16).

The Republicans should make a point not only of leaving the middle class alone but also of guarding the poor against the powerful (including against their friends in Congress). They will have a winning strategy for electoral victory from now until kingdom come. On many levels it is unwise not to care about the poor.

D.C. Innes
D.C. Innes

D.C. is associate professor of politics at The King's College in New York City and co-author of Left, Right, and Christ: Evangelical Faith in Politics (Russell Media). Follow D.C. on Twitter @DCInnes1.


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