There was a great piece in Harper's awhile back, "The Christian Paradox: How a Faithful Nation Gets Jesus Wrong'' by Bill McKibben, about how three out of four Americans believe the Bible teaches this: "God helps those who help themselves.''
The Gospel according to Mark? Luke? --Actually, it was Ben Franklin who came up with these words to live by.
"The thing is,'' McKibben writes, "not only is Franklin's wisdom not biblical; it's counterbiblical. Few ideas could be further from the gospel message, with its radical summons to love of neighbor. On this essential matter, most Americans—most American Christians—are simply wrong.''
Now, in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, we have seen—and been unable to look away from— the direct result of this self-deception.
And if such tell-me-I'm-dreaming scenes as rats feeding on corpses in the streets—American streets—isn't enough to make us rethink the public-policy implications of turning the Gospel on its head in this way, then truly, God help us.
We as a nation—a proudly, increasingly loudly Christian nation—have somehow convinced ourselves that the selfish choice is usually the moral one, too. (What a deal!) You know how this works: It's wrong to help poor people because "handouts'' reward dependency and thus hurt more than they help. So, do the right thing—that is, walk right on by—and by all means hang on to your hard-earned cash.
Thus do we deny the working poor a living wage, resent welfare recipients expected to live on a few hundred dollars a month, object to the whopping .16 percent of our GNP that goes to foreign aid—and still manage to feel virtuous about all of the above.
Which is how "Christian'' morality got to be all about other people's sex lives—and incredibly easy lifting compared to what Jesus actually asks of us. Defending traditional marriage? A breeze. Living in one? Less so. Telling gay people what they can't do? Piece o' cake.
But responding to the wretched? Loving the unlovable? Forgiving the ever-so-occasionally annoying people you actually know? Hard work, as our president would say, and rather more of a stretch. A lot of us are angry at our public officials just now, and rightly so. But we are complicit, too; top to bottom, we picked this government, which has certainly met our low expectations.
The Bush administration made deep and then still deeper cuts in antipoverty programs, and we liked that. (The genius of the whole Republican program, in fact, is that it not only offers tax cuts and morality, but tax cuts as morality.
Americans do, I think, want to feel they are doing the right thing, and when I hear an opponent of abortion rights say, "I'm voting for the most vulnerable, the unborn,'' I have to respect that. Of course, we also like tax breaks and cheap gas and cranking the thermostat up and down—so when Republicans play to both our better angels and our less altruistic ones, it's not that tough a sell.)
But have Democrats loudly decried the inhumanity—or even the hidden, deferred costs of the Bush cuts in services to the most vulnerable among the already born? Heavens, no, with a handful of exceptions, such as former vice-presidential nominee John Edwards, who spoke every single day of his campaign—and ever since—about our responsibilities toward those struggling just to get by in the "other America.''
Most party leaders are still busy emulating Bill Clinton, who felt their pain and cut their benefits—and made his fellow Dems ashamed to show any hint of a "bleeding heart.'' Clinton's imitators haven't his skills, though, so his bloodless, Republican Lite legacy has been a political as well as moral disaster.
I still dare to hope Democrats may yet remember why they are Democrats, though. And that would be a real come-to-Jesus moment.