Camel and Needle

Dear Father Sirico:

       As I see it, there are three basic problems with your response: You attribute to me words I did not say in order to refute arguments I did not make. You assure readers that Christ could not possibly have meant what he so clearly said. And you don’t address the main points of my article. Nevertheless, let’s see if we can advance the debate through our exchange.
       Several times I had the sense that I was debating a conservative who was employing quasi-deconstructionist techniques. I write one thing; you choose to interpret another. For example, you quote me as saying that the New Testament says much more about the dangers riches pose to one’s soul than it does about many well-publicized issues about which many Christians feel so strongly. Because it’s an empirically true statement, you don’t challenge it. Instead, you pretend to divine, and then debate, my real thoughts. You assert that my points are that the Christian right should let up on its criticism of government and that my critique exempts those who live “inside the Beltway.” You are wrong on both counts.
       But what seems to trouble you most is that you believe my article was motivated by a desire to advance a “left-liberal” economic agenda. In fact, I had no interest in advancing a particular economic or ideological agenda. What I am interested in is that we Christians (including those of us who are active in the public square) strive for intellectual and theological honesty. It’s not easy; as I said in the article, most of us–including me–read the Bible through a tinted lens. We want it to conform to our predilections. But at least we ought to aspire to discern what is true.
       The argument I made is this: Christ warned about the dangers of riches and wealth. Many politically active Christians say virtually nothing about these concerns, even as they justify their involvement in politics as a way to advance biblical principles. And they say a good deal about issues that neither Christ nor the apostles speak to, issues one can confidently assume they would be indifferent to ($500-per-child tax credit, privatizing the arts, abolishing the Department of Education, welfare reform, the parental-rights amendment, etc.). Hence my point about the debate being skewed. And why do those who insist that biblical Christianity ought to be a guide to our political involvement become (relatively) silent on an issue of such obvious concern to Christ? What’s happening–even unintentionally–is that the name of Christ is being used as a means to advance merely political ends. Christianity itself is debased at the altar of politics. And that should trouble Christians.
       You may believe that Christ’s admonitions about riches ought not have any political ramifications. Perhaps you’re right. But if that’s the case, then I would be interested to know what is the criteria Christians ought to use to guide their political activities, if not the words and sentiments of Christ, or of the New Testament. Most Christians would agree, I think, that there is a problem if we ignore issues Christ forthrightly addressed while concentrating our political efforts on issues he says nothing about–and all the while we continue to walk under the banner of Christianity. If conservatives want to promote conservative policies, or liberals want to promote liberal policies, fine. (I’m one who chooses to march under the banner of conservatism). But let’s drop the pretense that many of these positions are informed by Scripture, and the implicit (or explicit) assumption that we can easily know what a correct Christian political agenda ought to be. I can’t help but think that if our politics were guided more by the 89 chapters of the four Gospels, as well as the Epistles, it would surely look much different than it now does. Not necessarily “left-liberal.” But different.
       You have become Exhibit A of my “Yes, but” reference from the original article. I’m happy to let the readers of SLATE decide whether you view riches in the same way as did Christ. I would simply point out that by the end of your response you have taken the words of Christ–“Woe to you who are rich”–and added to it your own little spin: “Woe to you who are unjustly rich.” The Gospel According to St. Luke vs. the Gospel According to Father Sirico. As for me, I’ll side with St. Luke.
       Apropos the last point: It’s worth asking, I think, if more and more people reinterpret, or ignore, Scriptural verses that don’t really appeal to them (i.e., regarding riches) while they remain “strict constructionalists” on verses that conform to their worldview (say, on issues like homosexuality and adultery).
       There is one area in particular where you weren’t as helpful as I thought you might have been. Assume that we take Christ’s words seriously and that we believe they ought to have political implications. What might they be? That could be the subject of an illuminating discussion. Instead, by merely raising the question, I am immediately placed in the camp with heretics. At least you provide me with a choice: the early Gnostics who rejected the Incarnation, or the wealth-hating medieval maniacs who followed the doctrines of Joachim of Fiora, or the communist Anabaptists.
       To raise the issue seriously of whether affluence and materialism have a corrupting influence does not mean ipso facto that one is a member in good standing of the political left. It’s worth noting that over the years, similar concerns have been raised by John Adams, Alexis de Tocqueville, Irving Kristol, and William Bennett–men who do not appear in the pantheon of the liberal left. As it happens, the vast majority of Americans believe that materialism has become a serious social problem, and almost nine in 10 believe “our society is much too materialistic,” according to social scientist Robert Wuthnow. One can be in favor of capitalism (as I am), and appreciate its benefits (as I do), while taking these concerns seriously (see John Paul II’s encyclical, Centesimus Annus).
       I do want to address a few more things in your response. You ask, “Are the rich uniquely condemned by Holy Scripture?” The answer is: Of course not, and I never said they were. But G.K. Chesterton (an orthodox Catholic, no less!) was right; there is a very real “danger of moral wreck” that attends the accumulation of wealth and riches.
       You write that “surely” the only reason the Washington Post published my article is the “journalistic hook” of the policy director of Jack Kemp’s think tank siding with left-liberals on economic issues. A smart charge to throw out, except it isn’t true. Actually, the Post didn’t care one whit if I was associated with Empower America or simply identified as a writer living in Virginia. Indeed, they accepted the article and left it up to me to decide how I wanted to be identified. And I, in turn, left it up to the president of the organization to decide. He told me to keep my Empower America identification.
       Also, I did not write, and did not mean to imply, that only the Christian right is “wealth obsessed” or that they are greedier than most other Americans. But I do think that most of us who live in modern America–Christian or not–are too materialistic. And I certainly think that we often avert our gaze from the words of Christ precisely because his demands can inconvenience our lives.
       To conclude this round of our exchange, then: A Christian scholar whom I admire a great deal wrote me and said that these days, most people insist that Jesus did not really mean his warnings to the rich. We say that we shouldn’t rely on riches. But what’s missing is candor; we speak as though not relying on our riches is easy, whereas the truth is that it is extremely difficult and that it is hard even to know to what extent we are being ensnared by them. Where this leads us in terms of social policy, he is unsure. At the very least, though, he thinks it is surely healthy to emphasize the words of Christ and, for those of us who inhabit a rich society, to heed the warnings. Which sounds right to me.

Peter Wehner