By Alan Bean
“The Pope here has now gone beyond Catholicism here,” Rush Limbaugh told his radio audience last Wednesday, “and this is pure political.”
Although Pope Francis wasn’t speaking “ex cathedra” in his apostolic exhortation “Evangelii Gaudium” (and therefore made no claims to infallibility) he does get to define Catholic teaching. He is the Vicar of Christ, after all. At least if you call yourself a Catholic.
A bit later, Limbaugh claimed that “This is just pure Marxism coming out of the mouth of the Pope.”
There is some truth to this claim. Pope Francis has been influenced to a modest extent by liberation theology, an effort by Third World theologians to explore God’s “preferential option for the poor” from a Marxist perspective. It is orthodox Catholic teaching to claim that God has a heart for the poor. It should be orthodox Protestant teaching too, and, beyond the confines of American culture Christianity, it is.
But Pope Francis hasn’t been critical of capitalism, as such; his beef is with “unfettered capitalism”.
Limbaugh, correctly, points out that unfettered capitalism doesn’t exist anywhere. Markets are always subject to some government regulation, the question is, how much. But the rapid worldwide increase in wealth inequity is a direct result of steadily declining government control of global markets. Moreover, the “trickle down” school of economics the Pope is critiquing largely endorses unregulated, laissez-faire capitalism. Markets may not be completely unregulated, but Limbaugh and his ilk seem to imply that they should be.
A 2011 poll conducted by Public Religion Research Institute found that 44% of Americans believe Christian values are at odds with capitalism while only 36 percent believe that Christianity and capitalism can be harmonized. In fact, only 56% of Tea Party enthusiasts think capitalism and Christianity are completely simpatico. According to this survey, 61% of Americans don’t believe businesses would behave ethically without government oversight.
Not surprisingly, the study found that minority Christians believe the Church should address social and economic issues; white Christians want to hear sermons about social issues, but they don’t want their preachers talking about economics.
Limbaugh’s claim that the Pope’s critique of trickle down economics is “pure political” (sic) isn’t surprising. The white Christians who don’t want to hear issues of economic justice addressed from the pulpit frequently make the same claim. “I don’t come to church to hear political sermons,” they say.
They really mean that they don’t want to be reminded about Jesus’s statements regarding about the love of money and the fires of hell.
But how “political” are pastors being when they talk money from the pulpit. When politicians talk about money they are trying to tell voters what they want to hear without losing support from deep pocket donors. Politicians from poor, minority districts occasionally talk straight about money; but elected officials with wealthy constituencies (Democrat or Republican) deflect attention whenever possible from the addiction to unrighteous mammon that has become an inescapable part of the political game.
A Brookings Institute economics values survey from this summer shows that 44% of American white evangelicals describe themselves as economic conservatives. I suspect most of these people hold trickle down economics in high regard. Among white Catholics and Mainline Protestants, only 34% embrace the economic conservative label. But among Latinos, only 7% describe themselves as economic conservatives and only 3% of African Americans are comfortable with the label.
When American Christians complain about “political” sermons, they are really objecting to prophetic biblical preaching that hasn’t been passed through a political filter. We don’t hear this kind of talk from politicians or from political pundits. If preachers don’t give us the biblical perspective we will have to find it for ourselves. If we take our definition of normality from the political sphere, we can’t read the Bible with comprehension.
White American Christians insist on political sermons. The kind that reinforce what we already believe. The kind of that appeal to the handful of deep pocket contributors who keep the church finances in the black. That’s political preaching, and we can’t get enough.
Pope Francis gave us prophetic biblical preaching stepped in the ethics of Jesus. Compare his frank rebuke with the pablum we have come to expect from politicians and the difference is stunning. Pope Francis is an astute political philosopher but, thanks be to God, he ain’t no politician.