"Not the Poor" – A Response to Denny Burk and Robert Putnam

Last week, Harvard scholar Robert Putnam invoked the ire of many evangelicals by making this statement:

“The obvious fact is that over the last 30 years, most organized religion has focused on issues regarding sexual morality, such as abortion, gay marriage, all of those. I’m not saying if that’s good or bad, but that’s what they’ve been using all their resources for. This is the most obvious point in the world. It’s been entirely focused on issues of homosexuality and contraception and not at all focused on issues of poverty.” 

The problem with the statement is this: in many of the most important, measurable ways, Putnam is wrong. As Rob Schwarzwalder of the Family Research Council, and Pat Fagan of the FRC’s Marriage and Religion Research Institute point out at RNS:  

“contrast the work [Evangelical] groups do with respect to same-sex marriage, sanctity of life and so forth with the money Christians give to the very things Mr. Putnam indicts them for ignoring. It is a tiny fraction of the total giving to those needs Mr. Putnam accuses Christians of neglecting… Mr. Putnam might be a fine political scientist, but he needs remedial education in arithmetic.” 

The church’s concern for the poor and oppressed is deeply ingrained in her DNA. These practices continue even when cultural elites fail to notice. 

But I also wonder if there isn’t a way in which Putnam is right. And for evidence, we can turn to yet another story involving Putnam, this one penned by Denny Burk.  

A few days after Putnam made the above comments, he participated in a Poverty Summit at Georgetown University, along with Barack Obama, E.J. Dionne, and Arthur Brooks. There, the criticism of Christians and conservatives continued, along with invocations to care for “the least of these,” a Biblical phrase they used to lend spiritual gravitas to their comments. This caught the attention of Denny Burk, who posted a response titled: “The ‘least of these’ are not the poor but the Christian baker, photographer, and florist.” 

Those who follow me on Twitter may have noticed that I reacted poorly to this title, particularly to the phrase "not the poor." 

I don’t object to Denny’s exegesis, which is thorough and carefully articulated. I don’t object, either, to the inclusion of Evangelicals whose consciences have prevented them from providing services to same-sex weddings, and who have suffered ridicule for their decision. I object strongly, vehemently, to the phrase, “not the poor.” It is sloppy at best, and cheap political point-scoring at worst. 

Denny’s point is that “the least of these” in Matthew 25:40 does not indicate the poor in general, but followers of Jesus. Again, I don’t disagree – but the passage specifically includes followers who suffer under conditions of poverty:

“For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.’” (Matthew 25:35-36) 

To say “not the poor but the Christian baker” etc. is to obscure a plain reading of the passage. I’m not saying exclude those who might experience contemporary forms of persecution (i.e. those who are shamed and ridiculed for reasons of Christian conscience). I’m saying that Burk’s articulation seems to deliberately exclude the poor, and that is problematic. 

It’s especially problematic in the light of Putnam’s comments from the past week. Putnam was wrong, but Burk, in a way, proved him right. He noticed an exegetical error made by opponents in the culture war and pounced. In doing so, Burk reinforced the image of Evangelicals as obsessed with abortion and homosexuality. “The least of these isn’t the poor! It’s those oppressed for their refusal to support same sex marriage!” Irony noted. Points scored. What’s lost is the opportunity to bear witness about Evangelical commitments to the poor, and to empathize with the concerns raised at the summit – concerns we should all share. 

The language of “culture war” is illuminating in this situation. In a war, one engages in regular battles, seeks opportunities to attack, and ultimately intends to win. This attitude is what conservative Christians are most known for, especially since the 1980’s, and this is why Putnam would make the comments he made to the Washington Post. By the numbers he was wrong. By reputation, he was right. 

The no-holds-barred political posture of some Christians has its mirror in the socially liberal activist left. They aren’t content to fight for enough space for their views in society; they want to shame and embarrass all who would disagree with them. In many ways, the Christian Right provided their model. It is a war, and victory means a silenced and marginalized opposition. 

It was a failed strategy for Christians in the 80's and 90's, and I suspect it will ultimately run a similar course for the activist left. In the meanwhile, Christians ought to consider a different approach. We ought to find ways to contribute to the common good in such a way that our non-Christian neighbors would stand up in our defense. It's not impossible, but requires a mode of engagement that is committed to winsomeness and is driven by the love of God and neighbor.   

One alternate approach is James Davison Hunter’s model of “Faithful Presence”, as he articulated in “To Change the World.” In an interview with CT, he summarized what separates this approach from others: 

“The desire to be defensive against the world is rooted in a desire to retain distinctiveness, but this has been manifested in ways that are, on one hand, aggressive and confrontational, and, on the other, culturally trivial and inconsequential. And the desire to be pure from the world entails a withdrawal from active presence in huge areas of social life. In contrast to these paradigms, the desire for faithful presence in the world calls on the entire laity, in all vocations—ordinary and extraordinary, "common" and rarefied—to enact the shalom of God in the world.

“Christians need to abandon talk about "redeeming the culture," "advancing the kingdom," and "changing the world." Such talk carries too much weight, implying conquest and domination. If there is a possibility for human flourishing in our world, it does not begin when we win the culture wars but when God's word of love becomes flesh in us, reaching every sphere of social life. When faithful presence existed in church history, it manifested itself in the creation of hospitals and the flourishing of art, the best scholarship, the most profound and world-changing kind of service and care—again, not only for the household of faith but for everyone. Faithful presence isn't new; it's just something we need to recover.” 

Faithful presence means showing up in a conversation about poverty with a desire to be constructive, to demonstrate our commitment to carrying out the Biblical imperative to care for the poor – “not only for the household of faith but for everyone.” Faithful presence describes the kind of Christians who show up in the world’s most desolate places, serving the poor, the sick, and the desperate, such as Dr. Stephen Foster, who inspired Nicholas Kristof, a New York Times columnist who is not an evangelical, to write “A Little Respect for Doctor Foster,”  an article defending evangelicals on the basis of the good they’re doing around the world.  

The culture war puts us in a posture where we’re too busy scoring points to cooperate or collaborate. It diverts energy and attention away from our very real contributions to the common good and perpetuates the image of Christians that Putnam described last week. 

To be sure, I’m not advocating silence on same-sex marriage or abortion. I’m simply saying that there’s more to a Christian witness than these issues, and interjecting them into every conversation is distracting. A discussion about poverty is an opportunity to bear witness about poverty; turning it  into a conversation about same-sex marriage is an adventure in missing the point. And when we miss the point about our public witness, it’s no wonder that others miss the point as well.