By Aaron M. Rodriguez
In a dispute between secular liberals and Christian conservatives, the canard that Jesus was a revolutionary radical liberal is made with no great surprise. This claim has its roots in the New Testament narrative that chronicles Christ’s ministry of helping the poor, the disabled, and the oppressed. Analogously, we are supposed to infer that since liberals advocate programs that redistribute upper-tiered wealth to the lower class that this makes them faithful stewards of God’s kingdom.
Today’s liberalism, sometimes called “social liberalism” or “welfare liberalism,” is a reform movement that seeks to enhance the welfare of the populous through government intervention. This branch of liberalism seeks equality of life, and therefore tends to promote “leveling” programs that take from the prosperous and give to the underprivileged. Welfare, affirmative action, and Medicaid are good examples of such programs.
Today’s conservatism, sometimes called “classical liberalism” or “neo-classical liberalism” is a philosophy that also seeks to enhance the well being of the populous. Freedom, as understood by conservatives, is a freedom from government, not freedom through government. By promoting personal industry and a competitive free market, the populous is encouraged to be successful by the fruits of their own labor, not by government entitlements or dependency. The trademark of conservatism is keeping government small and efficient, but powerful enough to protect her citizens from the threat of harm and fraud. Crudely put, conservatism sees government primarily as a protector, whereas liberalism sees her as an enabler.
Understanding liberalism and conservatism in terms of government size and function presents somewhat of a problem for our question. Jesus didn’t talk much about government, and therefore it would be difficult to frame Jesus’ political ideology in terms of being a political liberal or political conservative. This is important, and we’ll get to this point later. However, for the purposes of this article, we will address some of the common passages liberals use to bolster their argument that Jesus was on of their ilk.
One such passage is in Luke 4:18-19 where Jesus says,
The obvious meaning of the passage is that Jesus was anointed to advance charitable works. Prisoners would be freed, the blind would receive sight, and barriers for the oppressed would be removed. This was Jesus’ mission. So, let’s take a look to see how charitable liberals are.
Arthur Brooks, a behavioral economist and a director of nonprofit studies at Syracuse University, authored a book entitled “Who Really Cares: The Surprising Truth about Compassionate Conservatism.” Using ten databases from scientific surveys in the past decade, Brooks compiled statistics on charitable contributions by self-professed liberals and conservatives. He found that secular liberals who believe fervently in income redistribution via government programs gave far less to charity than conservatives. On average, religious conservatives gave 3.5 times more than secular liberals, and when “religious giving” was excluded from the analysis, conservatives still contributed more to charity than liberals annually.
In his book, Brooks concludes that liberals want everyone’s tax dollars to support charitable causes, but are more reluctant to write checks to support such causes. Byron Johnson, a sociology professor and director of the Institute for Studies of Religion at Baylor University, corroborated Brook’s conclusions from an independent research project called, “A Report of Faith in America.”
Brooks’ analysis delivers a serious blow to the liberal’s claim to Jesus. Forcing others to make charitable contributions that one is disinclined to do without external compulsion is called hypocrisy. And hypocrisy was among the most serious charges Jesus laid on the Pharisees during the New Testament era. In Matthew 23, Jesus says,
One of the most commonly cited passages used to support that Jesus was a liberal, or perhaps even a socialist, is Matthew 19:21-22, where Jesus says,
But when the young man heard that saying, he went away sorrowful, for he had great possessions.
Some liberals interpret this passage as an endorsement of socialism. A young wealthy ruler sought Jesus’ advice, asking him what he must do to receive eternal life. After a brief exchange, we discover the young ruler was proficient in matters of the law, and yet he felt something was wanting. Jesus struck to the heart of the matter, instructing him to surrender his wealth and to follow him. The young man was unable to abdicate the one thing he valued most, his sense of security. It was a common theme in Christ’s teachings that unless you can forsake that which you value most, you cannot be his disciple (Matt 10:37 16:24, Luke 9:23, 14:26, Mark 8:34). For instance, in Matthew 10:37, it reads,
This passage is no more about promoting dysfunctional families than the passage about the young ruler is about promoting socialism. The key to understanding these passages is that Jesus utilizes one central theme - nothing must come between Jesus and his followers. In the first passage, it’s one’s possessions; in the second passage, it’s one’s immediate family. Both stories exemplify that Christ demands nothing less than complete devotion. Wealth and family are valuable possessions, but should not stand between you and Jesus. The moral of the story is sacrifice, not socialism.
In order to put Jesus’ values into proper perspective, one has to consider the purpose of good conduct. For instance, the scriptures portray Jesus as weak on defense (turn the other cheek), big on social programs (give to the poor), harsh on the wealthy (nearly impossible for the rich man to enter heaven), soft on punishment (he who is without sin, cast the first stone), and pro-taxes (render unto Caesar what is his). It would appear that the New Testament is a haven of liberal ideology. However, nowhere in the scriptures did Jesus petition a government to deliver on any of these commitments. Instead, Christ implored his followers to sacrifice of themselves. The act of kindness and brotherly love must germinate from the individual’s heart, not the policy of some lifeless institution that mandates a sacrifice. And there is a good reason for this. The purpose of charitable giving is not to level out the inequalities of society, but to benefit the soul of the benefactor.
In Matthew 6, Jesus instructs his disciples to give to the needy only in secret so one’s philanthropy is not seen by men. He warned them that if they displayed their charity in public, they would not receive their heavenly reward. This passage is enlightening. If the purpose of charitable giving were to improve the well being of the poor, then why would it matter if such acts were in public? In fact, it could be argued that public giving would promote and produce likeminded behavior, which would ultimately benefit the needy. And yet, Jesus states that God would withhold His reward if they made a public display of their giving. The answer is quite clear – it’s not about the poor, it’s about a willful sacrifice.
And this brings to me to my last point. In Luke 16:15, Jesus tells the Pharisees,
And in John 5:44, Jesus tells the people,
The moral here is that goodness is judged good by God alone; it is not man’s prerogative to determine what’s morally right. When Jesus healed the boy at Capernaum, he said,
Jesus did not heal the boy because the boy’s illness brought him near to death, but because it might introduce onlookers to the kingdom of heaven. When Jesus healed the paralytic at the poolside, he told him to stop sinning or else something worse may happen to him. Jesus didn’t heal the man because paralytics ought to have equal standing with others in society, but rather to induce in him a morally productive life. And when Jesus applied mud to the eyes of a blind man thus restoring sight, he told his disciples that this man was blind so that the glory of God might be revealed in him. This last example is a strong testament to the purpose of good works, which is to show the world that Jesus is the light – the mediator sent for the world’s atonement. It is important to note that Jesus’ purpose of good works is not the message of secular government programs, nor is it the goal of liberalism in general.
Jesus was not a liberal in today’s sense. What he did, he did for God, not for men. In Matthew 26:7, Jesus’ disciples were angered when they saw a woman pour expensive perform on Jesus’ head. They thought it was wasteful because it could have been sold and given to the poor. Jesus responded,
Jesus’ point was although charitable deeds are good, they do not take priority over Jesus and his message. This same message can be read in Acts 6:1-4, where the Greek Jews complained that their widows were being overlooked in the daily distribution of food. As a result, the twelve disciples gathered together to render this conclusion,
The idea is that charitable contributions, although virtuous, does not supersede the ministry of God.
The assertion that Jesus was a socialist is misguided and incorrect because the premise is grounded in the liberal ideology of American politics, not in biblical exegesis. Not one place in the bible did Jesus advocate it was the function of government to do what loving human beings ought to do on their own. As noted above, conservatives are not opposed to social programs. We shed our blood, donate our time, apply our labor, and voluntarily redistribute our income to the poor. And quite frankly, research shows we are better at it than liberals. Jesus was a conservative because he promoted charitable giving on behalf of individuals, not government. Jesus was a conservative because he promoted the hard work and success of the individual, not the legislative body of the government. Jesus was a conservative he saw giving as a ministry of the gospel, not a secular and spiritless exercise of government in order to level the economic playing field. Liberals may claim Jesus as their own, but Jesus would not claim them as his own. It takes a lot more to give from your personal resources than it does to compel others to give through taxation.