The Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) convened this past weekend, and when speakers weren’t going after President Obama, they were beating up on the poor. Particularly egregious in my eyes was Rep. Paul Ryan. Although Ryan, unlike many on the right, at least gives lip service to caring about the poor, his “poverty program” is an assault on programs that support our most vulnerable citizens. He reminds me of the Christian hypocrites that Milton attacks in Paradise Lost.
In Ryan’s CPAC speech, he told a story—later revealed to have been garbled by his source—about a hungry child that didn’t want a free school lunch but
his own lunch — one in a brown-paper bag just like the other kids’. He wanted one, he said, because he knew a kid with a brown-paper bag had someone who cared for him. Ryan concluded from this that Democrats are offering America “a full stomach and an empty soul.”
This isn’t the only time that Ryan has used spiritual language to excuse his cuts. You may remember the time two years ago when, in defense of his draconian budget plan, he told the Christian Broadcast Network that he was guided by Catholic principles of “subsidiarity” and “the preferential option for the poor”:
Those principles are very very important, and the preferential option for the poor, which is one of the primary tenants of Catholic social teaching, means don’t keep people poor, don’t make people dependent on government so that they stay stuck at their station in life, help people get out of poverty out onto life of independence.
To use such arguments as the rationale for cutting food stamps to hungry families is not exactly what the Catholic Church had in mind. At least it wasn’t Ryan but another Congressman who misapplied St. Paul’s dictum that “anyone unwilling to work should not eat.”
Before going further, let me share my own experience with hungry children. When I was growing up in Appalachian Tennessee, I remember some of the mountain kids at my school. I recall once we were served a dessert where something had gone wrong—it was so rich and sweet that not even kids would eat it. And yet I saw Johnny wolfing down everyone’s leftovers. I also remember another time when he won a large caramel popcorn rabbit in a school contest, and I was in awe at how voraciously he devoured it. I realized, even at ten, that I was in the presence of real hunger.
Was Johnny’s soul in peril because he was receiving free lunches? I would argue that those in soul peril are the ones who would deny him sustenance.
And Ryan is leading the way, posing as a friend of the poor and serious “poverty wonk” (Jonathan Chait’s phrase) as he proposes his measures. His much ballyhooed poverty plan, however, has been attacked by the academics whose studies he cites, who accuse him of misapplying their data. Chait explains why Ryan has chosen the route that he has:
He’s committed to balancing the budget within the next decade. But he wants to prop up defense spending, refuses to increase tax revenue, and has promised to maintain Social Security and Medicare benefits for all current retirees. He recently cut a deal with Democrats to ease cuts in the main domestic spending programs. Having taken everything else off the table, the only place left for his cuts is programs that benefit the poor.
And Ryan’s budget absolutely slays the budget for anti-poverty programs –the vast majority of his spending cuts come from the minority of federal programs aimed at the poor. That fact has led to his current predicament: Democrats have painted him as a cruel social Darwinist, causing him to become concerned about his image as an “Ayn Rand miser,” causing him to re-brand himself as a poverty wonk, causing him to dive into scholarly literature. But scholarly literature is never going to show that his plans to impose massive cuts to the anti-poverty budget will help poor people.
Milton does not hold back as he goes after those Christians who invoke the Holy Spirit as a cover for their rapacious behavior. In the final book of Paradise Lost he refers to them as “wolves”:
Wolves shall succeed for teachers, grievous wolves,
Who all the sacred mysteries of Heaven
To their own vile advantages shall turn
Of lucre and ambition…
Then shall they seek to avail themselves of names,
Places, and titles, and with these to join
Secular power; though feigning still to act
By spiritual, to themselves appropriating
The Spirit of God…
Milton predicts dire days ahead for such as these—although what he has in mind in Judgment Day, which may be a ways off:
Truth shall retire
Bestuck with slanderous darts, and works of faith
Rarely be found: So shall the world go on,
To good malignant, to bad men benign;
Under her own weight groaning; till the day
Appear of respiration to the just,
And vengeance to the wicked…
I’m not holding my breath for the day of vengeance. But at least we can expose Ryan for his shameful hypocrisy.