What do Pope Francis and the Republican Party have in common?
Let's make it easier by eliminating possibilities, or at least one. They do not share a common admiration for Jesus' sermons that we should give to the poor and that if you are really rich your path to Heaven is to distribute your wealth to the poor and go among them. There must be millions of Republicans who at least share that sentiment even if like the rest of us they don't follow it, but it is scarcely evident in the national Capitol or Arkansas's — or many statehouses for that matter.
If there is a unifying motif to the labors of Congress and the Arkansas legislature this spring it is to make life harder and existence more intolerable for Americans who don't have or make much money or else find themselves socially unacceptable owing to some physical or mental condition. Though masked by discussions about disincentives and religious convictions, the purposes are as simple as that.
The tumult among Republicans over whether to scrap Obamacare altogether or just change a few key provisions to make the whole thing unworkable is altogether about how far to pull up the safety net for the poor — OK, and cutting taxes for the top tenth of 1 percent, drug companies and insurance companies that were levied by Obamacare to shore up Medicare and Medicaid. As part of the reform of Obamacare, Congress is about to start shriveling Medicaid (but after two more elections have passed) so that the needy, from indigents in nursing homes to the disabled of every description, will have to fight among themselves to preserve some access to medical care. The Trump and Ryan budgets — let's save them for another day.
Bills are flying through the Arkansas legislature to make it harder to get nutrition and medical help, to dictate exactly what nourishment the poor can get with public assistance (no more Snickers or 7Ups), to cut off medical aid for people who don't have payroll jobs, to reduce unemployment benefits (Arkansas is not quite at the bottom yet), and the list goes on.
Pope Francis must have had all the Washington news in mind when he gave an interview about the poor to an Italian magazine that serves the homeless and marginalized people. They asked a question that bothers us all. Is it your Christian duty to give something to the beggar at the intersection carrying a homemade sign, the bedraggled woman on the parking lot who asks for money to buy gas for her car that is stalled on the Interstate, the guy who needs a hot lunch or bus money to get to Memphis to see his dying mom or any of the other familiar lines?
Yes, the pope said, it is "always right" to give to the poor. People refuse to give to the homeless because it is likely to be spent on alcohol, not healthy food, or because they should stay in a shelter or find some kind of job. People feel better about not giving if they can think of plausible reason, he said.
" 'I give money and then he spends it on drinking a glass of wine,' " the pope said. "If a glass of wine is the only happiness he has in life, that's OK. Instead, ask yourself what do you do on the sly? What 'happiness' do you seek in secret?" People should admit that they are luckier in life but seek their own guilty pleasures.
His message was larger and it was circulating in Washington and uneasily in Congress, especially the notion that it is wrong to try to segment the indigent according to the thousands of causes for their condition so that some are worthy of society's compassion and aid, others only barely and still others not at all. Francis also admonished Christians not to toss coins casually and refuse to engage the poor but rather to show respect and concern about their situation and not look down upon them as they would animals. He said he had found more genuine humanity and shared empathy in the slums of Buenos Aires than in the better quarters of town. He thought it was wrong to ban begging and the homeless from any quarter, a growing movement in American cities.
A Republican congressman who was instrumental in designing the Obamacare repeal offered a different take on the Bible than Francis's. Jesus didn't like the poor or else he would not have said they would always be with us. Jesus expects the government to kick the bums off the rolls and give them incentives to get a job.
When the Hutchinson administration was able to announce that 25,000 people had been forced off the Medicaid rolls for not following up on administrative requirements and that the Trump administration was about to give the state permission to end health insurance for many thousands more "able-bodied" people who for many thousands of reasons don't hold down payroll jobs, it was cause for celebration. Being a good Christian is so easy.