By JAMES K. FITZPATRICK
Whom would Jesus call upon us to emulate in economic matters? Hillary Clinton or the Koch brothers? I am not sure. Speaking for our Lord is beyond my pay grade. But I insist that Hillary is not the self-evident answer, even though liberal Democrats regularly argue that support for the big government programs aimed at “social justice” that Hillary favors are the correct application of Jesus’ call for us to “love our neighbor as ourselves.”
(For those who don’t pay attention to the press releases of the modern American left, the Koch — pronounced “Coke” — brothers are Kansas entrepreneurs regularly denounced by liberal Democrats for their role in promoting conservative, free-market principles, and the politicians who back policies based upon them.)
The liberal Democrats I have in mind are not the people you would find on the editorial boards of publications such as Commonweal and America. The editors of those publications are too sophisticated and politically savvy for such simplifications. They know that the social encyclicals make clear that the Church does not require us to support any particular political solution to economic injustice, leaving the nuts and bolts of economic policy to our prudential judgment. I would argue, however, that these magazines are edited to lead their readers to the conclusion that a Christian response to the economic dislocations of our time require big government activism without actually saying it in specific language.
But we can leave America and Commonweal out of the discussion for the purposes of this article. There are Catholics on the left who do not beat around the bush in this matter, people who agree with Cesar Chavez, when he told Tim Padgett, an editor at WLRN, the National Public Radio outlet in Miami, as reported by Padgett in the June 23 issue of America, “If you really look at things through the eyes of Jesus Christ, who I think was the first socialist, only socialism can really create a genuine society.”
Charles J. Reid, professor of law at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, writing on the Huffington Post on June 27, is a case in point. He calls the “nuns on the bus,” the left-wing activists who can be counted on to back the wealth redistribution promoted by the Democratic Party, “the most visible and vibrant voice of socially responsible Catholicism active in the world today.” Why does he say that? Because they have “begun a campaign to raise the minimum wage,” and support Obama’s Affordable Care Act and call for “adequate food and shelter and health care” for the immigrants pouring across the Rio Grande in recent weeks. “Jesus would expect no less,” writes Reid.
Reid does not mention Hillary Clinton and the Koch brothers in his column, but when says “Jesus would expect no less” of us, he means that Catholics have a moral obligation to reject the Koch brothers’ free-market views, in favor of those of liberal Democrats, such as Hillary. Which is hogwash. We have no way of knowing the state of the Koch brothers’ consciences. But I would argue that a strong case can be made that they are acting exactly as Jesus would want businessmen to act. They make enormous profits with their various enterprises, but Jesus used the Parable of the Talents to commend such entrepreneurship.
You will remember the parable, where a master, before departing on a long journey, gives three of his servants a portion of his money to manage. When he returns, he commends the two stewards who grew his wealth. “Well done, my good and faithful servant. You have been faithful in handling this small amount, so now I will give you many more responsibilities. Let’s celebrate together!” But he condemns the servant who let the money sit unused, returning to the master only the amount originally given to him, calling him a “wicked and lazy servant!” (Matt. 25:21).
To be sure, the parable refers to how Jesus expects us to cultivate and expand our spiritual gifts, not our bank accounts. But it would be a stretch to hold that Jesus would have made no mention of the dangers of being a conscientious businessman and entrepreneur in making His larger point, if He had thought that was the case. There is not a hint in the parable that Jesus thinks business acumen and wise financial planning are intrinsically evil. There is no reason to think that Jesus does not accept that a businessman can be both worldly wise and virtuous, both frugal and concerned for the least of his brethren.
And the Koch brothers appear to be precisely that. Hillary Clinton tells us she has accumulated her great wealth by “dint of hard work.” OK. But the “hard work” has been making speeches and cultivating the political connections she made while her husband was president and she was on the public payroll as U.S. senator from New York and U.S. secretary of state. The Koch brothers’ fortune is greater than hers. But they built businesses, and created approximately 100,000 jobs. Hillary has done nothing comparable.
I have not seen Hillary’s tax returns, but I’ll bet anyone from James Carville to the talking heads on MSNBC that her charitable giving does not come close to the Koch brothers’ giving. The Charles Koch Foundation supports university research programs, with grants of over $100 million to Brown, the University of Wisconsin, Vassar, and some 245 other colleges. David Koch has donated $506 million in medical philanthropy, including $100 million to cancer research at MIT. The Kochs also support the arts, with $15 million going to the Smithsonian Institute, $35 million to the American Museum of Natural History, and $100 million to Manhattan’s Lincoln Center, home of the New York City Ballet and the New York City Opera. This list only scratches the surface.
Fair enough: Hillary Clinton cannot be expected to match this charitable giving. She has spent almost all of her adult life working for the government. And there is nothing wrong with a life devoted to government service. It is not only the Clintons who have done that. So do FBI agents and career military officers. Dwight Eisenhower and Douglas MacArthur come to mind.
Our obligation is to bloom where we are planted. It can be argued that Hillary has done that. But so have the Koch brothers. They were wise and faithful stewards. They built a fortune, and then gave generously from that fortune to help the needy and advance good causes. I repeat: It is not my point that they have been better Christians than Hillary Clinton. Only the Lord can know if that is the case. But only someone with an ideological axe to grind against the free-market system would deny — absent some information of which we are unaware — that a case can be made that they have behaved precisely as Jesus would instruct men and women in their state of life to behave.
One other thing: Jesus would not be fooled by the public protestations of piety and concern for the downtrodden made by Washington wheelers and dealers who spend their lives behind closed doors doing favors for wealthy political donors, from whom they expect favors in return, often in the form of extravagant and economically unjustifiable speakers’ fees, book contracts, and jobs for less than accomplished relatives on the make.