Columns Government & Politics Mark Silk: Spiritual Politics Opinion

The GOP’s theology of debt

President-elect Donald Trump's nominee for U.S. Attorney General, Senator Jeff Sessions (R-AL) meets with the Senate Judiciary Committee chair Senator Charles Grassley (R-IA) (not pictured) on Capitol Hill in Washington, U.S., on November 29, 2016. Photo courtesy of Reuters/Gary Cameron

On December 21, Attorney General Jeff Sessions, acting the part of Scrooge, rescinded an Obama administration guidance urging state and local judges to cease imposing fees and fines in such a way that poor folks get tossed into the modern equivalent of debtors’ prison.

Merry Christmas, losers!

Some of you may imagine this to be just the latest example of Republican class warfare, but I’m here to tell you it’s more than that. It embodies a secular theology — one rooted in America’s Puritan past. Listen to Rev. Samuel Moody, once a prominent Congregational minister in Southern Maine.

“If God, in his Providence, has thus brought you; or if you, by Extravagance or Imprudence have brought your selves into Poverty, Poor you must contentedly be,” Moody preached in 1715. “It is no Sin to be Poor; but to lie in Debt, is a sin.” He then proceeded to portray God as the “Great Creditor” and Satan as “God’s Gaoler,” who tortures insolvent souls in an infernal debtors’ prison for all eternity.

But during the 1700s, Americans came to see debt as less a moral failing than the unfortunate result of market forces in a burgeoning commercial society. In the new republic, a vigorous debate took place over how best to protect debtors, with the Federalists backing national legislation and the Democrat-Republicans opposing it.

In the course of the 19th century, debtors’ prisons were abolished and bankruptcy laws put in place. Yet the sense that there was something sinful about debt never entirely disappeared, and in the 21st century it has found a home in the GOP.

In 2005, with Republican majorities in both houses of Congress, George W. Bush signed into law the Bankruptcy Abuse Prevention and Consumer Protection Act, which made it harder for people to file for bankruptcy — provided their income exceeded the median in their state.

The idea that the act was aimed at misbehavior was conveyed by Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-IA): “Americans have had enough; they are tired of paying for high rollers who game the current system and its loopholes to get out of paying their fair share.”

Where the Bankruptcy Abuse Act helped private creditors in the name of punishing well-heeled debtors, Sessions’ action is about redressing a different kind of creditor-debtor relationship.

Republican ideology sees poor people as “takers” — those who get more from society in general and government in particular than they contribute (see Romney, Mitt and Ryan, Paul). They are in debt to those who contribute more than they get — the Makers.

By imposing large fines and fees for minor infractions of the law like jaywalking and allowing weeds to grow in one’s yard, state and local judges have monetized misbehavior. Poor people who cannot afford to pay the tab end up in jail — the penalty for being in debt to the Great Creditor: Us.

Thus does the state make debtors of the poor and punish them for their indebtedness. Rev. Moody himself would be appalled.

About the author

Mark Silk

Mark Silk is Professor of Religion in Public Life at Trinity College and director of the college's Leonard E. Greenberg Center for the Study of Religion in Public Life. He is a Contributing Editor of the Religion News Service


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  • You know we can’t be a Christian Nation when the State creates debtors and then punishes them for being in debt. You know we can’t be a very Smart Nation when we then make the tax payer assume the cost of imprisoning the debtor. But then if you own stock in private profit-making prisons (like the AG), we have proof we are in fact a Corrupt Nation.

  • “Chuck Grassley (R-IA): “Americans have had enough; they are tired of paying for high rollers who game the current system and its loopholes to get out of paying their fair share.”

    Didja mean like Donald Trump, who publicly announced that he doesn’t pay taxes and that makes him smart?

    Didja mean the billionaires you just gave a tax cut to? These are people who get more in interest in a day on their billions than many Americans make in a year.

    Didja mean like Mittens?

  • Since we’re talking about the theology of debt, what better profit can we gain than by listening to Mike Hucksterbee, the prophet of profit.

    Mike Hucksterbee appeared on Fox Business this morning to shrug off worries that Glorious Leader is pushing us to the brink of nuclear war.

    According to Hucksterbee, Trump’s base doesn’t care about the threat of war, they’re more interested in financially profiting from his agenda.

    Hucksterbee: “What people care about is not what the president tweets, it’s what happens in their households with their income and their ability to spend their money like they want to.”

    Wassamatta with Hucksterbee? Doesn’t he realize that one nuclear bomb can really ruin your whole day shopping? The man is literally saying to the rest of the world: ‘so what if we start a nuclear war and you all suffer from it because our president is such an insecure man baby. As long as I and others get rich, y’all’ can go sit on a saguaro.”

  • Christian et. al. Economics and Greed 101:

    The Baptizer drew crowds and charged for the “dunking”.

    The historical Jesus saw a good thing and continued dunking and preaching the good word but added “healing” as an added charge to include free room and board. Sure was better than being a poor peasant but he got a bit too zealous and they nailed him to a tree. But still no greed there.

    Paul picked up the money scent on the road to Damascus. He added some letters and a prophecy of the imminent second coming for a fee for salvation and “Gentilized” the good word to the “big buck” world. i.e. Paul was the first media evangelist!!! And he and the other Apostles forgot to pay their Roman taxes and the legendary actions by the Romans made them martyrs for future greed. Paul was guilty of minor greed?

    Along comes Constantine. He saw the growing rich Christian community and recognized a new tax base so he set them “free”. Major greed on his part!!

    The Holy Roman “Empirers”/Popes/Kings/Queens et al continued the money grab selling access to JC and heaven resulting in some of today’s richest organizations on the globe i.e. the Christian churches (including the Mormon Church) and related aristocracies. Obvious greed!!!

    An added note: As per R.B. Stewart in his introduction to the recent book, The Resurrection of Jesus, Crossan and Wright in Dialogue,

    . “Reimarus (1774-1778) posits that Jesus became sidetracked by embracing a political position, sought to force God’s hand and that he died alone deserted by his disciples. What began as a call for repentance ended up as a misguided attempt to usher in the earthly political kingdom of God. After Jesus’ failure and death, his disciples stole his body and declared his resurrection in order to maintain their financial security and ensure themselves some standing.”

    Judaism – Because the foundations are so mythical, it is impossible to be historical about greed in said religion. The historical King Herod and his off-springs were with the assistance of Rome, however, were a very greedy bunch.

    Hinduism and Buddhism- A Google search will take you to many instances of greed in the leadership of said religions even though like other religions greed is a major sin and disorder.

    Islam? Said religion is based on greed starting with Mohammed and proceeding to the ayatollahs, imams and sheikhs of the Muslim theocracies

  • That’s truly one of the great ironies: President Trump is a man of immense wealth (if we beleive what he claims), yet there is a long line of small businesses and others he’s stiffed, either through using bankruptcy, or just refusing to pay and saying ‘so sue me’. His failure to pay bills he COULD pay is never considered immoral. Yet, let a low-income latino man who has racked-up medical bills on his credit card paying for chemotherapy for his wife try declaring bankruptcy, and we’re told that’s a ‘moral hazard’ and a sin.

  • Trump and his cronies have no shame, no honor, no integrity. In short they are but hollow shells of human beings.

  • But he is A Christian! He says so! Evangenitals say so!
    Who would lie aobut something like that?!?!?!?!?

  • Theology of Debt is a sign of the rich fleecing the poor as depicted by Lazarus sitting the gate of as rich man looking forward to his table crumbs, a capitalist society living in greed killing each other and caring for none whereas among the Samaritans, there were neither rich nor poor or the communist society. That is why the Samaritan picked up a wounded person, humanitarian, whilst the rich Rabbi and Pharissee passed by. Capitalists will kill and burn each other during the wars for Mammon. Watch my over 6100 Youtube videos; channel nijjhar1.

  • This is why I tell my GOP Trump supporters that his past is prologue. He’s painted over his spots and announces frequently that there aren’t any spots.