Republican Lawmaker Cites The Bible To Oppose No-Strings Food Assistance

by Chris Tognotti
Zach Gibson/Getty Images News/Getty Images

If there's one place where politicians can easily get tripped up and spark controversy, it's mixing their public policy and their religion. It's questionable and controversial whether the two should really bear any relationship to each other, of course — the United States both ensures freedom of religion and bars the establishment of any one religion, after all. But one Republican on Capitol Hill made just such an argument on Friday, and it's caused a bit of a stir: Rep. Jodey Arrington cited the Bible to support work requirements for food assistance, invoking a passage that members of the GOP have used before.

Credit to Caitlin Dewey of the Washington Post for highlighting the exchange, which took place during a hearing regarding the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Plan (or SNAP for short). Speaking with Josh Protas, the vice president of public policy for the Jewish anti-hunger organization MAZON, Arrington referenced a biblical passage from Thessalonians, in which Apostle Paul wrote the following (this is from the New International Version):

In the name of the Lord Jesus Christ, we command you, brothers and sisters, to keep away from every believer who is idle and disruptive and does not live according to the teaching you received from us. For you yourselves know how you ought to follow our example. We were not idle when we were with you, nor did we eat anyone’s food without paying for it. On the contrary, we worked night and day, laboring and toiling so that we would not be a burden to any of you. We did this, not because we do not have the right to such help, but in order to offer ourselves as a model for you to imitate. For even when we were with you, we gave you this rule: “The one who is unwilling to work shall not eat.”

The last line was the one Arrington quoted, using it as a means to argue that people receiving food assistance should be subject to work requirements. Cutting low-income assistance programs like SNAP has long been a rallying cry for the American right, although it's not always wrapped in an alleged Biblical justification. Some conservatives have criticized the progressive outcry over Arrington's remark, accusing major newspapers like the Post of poor comprehension of Christian theology. You can judge for yourself ― here's what Arrington actually said:

I did hear, Mr. Protas, your opening remarks where you quoted Leviticus, and I think that's a great reflection on the character of God and the compassion of God's heart and how we ought to reflect that compassion in our own lives. But there's also, the scripture tells us in second Thessalonians chapter 3-10, he says "for even when we were with you we gave you this rule: if a man will not work he shall not eat." And then he goes on to say "we hear that some among you are idle." I think that every American, Republican or Democrat, wants to help the neediest among us. And I think it's a reasonable expectation that we have work requirements.

Although Arrington wasn't speaking in an at all aggressive or condemning tone, he most definitely cited his own preferred religious text as a basis for supporting his preferred public policy, despite the fact that all Americans are not Christian, nor even are all of his own constituents.

It was also offered as a rebuttal to Protas' invocation of a Bible passage from Leviticus, which (in different words depending on the version) urges adherents to leave behind some of their harvest, so that the poor and downtrodden can collect some for themselves. In other words, Protas brought out a Bible passage encouraging a more unconditional brand of charity, and Arrington countered with a Bible passage more simpatico with modern "pull yourself up by the bootstraps" conservatism.

However respectfully delivered it was, it was nonetheless a bit of theological saber-rattling ― "Actually, maybe God isn't into feeding the poor without strings attached?" Needless to say, plenty of individual Christians of different political views will come down on opposite sides of this. And of course, how relying on one particular faith text to argue about hunger and poverty policies will make atheists, or Muslims, or non-Christians of any stripe feel doesn't seem to be part of Arrington's considerations.