Rev. Dr. Liz Theoharis

The sins of our leaders will leave deep and lasting wounds

In June 1990, future South African President Nelson Mandela addressed a joint session of Congress only months after being released from 27 years in a South African apartheid prison. He reminded the political leadership of the United States that "to deny people their human rights is to challenge their very humanity. To impose on them a wretched life of hunger and deprivation is to dehumanise them."

Three decades later, Congress would do well to finally heed that warning. In a moment of unprecedented crisis, when 140 million people in the richest country on the planet are poor or low-income, when tens of millions of them are on the verge of eviction and millions more have lost their healthcare in the midst of a pandemic, at a moment when Congress and the president are debating the next Covid-19 relief package, isn't it finally time for human rights and guarantees to become the standard for any such set of policies?

I was introduced to the idea of using a human rights framework to address racism and poverty when I got involved in the National Union of the Homeless and the National Welfare Rights Union. From poor and dispossessed leaders building a human-rights-at-home movement, I learned about the United Nations' 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR). I came to understand how the concept of inalienable rights laid out in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution meant that all people should be guaranteed the right to jobs that pay living wages, an adequate standard of living, public education, and the ability to thrive (not just barely survive).

Today, Congress is being driven to respond to a crisis that has this country in its grip with a $1.9 trillion relief package. The lesson of history, however, is that such measures, when they align with the basic demands of justice, should not be piecemeal or temporary. They should not be opportunities accessible only to some but rather guarantees of promise and possibility for everyone. Plagues and pandemics are not simply storms to be weathered before a return to what passes for normal. Americans should not be fooled into thinking that the very policies and measures that left this world of ours a wreckage of inequality, racism, and poverty will now lift us out of this mess. Instead, our political leaders would do well to follow the principle of "Everybody In, Nobody Out."

Matthew Rycroft of the United Kingdom Mission to the U.N. offered a warning to the Security Council appropriate to this pandemic moment:

"How a society treats its most vulnerable — whether children, the infirm or the elderly — is always the measure of its humanity. Even more so during instability and conflict. When a society begins to disregard the vulnerable and their rights, instability and conflict will only grow."

The Right Not to Be Poor

In 1948, after two bloody world wars punctuated by the Great Depression, the drafters of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, including Eleanor Roosevelt, wife of former President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, saw a need to safeguard basic rights and a minimum standard of living for people worldwide. The nations of the U.N., according to human rights scholar Paul Gordon Lauren,

"came to regard the economic and social hardship suffered during the course of the Depression as contributing greatly to the rise of fascist regimes, the emergence of severe global competition, and ultimately to the outbreak of war itself… They believed that poverty, misery, unemployment, and depressed standards of living anywhere in an age of a global economy and a technological shrinking of the world bred instability elsewhere and thereby threatened peace."

At the time, the American government, ascendant on the international stage, saw some value in the framework of human rights, even if its actions at home and abroad didn't match up to it. In reality, that same government was putting significant effort into separating political and civil rights from economic rights. It was using every tool in its toolbox from racism to Cold War paranoia to vilify the very idea of economic rights, let alone the interlocking nature of injustice and the need for wholistic remedies.

Social movements suffered from this ideological assault, as Black organizers in the 1950s and 1960s were blocked from the very idea of universal human (including economic) rights and pushed to focus more narrowly on the terrain of "civil rights," as historian Carol Anderson has so vividly described in her book Eyes Off the Prize. Nearly two decades after the release of the UDHR, even on the heels of major civil rights victories, leaders of the Black freedom movement recognized that too much remained unchanged and a deeper fight was needed.

It was in this context that Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., and others began to articulate the necessity for a broad movement of the nation's poor across racial lines. In 1967, a year before he launched the Poor People's Campaign, he wrote:

"We have left the realm of constitutional rights and we are entering the area of human rights. The Constitution assured the right to vote, but there is no such assurance of the right to adequate housing, or the right to an adequate income. And yet, in a nation which has a gross national product of 750 billion dollars a year [$20 trillion in 2020], it is morally right to insist that every person has a decent house, an adequate education, and enough money to provide basic necessities for one's family."

While the language of human rights is still with us today, the old battle lines remain stubbornly drawn as economic rights are cast as impractical and unenforceable and civil rights reduced to statements of unity, while voting rights, immigrant rights, and indigenous rights are mercilessly abridged. The focus, at best, becomes the mitigation of poverty and racism, not their abolition, while the fundamental principles of human rights laid out in the UDHR — universality, equality, and indivisibility — are eternally undercut.

Sometimes economic rights are championed but their exercise drastically narrowed. For instance, a universal right to housing becomes the right to due process in eviction hearings; the right to health or food becomes the right to access certain welfare benefits. The result? Universal economic rights become limited opportunities offered, at best, to a limited population of the poor. In the process, attention is refocused on the individual lives and choices of the poor, rather than on the system that produces their poverty or what could transform it. And sadly enough, it becomes ever easier to ignore what should be the most fundamental of human rights, the right not to be poor.

How to Build Back Better

Recently, the administration of Joe Biden and Kamala Harris announced that, three years after Trump withdrew the country from the U.N. Human Rights Council, it would rejoin as an observer, with the goal of eventually being voted back to full membership. That move, like Biden's decision to rejoin the Paris Climate Accord and the World Health Organization, as well as his intention to reengage with UNESCO and the Iran nuclear deal, undoubtedly reflects his interest in refortifying America's international position in the post-Trump era. If he really wants to be an international leader and not just an observer when it comes to human rights, however, undoing the nightmare of the Trump years will only be part of the job that lies ahead.

There will be the continuing fight to ensure that Covid-19 relief is not disastrously watered down by false arguments about balanced budgets and deficits. The costs of inaction — a still-soaring death toll of 480,000 and counting and an estimated 460,000 extra deaths over the next decade thanks to pandemic-related unemployment and its costs — far outweigh the price of decisive action now. The deficits that should truly concern Americans are those in people's paychecks, the lack of food in their refrigerators, and the grim unemployment numbers that make life a misery. Biden and the Democratic leadership have the presidency and a majority in both houses of Congress. Now is the time to move immediately on life-saving measures like raising the minimum wage to $15 (including for tipped workers).

And genuine Covid-19 relief that buoyed our beleaguered nation long enough for vaccines to be widely distributed would just be a start. After all, before the pandemic hit, Columbia University's Mailman School of Public Health estimated that 250,000 Americans were dying annually from rising hunger, homelessness, and inequality, conditions that have only deepened over the last year. If the recovery from the 2007-2008 Great Recession is any indication, expect difficult years ahead, even when the pandemic eases. After all, that proved to be a low-wage recovery that disproportionately shifted women and people of color into temporary and precarious jobs. Not surprisingly then, in the decade after that recession, savings were spent down and household debt was on the rise — and only then did Covid-19 hit.

Shouldn't the administration's response to this crisis and the underlying fissures in our society (so badly exacerbated in the Trump years) be held to a genuine human-rights standard? In December, the Poor People's Campaign, which I co-chair, released a set of 14 policy priorities for Joe Biden's first 100 days in office, including not just temporary protections meant to weather the present storm, but permanent guarantees around jobs and income, housing, healthcare, and so much else. Such building blocks for a vibrant democracy and a life free of poverty should be treated as inalienable human rights. Grassroots organizers — whether the Nonviolent Medicaid Army fighting for healthcare as a human right, the Border Network for Human Rights struggling for a just immigration system, or the Homes Guarantee project demanding housing as a right, not a commodity — have been making this point for years.

A new social contract built on human rights requires a fundamentally different approach to foreign policy and rampant American militarism as well. President Biden's recent decision to scale back engagement in the human-rights catastrophe in Yemen is encouraging, though its results remain to be seen. It's obviously time as well to end this country's twenty-first-century forever wars, as well as the suffocating economic sanctions imposed on countries like Venezuela and Iran.

It's morally indefensible that the U.S. spends 53% of every federal discretionary dollar on the Pentagon and that it has more than 800 military bases around the world; that the Pentagon itself is a giant greenhouse-gas emitter; and that this country is not only the largest arms dealer on the planet by far, but continues to "export" weapons of war to our police departments nationwide through the Pentagon's 1033 program. Washington's eternally militarized posture has led to countless human rights violations abroad, while only adding to a loss of human rights at home, as vital resources continue to be siphoned from our schools and hospitals into the military.

A governing agenda that wishes to protect the right not to be poor would at some point also have to reckon with a system that, even amid a pandemic, produced record numbers of billionaires. Last year, as unemployment rates reached historic heights, America's billionaires gained more than $1 trillion in wealth.

America's celebrity culture tracks the day-to-day life of the richest men on the planet like Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos and celebrates the charitable Covid-19 fighting spirit of people like Bill Gates. His big donations shouldn't, however, distract us from the fact that the wealth of the world's 10 richest men, including Gates, could buy vaccines for every person on the planet.

Intellectual Property Rights in a Pandemic World

As 2020 was ending and the world awaited the arrival of multiple Covid-19 vaccines, India and South Africa made an urgent proposal to the World Trade Organization. They requested that it temporarily suspend intellectual property rights to ensure that all nations could access and produce vaccines and other medical technologies like ventilators, masks, and protective gear. Dozens of other countries came forward to support that proposal, but a few powerful, patent-holding countries like the United States, the United Kingdom, and members of the European Union rejected and ultimately quashed it.

On January 18, 2021, WHO director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus warned that the world was "on the brink of a catastrophic moral failure" because of the unequal distribution of vaccines between rich and poor countries. Indeed, a new report estimates that at least 85 countries — mostly in Africa and parts of Asia — won't have widespread coverage until late 2022 or even 2023, if ever. Meanwhile, vaccine hoarding among rich countries has already reached a fever pitch. And this global reality is being replayed in terms of vaccine distribution within the richest countries as well. In the United States, early evidence suggests that the wealthy are already getting significantly more vaccinations than the poor and people of color, even though Covid-19 rates are far higher in poor communities.

While all of this may have been predictable, it wasn't inevitable. The WHO has cautioned that a "me-first" approach to the vaccines leads to shortages, hoarding, and the pushing-up of prices. And although the profits from this intellectual property are private, the six front-running vaccine candidates have had a total of over $12 billion of taxpayer and public money poured into them.

Intellectual property rights and exclusive vaccine contracts with Big Pharma aren't the only reasons why Covid-19 is morphing ever more distinctly into a poor people's pandemic. They are, however, barriers to a universal and equitable response to a virus that has exposed the world's fragile interconnectedness. With a deadly novel virus on the loose and mutating, at a moment when access to a vaccine may be the difference between life and death, profit over people remains a hegemonic principle. And horrifyingly enough, changes in intellectual property policies over the last few decades may have done even more to increase inequality on this planet than tax cuts for the wealthy.

In the last year, we Americans have battled Covid-19 largely through the same world of trickle-down economics and "austerity" for the poor that was such a reality of the prepandemic world. The Trump administration's response to the disease was a bitter mixture of triage, denial, and greed. The sins of our leaders will leave deep and lasting wounds, but there is, at least, a lesson to be learned from all the suffering, if we're brave enough to take it in: life should come before profit, human rights before property rights. Amen.

Copyright 2021 Liz Theoharis

Follow TomDispatch on Twitter and join us on Facebook. Check out the newest Dispatch Books, John Feffer's new dystopian novel Frostlands (the second in the Splinterlands series), Beverly Gologorsky's novel Every Body Has a Story, and Tom Engelhardt's A Nation Unmade by War, as well as Alfred McCoy's In the Shadows of the American Century: The Rise and Decline of U.S. Global Power and John Dower's The Violent American Century: War and Terror Since World War II.

Liz Theoharis, a TomDispatch regular, is a theologian, ordained minister, and anti-poverty activist. Co-chair of the Poor People's Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival and director of the Kairos Center for Religions, Rights and Social Justice at Union Theological Seminary in New York City, she is the author of Always With Us?: What Jesus Really Said About the Poor. Follow her on Twitter at @liztheo.


The Earth does not belong to Jeff Bezos, Elon Musk or the white supremacists who laid siege to the US Capitol

2020 will go down as the deadliest year in American history, significantly due to the devastation delivered by the coronavirus pandemic. In addition, count in nearly two trillion dollars in damage from climate events (many caused by, or heightened by, intensifying global warming), a surge of incidents of police violence inflicted on Black and Native peoples, and millions more Americans joining the ranks of the poor even as small numbers of billionaires soared ever further into the financial heavens. And it's already obvious that 2021 is likely to prove another harrowing year.

This article originally appeared on TomDispatch.

In the first weeks of January alone, Covid-19 deaths have risen to unprecedented levels; record turnout elected Georgia's first Black and Jewish Senators in a runoff where race-baiting, red-baiting, and voter suppression were still alive and well; and a racist, white nationalist mob swarmed the Capitol emboldened by the president, as well as senators, representatives, and other officials, in an attempt to subvert and possibly take down our democratic system. The January 6th attack on that building was by no means a singular event (in a country where local officials have in recent years been similarly threatened). It did, however, highlight dramatically the growing menace of illiberal and anti-democratic forces building in power. And one thing is guaranteed: its impact will hit the poor and people of color most strikingly. Social media and news reports suggest that, with an emboldened white supremacist movement on the rise, more such attacks are being planned.

Many have claimed that those rioters (and the president's infamous "base" more generally) were all, in essence, poor, working-class white people. In reality, however, among those who have led such racist attacks are business leaders, executives, and multimillionaires. As author Sarah Smash writes, "'Poor uneducated whites' are neither the base/majority nor the explanation for Trumpism: stories now abound of middle-class and even affluent white insurrectionists leading and joining the hateful charge at the U.S. Capitol."

Indeed, it would be better to take a more careful look at the rich and powerful, as the storming of the Capitol on January 6th once again exposes the Make America Great Again movement for the sort of fake populism that has, in these years, served elites all too "richly." And the more we learn about that coordinated astroturf assault, the more the dark money that lay behind its origins all these years comes to light.

Questions Must Be Raised

Eleven months into the pandemic, we are living through the most unequal recession in modern American history. For the poor and precarious, this last year was a nightmare that dwarfed the 2007-2008 recession. Between March and October, nearly 67 million people lost work. This month alone about 20 million of them are collecting unemployment. By the end of 2020, one in five adults with children reported that, at times, they didn't have enough to eat, while one in five renters were behind on their payments and faced the threat of eviction during the winter months of a still rampant virus.

At the same time, the wealth of America's 651 billionaires increased by more than $1 trillion to a total of about $4 trillion. At the start of 2020, Jeff Bezos was the only American with a net worth of more than $100 billion. By the end of the year, he was joined by Mark Zuckerberg, Bill Gates, and Elon Musk — and just last week Elon Musk passed Bezos as the richest person in the world.

A look at the wealthiest of wealthy Americans reveals a cross-section of industry — from the leaders of tech companies like Amazon and Facebook to the top executives of financial institutions like Berkshire Hathaway and Quicken Loans to those heading retail giants like Walmart and Nike, all of which collectively employ millions of workers. At Amazon, where the median pay is about $35,000 a year, Bezos could have distributed the $71.4 billion he made in the last pandemic year to his own endangered workers and he would still have had well more than $100 billion left.

A recent report by the Institute for Policy Studies and Americans for Tax Fairness put it this way:

"Never before has America seen such an accumulation of wealth in so few hands. As tens of millions of Americans suffer from the health and economic ravages of this pandemic, a few hundred billionaires add to their massive fortunes. Their profits are so immense that America's billionaires could pay for a major Covid relief bill and still not lose a dime of their pre-virus riches."

This last point is especially damning since the first and largest Covid-19 relief bill, the CARES Act, handed out billions of dollars worth of benefits to the upper-middle-class, the rich, and corporations. Most of us will only remember the $1,200 checks that went to some of those in need, but the bill also included provisions that favored the already well-off, including higher corporate interest deductions, flexible corporate loss rules, increased charitable tax deductions, and big tax breaks for the super-rich. Other parts of the CARES Act like the Paycheck Protection Program, as well as significant allocations to universities and hospitals, gave generously to large corporations and the wealthiest of institutions.

Direct payments and other measures in that bill did help many everyday people for a short period of time and yet Senate Republicans stonewalled long after those benefits had expired. When they finally relented in December, Mitch McConnell, knowing full well all that he had secured for the rich in the spring, craftily shot down proposed $2,000 checks for individuals as "socialism for the rich," even though they would have disproportionately benefited low-and-middle-income Americans. Now, as the Biden transition team lays the groundwork for another major relief bill, conservative Democrat Joe Manchin of West Virginia has already threatened that he would "absolutely not" vote for such $2,000 checks.

Of course, the acceleration of inequality and tepid policy solutions to poverty are hardly unique to the United States. This year, the Bloomberg Billionaires Index recorded a 31% increase in wealth among the 500 richest people in the world, the largest single-year gain in the list's history. Meanwhile, the United Nations Development Programme projected that the long-term effects of Covid-19 could force 207 million more people across the globe into extreme poverty. That, in turn, would bring the official U.N. count of those making less than two dollars a day to more than a billion, or a little less than one-seventh of the world's population — and, mind you, that's at the onset of a decade that promises escalating economic dislocation, mass migration, and climate crisis.

A World of Superfluous Wealth and Deadening Poverty

This week, President-elect Joe Biden will be sworn into office and inherit a crisis that demands bold action. He has already said that on day one he will commit his administration to confronting the pandemic, the recession, systemic racism, and climate change. Four months ago, during an event with the Poor People's Campaign, he also told an audience of more than a million people that "together we can carry on Dr. King's Poor People's Campaign, which is based on a simple, moral truth: that we're all created in the image of God and everyone is entitled to be treated with dignity and respect." He concluded by promising that "ending poverty will not just be an aspiration, it will be a theory of change to build a new economy that includes everyone."

For this to be possible, however, the Biden administration will need to reject the supremacy of austerity and the ideology of scarcity. It will instead have to invest in an economy that guarantees health care, housing, food, water, and decent work for all its citizens. This will, of course, require imagining the sort of restructuring of our society that would, no doubt, be the work of a generation or more. But it could at least begin with an honest accounting of the actual abundance so unequally hoarded in the bank accounts, stock, and real estate holdings of this country's richest people and the coffers of the Pentagon and the industrial complex that engulfs it, followed naturally by a plan to share it all so much more fairly.

On the anniversary of the birthday of Martin Luther King, Jr. (who, had he not been assassinated, would have been 92 years old this January 15th), it is only fitting to share these still timely and prophetic words of his:

"God has left enough (and to spare) in this world for all of his children to have the basic necessities of life, and God never intended for some of his children to live in inordinate superfluous wealth while others live in abject, deadening poverty. And somehow, I believe that God made it all… I believe firmly that the earth is the Lord's and the fullness thereof. I don't think it belongs to Mr. Rockefeller. I don't think it belongs to Mr. Ford. I think the earth is the Lord's, and since we didn't make these things by ourselves, we must share them with each other. And I think this is the only way we are going to solve the basic problems and the restructuring of our society which I think is so desperately needed."

Exchange Mr. Musk and Mr. Bezos for Mr. Rockefeller and Mr. Ford, and King's words couldn't be more timely, could they?

Honoring Dr. King

After all, every January, students, workers, and community members sign up for service projects to celebrate King's birthday. In fact, MLK Day is the only federal holiday designated as a national day of service, when people paint schools, clean up trash, serve lunch to the hungry, and so much more. Over the last few decades, the spirit of volunteerism has become inextricably linked in the American imagination to King's life and this year will be no exception. Today, amid unprecedented social, political, economic, and health upheaval, and the need to mask and social distance, even President-elect Biden's inaugural committee is organizing a day of service.

In October 1983, as Congress considered the creation of MLK Day, Meldrim Thompson, Jr., the former Republican governor of New Hampshire, privately pleaded with President Ronald Reagan to veto any such legislation, calling Dr. King a "man of immoral character" with "well established" communist connections. Reagan (in what today would be true Trumpian fashion) replied, "On the national holiday you mentioned, I have the reservations you have, but here the perception of too many people is based on an image, not reality. Indeed, to them, the perception is reality."

Reagan's noxious remarks remind us that Dr. King was once considered a profound threat to the established order. The reality of Dr. King's radical life has over time been almost unrecognizably smoothed over into an image that, so many years later, even Reagan, even Trump, might applaud. By casting Dr. King as an apolitical champion of charity, however, Americans have whitewashed not just his legacy, but that of the Black freedom struggle he helped lead, which broke Jim Crow, thanks to the most militant kinds of organizing.

Through a wicked transmutation of history, those with the most money and power in society are now allowed to use his name as a bulwark against the collective action of poor and dispossessed people, propping themselves up instead. Today, with carefully excerpted texts like "everyone can be great, because everyone can serve" as proof, King's words are all too often manipulated to sanctify a truly superficial response to the burning crises of systemic racism, poverty, homelessness, hunger, and so much more. Yet even a cursory glance at the historical record should remind us all that King represented an incendiary reality in terms of the America of his time (and, sadly, of ours, too) and that there was nothing corporate-friendly about his image.

Fifty-three years ago, in his sermon "Where Do We Go from Here," he spoke clearly to the question of corporate service, charity, and the kind of truth-telling action he had committed his life to:

"We are called upon to help the discouraged beggars in life's marketplace. But one day we must come to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring. It means that questions must be raised. And you see, my friends, when you deal with this you begin to ask the question, 'Who owns the oil?' You begin to ask the question, 'Who owns the iron ore?' You begin to ask the question, 'Why is it that people have to pay water bills in a world that's two-thirds water?' These are the words that must be said."

On the anniversary of his birth, may others keep asking such questions and remind us, as the Biden era begins, that the Earth does not belong to Jeff Bezos, Elon Musk, or the white supremacists who laid siege to the U.S. Capitol. The nation must have the moral courage to carry on the work of Reverend King. After all, the best hope of successfully navigating the crises of 2021 and beyond must involve King's dream of building a multi-racial fusion movement to reconstruct society from the bottom up.

Copyright 2021 Liz Theoharis

Follow TomDispatch on Twitter and join us on Facebook. Check out the newest Dispatch Books, John Feffer's new dystopian novel Frostlands (the second in the Splinterlands series), Beverly Gologorsky's novel Every Body Has a Story, and Tom Engelhardt's A Nation Unmade by War, as well as Alfred McCoy's In the Shadows of the American Century: The Rise and Decline of U.S. Global Power and John Dower's The Violent American Century: War and Terror Since World War II.

Liz Theoharis, a TomDispatch regular, is a theologian, ordained minister, and anti-poverty activist. Co-chair of the Poor People's Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival and director of the Kairos Center for Religions, Rights and Social Justice at Union Theological Seminary in New York City, she is the author of Always With Us?: What Jesus Really Said About the Poor. Follow her on Twitter at @liztheo.


The myths of neoliberalism: Solutions to our most pressing problems are at hand — if only we use them

Martin Luther King, Jr., offered this all-too-relevant comment on his moment in his 1967 speech "Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community?"

The contemporary tendency in our society is to base our distribution on scarcity, which has vanished, and to compress our abundance into the overfed mouths of the upper classes until they gag with superfluity. If democracy is to have breadth of meaning, it is necessary to adjust this inequity. It is not only moral, but it is also intelligent.

King concluded that American society was degrading human life by clinging to old thinking rather than turning to bold, visionary solutions -- words that (sadly enough) ring even truer in our day than in his.In late October as the coronavirus pandemic raged, the Economic Policy Institute released a study showing that it isn't just morally right but an economic necessity to deal with poverty in this country and fast. "If America does not address what's happening with visionary social and economic policy," as that study put it, "the health and well-being of the nation are at stake. What we need is long-term economic policy that establishes justice, promotes the general welfare, rejects decades of austerity, and builds strong social programs that lift society from below."

Even as, almost two months later, we remain trapped in an unprecedented crisis of spreading illness, there is increasingly clear evidence that, were those in power to make other choices, we would no longer need to live burdened by the social ills of old. Oddly enough, because of the Covid-19 crisis, we're being reminded (or at least should be reminded) that, in reality, solutions to many of the most pressing issues of our day are readily at hand if those issues were prioritized and the attention and resources of society directed toward them. In a moment overflowing with lessons, one of the least discussed is that scarcity is a lie, a political invention used to cover up vast reserves of capital and technology facilitating the enrichment of the few and justifying the pain and dispossession of so many others. Our present reality could perhaps best be described as mass abandonment amid abundance.

Indeed, the myth of scarcity, like other neoliberal fantasies, is regularly ignored when politically expedient and conjured up when the rich and powerful need help. The pandemic has been no exception. Over the last nine months, the wealth of American billionaires has actually increased by a third to nearly $4 trillion, even as tens of millions of Americans have filed for unemployment and more evictions loom than ever before in U.S. history. Now, politicians in Washington are haggling over a "compromise" relief bill that offers little in the way of actual relief, especially for those suffering the most.

At the same time, with the health of everyone, not just the poor and marginalized, at risk, the government has proven itself remarkably capable of mobilizing the necessary resources for decisive and historic action when it comes to producing a Covid-19 vaccine in record time. That the same could be done when it comes to protecting the most vulnerable and abolishing poverty should be obvious, if only the nation saw that, too, as a crisis worthy of attention.

Where There's a Will, There's a Way

In 1918, with an influenza pandemic raging in the United States, cities closed down and doctors prescribed painkillers like aspirin as a national debate (remarkably similar to the present one) raged over the necessity of quarantine and masks. At that time, the country simply had to wait for those who were infected to die or develop immunity. Before it was over (in a far less populous land), at least 675,000 Americans perished, more than in every one of our wars since the Civil War combined.

A century later, when the Covid-19 pandemic exploded this March, the country ground to a similar terrifying halt, but under different conditions: for one thing, the shutdown was accompanied by the promise that the government would invest billions of dollars in a potentially successful vaccine produced far faster than any ever before. Nine months later, after the Trump administration had funneled those billions into research and had guaranteed the manufacture and purchase of viable vaccines (radically reducing the business risk to pharmaceutical companies in the process), it appears that we are indeed there. Last month, multiple companies released trial data for just such vaccines that seem to be nearly 95% effective; and Great Britain has, in fact, just rolled out the first doses of the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine with the U.S. not far behind. On Friday, the Food and Drug Administration authorized Pfizer's vaccine for emergency use.

A long list of grave questions remains when it comes to the oversight of, and accountability of, those private companies that now hold the health of the world in their hands. Already, the British government has granted Pfizer, which stands to earn billions by beating the competition to market, legal indemnity from any complications that may arise from its vaccine, and the Trump administration has made similar agreements. Much also remains uncertain when it comes to how American-produced vaccines will be fairly distributed, here and across the world, and whether they will be safe, effective, and free. (I recently signed onto a public letter to the incoming Biden administration calling for a "people's vaccine.")

Still, it does seem that the historic speed with which this novel virus could eventually be curbed by just such a vaccine (or set of them) is likely to prove astonishing. Historically, on average, successful vaccines have taken 10 to 14 years to develop. Until now, the fastest effective one ever produced was the mumps vaccine and that took four years. Nearly as remarkable is how so many people have received the news of the coming of those coronavirus vaccines as if it were the norm. If anything, in a time of constant, rapid technological revolution, there's a noticeable impatience, stoked by Donald Trump and others, that it's taken this long.

The Covid-19 vaccine experience does show one thing, however -- what can be done when the resources of this country are marshalled to immediately address a crisis-level issue. Imagine if the same approach were taken when it came to systemic racism, climate change, or the poverty that has only deepened in the midst of the pandemic crisis. Indeed, if the political will were there, Americans could clearly tackle massive problems like hunger and homelessness no less effectively than developing a vaccine, instead of spending millions of dollars on cruel attempts to drive the homeless away by redesigning park benches and other urban architecture to repel those with nowhere to stay. After all, in cities like San Francisco, where homelessness is rampant, there are more vacant houses than there are homeless people.

Although the politics of austerity generally reign supreme on both sides of the aisle in Congress (especially when it comes to antipoverty programs like welfare), it's also true that public spending is regularly and abundantly martialed to solve issues that affect certain parts of society -- namely, the private sector and the military. From subsidies to major companies like big agriculture to critical R&D expenditures for Silicon Valley to public university research that benefits private industry, funding from the state is often the invisible backbone of American business operations and advances. Likewise, spending on the military makes up more than half of the federal discretionary budget, funding everything from the 800 American military bases that circle the planet to expensive and risky new technologies and war machines.

Lessons from the Pandemic

Back in March, the writer Arundhati Roy spoke of the pandemic as "a portal." She was perhaps suggesting that the widespread suffering caused by Covid-19 could open a doorway into a future in which we humans might begin to treat ourselves and the planet with greater devotion. In another sense, however, the pandemic has also been a portal into our past, a way of showing us the conditions that have laid the groundwork not just for the devastation that now consumes us but for possibly far worse to come.

No one could have expected this exact crisis at this exact moment in exactly this way. Yet, before Covid-19, society was already teetering under the weight of poverty and inequality, and a sober look at history offers clues as to why the United States now has the highest Covid-19 case tally and death toll in the world. Too many have died because our country's preexisting conditions of systemic injustice have gone untreated for so long and those in power never seem to learn the applicable lesson of this moment: pandemics spread along the fissures of society, both exposing them more and deepening them further.

Before Covid-19, there were already 140 million people in this country who were poor or a $400 emergency -- one job loss, accident, illness, or storm -- away from poverty. Across America that meant close to 80 million people were uninsured or underinsured, 60 million people had zero (zero!) wealth other than the value of a family car, more than a million people were defaulting on federal student loans annually, and more than 62 million workers were making less than $15 an hour, with more than two million in Florida alone making only $7.25 an hour, the federal minimum wage. And that's just to begin down a nightmarish list.

For Pamela Sue Rush and about 1.5 million other people, it meant a lack of access to piped water and sewage systems. Before Pamela, who is Black, contracted Covid-19 and died in July, she lived in a mobile home in Lowndes County, Alabama, where human waste festered in her backyard because she didn't have proper plumbing, and in a state that still hasn't expanded Medicaid, and in a country that has no federal guarantee of either healthcare or clean water. Covid-19 may have been the immediate cause of her death, but the underlying one was racism and poverty.

During these pandemic months, a popular notion has been that the virus is a great equalizer because everyone is susceptible. Yet the human and economic toll has been anything but equal across society. It will take more time to find out just what the mortality rate among the poor has been, but it's already clear that those of us with compromised immune systems, disproportionately poor and people of color, are at greater risk of hospitalization and death from the coronavirus, and early reports suggest that poorer counties have higher death rates. An unsurprising but alarming new study found that more than 400,000 Covid-19 cases are associated with the lifting of eviction moratoriums, forcing people out of the safety of their homes; such numbers will only worsen this winter as evictions continue, if such moratoriums aren't extended into the new year.

Beyond the toll of the virus itself, the economic fallout has been devastating for the poor. Between six and eight million people have fallen below the federal poverty line since March (although that measure is an old and broken standard). The true numbers are undoubtedly far higher. The last 38 weeks have seen unemployment claims greater than the worst week of the Great Recession of 2007-2008. Some economists are now talking about a possible quick bounce back once the virus is controlled and yet the long-term damage is only beginning to reveal itself. After all, 10 years after the Great Recession, a time when little in the way of long-term relief was provided, the majority of workers had still not recovered from it. That this crisis is already significantly deeper and wider should give us pause as we consider what the next decade will look like if this country doesn't alter its bleak course.

The fissures in our society were vast before Covid-19 hit and they've only broadened. A vaccine will address the most visible of them, but we as a nation will continue to stumble from crisis to crisis until we learn the most important lesson this moment can teach: that our yet-to-be-United States will only heal as a society when every person's needs are met. In a pandemic, one person without food, water, healthcare, or housing puts everyone at risk. The same is, in fact, true in non-pandemic times, for a society riven by poverty and deprivation will always be unstable and vulnerable.

Martin Luther King once told a crowd in St. Louis that "we must learn to live as brothers or perish together as fools." Today, the balance is tipping perilously toward the latter category, as Congress painfully debates a thoroughly anemic relief bill that promises little for most Americans and sets a dangerous precedent for the coming months. In a recent letter to Joe Manchin, the self-proclaimed "centrist" senator from West Virginia, Reverend William Barber II (my co-chair on the Poor People's Campaign) wrote:

"I am ashamed of this nation. I know you want to do the right thing, and Republicans are tying your hands, but please don't call this a 'centrist plan.' It's more cynical than centrist. It's damn near criminal that millions are hurting, billionaires are getting richer, sick people are dying, poverty is expanding, and the Senate can't do the right thing."

Indeed, the most important things to note in the coming stimulus bill are these: it protects corporations (that have not protected their workers) from any accountability or legal responsibility; it continues to bail out the rich, not the rest of us, with no provisions for stimulus checks and insufficient funding to states and municipalities; it lowers unemployment benefits to $300 per week (based on wages of $7.50 an hour) rather than $600 per week (based on $15 an hour); it is not only significantly less than the nation needs, but less than what was on offer months ago. The cynicism of this relief bill lies in the way it diminishes life for political gain and corporate profit and in the false contention that this is the most that's available to us, the best the nation can do.

The Ghosts of Christmas Present

Call it a cruel stroke of history that Congress should be deliberating on the welfare of millions only a few weeks before Christmas, especially since so many of the key players call themselves "Christians." This holiday season and the winter beyond it promise to be a long, dark portal to who knows where, as temperatures drop, Covid-19 cases continue to rise, and poverty and homelessness are transformed into so many more death certificates. The timing of Congress's new "relief" bill is particularly wicked if, as a Christian, you were to remember the details of Jesus's birth in that manger in Bethlehem.

After all, he was born a homeless refugee to an unmarried teenage mother and had to flee to Egypt with his family as a baby because the ruling authorities already deemed that this poor Palestinian Jewish boy would grow up to be a threat to the established order of injustice. But the powers and principalities of his day were never the only ones who mattered. There were always those who recognized in his birth that, to right the wrongs of society, to protect the lives of countless innocent victims, another way was possible, if society started with the poor and marginalized, not with those already full to the brim.

It's too bad that some of the congressional representatives who call themselves Christian are so unwilling to take a moment to consider the homeless revolutionary who was long ago sent to lead a moral movement from below. They should remember that the story of Christmas celebrates the birth of a poor, brown-skinned leader who, in the Gospel of Luke, is born to "scatter those who are proud, bring down rulers from their thrones, but lift up the humble. He fills the hungry with good things but sends the rich away empty."

In a time when more children are on the brink of being born into poverty, homelessness, and state-sanctioned violence, rather than, as Martin Luther King, Jr. said, "compress our abundance into the overfed mouths" of the wealthy and corporations, Americans would do well to recognize that scarcity could vanish and that it's time to address systemic inequality.

Liz Theoharis, a TomDispatch regular, is a theologian, ordained minister, and anti-poverty activist. Director of the Kairos Center for Religions, Rights and Social Justice at Union Theological Seminary in New York City and co-chair of the Poor People's Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival, she is the author of Always With Us? What Jesus Really Said About the Poor.

Follow TomDispatch on Twitter and join us on Facebook. Check out the newest Dispatch Books, John Feffer's new dystopian novel (the second in the Splinterlands series) Frostlands, Beverly Gologorsky's novel Every Body Has a Story, and Tom Engelhardt's A Nation Unmade by War, as well as Alfred McCoy's In the Shadows of the American Century: The Rise and Decline of U.S. Global Power and John Dower's The Violent American Century: War and Terror Since World War II.

Copyright 2020 Liz Theoharis

The new politics of the poor in Joe Biden’s and Mitch McConnell’s America

In the two weeks since Election 2020, the country has oscillated between joy and anger, hope and dread in an era of polarization sharpened by the forces of racism, nativism, and hate. Still, truth be told, though the divisive tone of this moment may only be sharpening, division in the United States of America is not a new phenomenon.

Over the past days, I've found myself returning to the words of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., who, in 1967, just a year before his own assassination, gave a speech prophetically entitled "The Other America" in which he vividly described a reality that feels all too of this moment rather than that one:

"There are literally two Americas. One America is beautiful... and overflowing with the milk of prosperity and the honey of opportunity. This America is the habitat of millions of people who have food and material necessities for their bodies; and culture and education for their minds; and freedom and human dignity for their spirits..

"But tragically and unfortunately, there is another America. This other America has a daily ugliness about it that constantly transforms the ebulliency of hope into the fatigue of despair. In this America millions of work-starved men walk the streets daily in search for jobs that do not exist. In this America millions of people find themselves living in rat-infested, vermin-filled slums. In this America people are poor by the millions. They find themselves perishing on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity."

In Dr. King's day, that other America was, for a time, laid bare to the nation through mass social unrest and political change, through the bold actions of the freedom fighters who won the Voting Rights Act and then just kept on fighting, as well as governmental programs like the "War on Poverty." And yet, despite the significant gains then, for many decades since, inequality in this country has been on the rise to previously unimaginable levels, while poverty remained locked in and largely ignored.

Today, in the early winter of an uncurbed pandemic and the economic crisis that accompanies it, there are 140 million poor or low-income Americans, disproportionately people of color, but reaching into every community in this country: 24 million Blacks, 38 million Latinos, eight million Asians, two million Native peoples, and 66 million whites. More than a third of the potential electorate, in other words, has been relegated to poverty and precariousness and yet how little of the political discourse in recent elections was directed at those who were poor or one storm, fire, job loss, eviction, or healthcare crisis away from poverty and economic chaos. In the distorted mirror of public policy, those 140 million people have remained essentially invisible. As in the 1960s and other times in our history, however, the poor are no longer waiting for recognition from Washington. Instead, every indication is that they're beginning to organize themselves, taking decisive action to alter the scales of political power.

For years, I've traveled this country, working to build a movement to end poverty. In a nation that has so often boasted about being the wealthiest and freest in history, I've regularly witnessed painful divisions caused by hunger, homelessness, sickness, degradation, and so much more. In Lowndes County, Alabama, for instance, I organized with people who lived day in, day out with raw sewage in their yards and dangerous mold in their homes. On Apache land in Oak Flats, Arizona, I stood with native leaders struggling to cope with generations of loss and plunder, most recently at the hands of a multinational copper mining company. In Gray's Harbor, Washington, I visited millennials living in homeless encampments under constant siege by militia groups and the police. And the list, sadly, only goes on.

As the future administration of Joe Biden and Kamala Harris heads for the White House (no matter the recalcitrant loser still ensconced there), the rest of us must equip ourselves with both courage and caution, living as we do in a divided nation, in -- to be exact -- two very different Americas. Keep in mind that these are not the insulated, readymade Americas of MSNBC and Fox News, of Republicans and Democrats, of conservatives and liberals. All of us live in a land where there are two Americas, one of unimaginable wealth, the other of miserable poverty; an America of the promised good life and one of almost guaranteed premature death.

Unleashing the Power of Poor and Low-Income Voters

One enduring narrative from the 2016 election is that poor and low-income voters won Donald Trump the White House, even if the numbers don't bear it out. Hillary Clinton won by 12 points among voters who made less than $30,000 a year and by 9 points among voters who made less than $49,999; the median household income of Trump voters then was $72,000.

Four years later, initial estimates suggest that this trend has only intensified: Joe Biden attracted more poor and low-income voters than President Trump both in the aggregate and in key states like Michigan. Trump, on the other hand, gained among voters with annual family incomes of more than $100,000. Last week, the director of the MIT Election Data and Science Lab noted that this "appears to be the biggest demographic shift I'm seeing. And you can tie that to [Trump's] tax cuts [for the wealthy] and lower regulations."

In 2016, there were 64 million eligible poor and low-income voters, 32 million of whom did not vote. In 2020, it's becoming clear that poor and low-income voters helped decide the election's outcome by opting for a candidate who signaled support for key antipoverty issues like raising the minimum wage, expanding health care, and protecting the environment. In down-ballot races, every congressional member who endorsed Medicare for All won reelection, even in swing states. Imagine then how many dispossessed and disenfranchised voters might have turned out if more candidates had actually been speaking to the most pressing issues of their lives?

Seventy-two percent of Americans said that they would prefer a government-run healthcare plan and more than 70% supported raising the minimum wage, including 62% of Republicans. Even in districts that went for Trump, voters passed ballot measures that, only a few years ago, would have been unheard of. In Mississippi, people voted to decriminalize medical marijuana, while in Florida a referendum for a $15 minimum wage got more votes than either of the two presidential candidates.

If nothing else, Election 2020 revealed a deeply divided nation -- two Americas, not one -- though that dividing line marked anything but an even or obvious split. A startling number of Americans are trapped in wretched conditions and hungry for a clean break with the status quo. On the other hand, the rampant voter suppression and racialized gerrymandering of the last decade of American politics suggests that extremists from the wealthier America will go to remarkable lengths to undercut the power of those at the bottom of this society. They have proven ready to use every tool and scare tactic of racist division and subterfuge imaginable to stop poor Black, Latino, Asian, Indigenous, and white potential voters from building new and transformative alliances, including a new electorate.

It's time to move beyond the defeatist myth of the Solid South or even the dulling comfort of a Midwestern "blue wall." Across the South and the Midwest, there are voter-suppression states still to win, not for a party, but for a fusion movement of the many. The same could be true for the coasts and the Southwest, where there remains a sleeping giant of poor and low-income people yet to be pulled into political action. If this country is ever going to be built back better, to borrow Joe Biden's campaign pledge, it's time to turn to its abandoned corners; to, that is, the other America of Martin Luther King that still haunts us, whether we know it or not.

Fusion Politics in the Other America

When Dr. King gave his "Other America" speech, he was preparing for what would become the last political project of his life: the Poor People's Campaign. At a time when the nation appeared to be fraying at the seams, he grasped that a giant social leap forward was still possible. In fact, he envisioned a protracted struggle that might catapult this country into a new era of human rights and revolution not through sanguine calls for unity, but via a rousing fusion of poor and dispossessed people from all walks of life. And that, as he imagined it, would also involve a recognition that systemic racism and other forms of hate and prejudice were crucial to the maintenence of the two Americas and had to be challenged head-on.

The idea of such fusion politics echoed earlier chapters of political reckoning and transformation in this country. From the post-Civil War era of Reconstruction into the 1890s, newly emancipated Blacks built unprecedented, if fragile, alliances with poor whites to seize governing power. Across a new South, fusion parties expanded voting rights, access to public education, labor protections, fair taxation, and more. In North Carolina in 1868, for instance, legislators went so far as to rewrite the state constitution to codify for the first time the right of all citizens to "life, liberty, and the enjoyment of the fruits of their own labor."

For nearly 30 years, I've been part of a modern version of fusion organizing, even as I studied earlier examples of it -- and this country's history is rich with them. Indeed, the modern Poor People's Campaign that I co-chair is itself inspired by such past fusion movements, including the version of politics I was first introduced to by multiracial welfare rights and homeless organizing in the 1980s and 1990s.

Organizations like the National Welfare Rights Union and the National Union of the Homeless first grew in response to the neoliberal politics of President Ronald Reagan and his attacks on the poor, especially the Black poor, or, as he put it, "welfare queens." In response to such myths and deep, divisive cuts, out of shelters and from the streets, poor people began to organize projects of mutual aid and solidarity, including "unions" of the homeless.

By the 1980s, the National Union of the Homeless had been created and had upwards of 30,000 members in 25 cities. Meanwhile, organizers across the country soon escalated their efforts with waves of coordinated and nonviolent takeovers of vacant federally owned buildings at a time when the government had abdicated its responsibility to protect and provide for its poorest citizens. Those poor and homeless leaders also helped the Homeless Union secure guarantees from the federal government both for more subsidized housing and for protections of the right of the homeless to vote.

Today, in the middle of an economic crisis that could, in the end, rival the Great Depression, I'm reminded not just of those moments that first involved me but of the fusion movements of the early 1930s. After all, in those years, shanty towns called "Hoovervilles" -- given that Herbert Hoover was still president -- cropped up in cities across the country.

Not unlike the tent cities of the Homeless Union and the Welfare Rights Movement in the 1980s and the ones appearing today, those Hoovervilles were where masses of the unemployed and homeless gathered to survive the worst of that depression and strategize on how to resist its misery. Multiracial Unemployed Councils organized and fought for relief for workers without jobs then, preventing thousands of evictions and utility shutoffs.

Meanwhile, in the abandoned fields of the Southern Delta from Arkansas to Mississippi, groups like the Southern Tenant Farmers Union pioneered the dangerous work of organizing Black and white tenant farmers and sharecroppers. When the New Deal coalition bet its future on compromise with white Southern extremists, members of that union were among the last guardians of the rights of poor agrarian workers. Their lonely clarity on the significance of fusion politics in the South stood in stark contrast to the rise of an unmitigated politics of white reaction there.

Today, as top Democrats like Joe Biden and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer claim the legacy of Great Depression-era President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, remember the fusion organizing that helped bring him to power and pushed him to enact change. I'm thinking in particular of the more than 40,000 unemployed veterans of World War I who arrived in Washington D.C. in 1932 to demand the early payment of promised bonuses, previously only considered redeemable after 1945. That Bonus Army, as the veterans called it, collected many of the fraying threads of the American tapestry, making camp, sometimes with wives and children, on seized public land just across the Potomac River from the capital's federal office buildings, while holding regular nonviolent marches and rallies.

Eventually, President Herbert Hoover ordered the U.S. Army to tear down the camp in a violent fashion. The mistreatment of those poor and war-weary veterans in the process proved to be a lightning rod for the public and so Hoover lost to FDR in the presidential election later that year, setting the stage for a decade defined by militant organizing and major shifts in national policy.

The Mandate of the Poor Today

There are already those in the media and politics who are counseling restraint and a return to the pre-Trump days, as if he were the cause, not the consequence, of a nation desperately divided. This would be nothing less than a disaster, given that the fissures in our democracy so desperately need mending not with nice words but with a new governing contract with the American people.

The battleground states that won Joe Biden the presidency have also been battlegrounds in the most recent war against the poor. In Michigan, hit first and worst by deindustrialization, millions have struggled with a failing water system and a jobs crisis. In Wisconsin, where unions have been under attack for years and austerity has become the norm, both budgets and social welfare policies have been slashed by legislatures. In Pennsylvania, rural hospitals have been closing at an alarming rate and, even before the pandemic hit, the poorest large city in the country, Philadelphia, had already become a checkerboard of disinvestment and gentrification. In Georgia, 1.3 million renters -- 45% of the households in that state -- were at risk of eviction this year. And in Arizona, the climate crisis and Covid-19 have ravaged entire communities, including the members of Indigenous nations who recently turned out to vote in record numbers.

The people of these states and 15 more helped elect Joe Biden and Kamala Harris, and count on one thing: with their votes, they were calling for more than just an end to Trumpism. They were demanding that a new era of change begin for the poor and marginalized. The first priority in such an era should, of course, be to pass a comprehensive relief bill to control the pandemic and buoy the millions of Americans now facing a cold, dark winter of deprivation. The House and the Senate have a moral responsibility to get this done as soon as the new administration takes office, if not before (though tell that to Mitch McConnell). The first 100 days of the Biden administration should then be focused, at least in part, on launching a historic investment in securing permanent protections for the poor, including expanded voting rights, universal healthcare, affordable housing, a living wage, and a guaranteed adequate annual income, not to speak of divestment from the war economy and a swift transition to a green economy.

That should be the mandate of our next government. And that's why we, the overflowing millions, must harness the fusion politics that was so crucial to the election of Joe Biden and Kamala Harris and organize in the best tradition of our predecessors. Real social progress rarely comes slowly and steadily, but in leaps and bounds. The predictable stalemate of the next administration and its Republican opposition can't be broken by grand speeches in the House or Senate. It can only be broken by a vast social movement capable of awakening the moral imagination of the nation.

It's time to get to work.

Liz Theoharis, a TomDispatch regular, is a theologian, ordained minister, and anti-poverty activist. Director of the Kairos Center for Religions, Rights and Social Justice at Union Theological Seminary in New York City and co-chair of the Poor People's Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival, she is the author of Always With Us? What Jesus Really Said About the Poor.

Follow TomDispatch on Twitter and join us on Facebook. Check out the newest Dispatch Books, John Feffer's new dystopian novel (the second in the Splinterlands series) Frostlands, Beverly Gologorsky's novel Every Body Has a Story, and Tom Engelhardt's A Nation Unmade by War, as well as Alfred McCoy's In the Shadows of the American Century: The Rise and Decline of U.S. Global Power and John Dower's The Violent American Century: War and Terror Since World War II.

Copyright 2020 Liz Theoharis

Here's how Christian nationalism in the US legislates evil and punishes the poor

On August 26th, during the Republican National Convention, Vice President Mike Pence closed out his acceptance speech with a biblical sleight of hand. Speaking before a crowd at the Fort McHenry National Monument in Baltimore, he exclaimed, "Let's fix our eyes on Old Glory and all she represents. Let's fix our eyes on this land of heroes and let their courage inspire." In doing so, he essentially rewrote a passage from the New Testament's Book of Hebrews: "Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy set before Him endured the cross."

This article originally appeared on TomDispatch.

There's nothing new, of course, about an American politician melding religion and politics on the campaign trail. Still, Pence's decision to replace Jesus with the Stars and Stripes raised eyebrows across a range of religious and political persuasions. Indeed, the melding of Old Glory and Christ provided the latest evidence of the rising influence of Christian nationalism in the age of Trump.

It's no longer hard to find evidence of just how deeply Christian nationalism influences our politics and policymaking. During the pandemic, the Bible has repeatedly been used (and distorted) to justify Covid-19 denialism and government inaction, not to speak of outright repression. In late March, as cities were locking down and public health officials were recommending strict quarantine measures, one of Donald Trump's first acts was to gather his followers at the White House for what was billed as a "National Day of Prayer" to give Americans the strength to press on through death and difficulty.

Later in the spring, protests against pandemic shutdowns, funded with dark money from the likes of the Koch Brothers, demanded that states reopen for business and social distancing guidelines be loosened. (Forget about masking of any sort.) At them, printed protest signs said things like: "Even Pharaoh Freed Slaves in a Plague" and "Texas will not take the Mark of the Beast." And even as faith communities struggled admirably to adjust to zoom worship services, as well as remote pastoral care and memorials, President Trump continued to fan the flames of religious division, declaring in-person worship "essential," no matter that legal experts questioned his authority to do so.

And speaking of his version of Christian nationalism, no one should forget the June spectacle in Lafayette Square near the White House, when Trump had racial-justice protestors tear-gassed so he could stroll to nearby St. John's Church and pose proudly on its steps displaying a borrowed bible. Though he flashed it to the photographers, who can doubt how little time he's spent within its pages. (Selling those same pages is another matter entirely. After all, a Bible he signed in the wake of that Lafayette Square event is now on sale for nearly $40,000.)

The Battle for the Bible in American History

To understand how power is wielded in America by wealthy politicians and their coteries of extremists in 2020, you have to consider the role of religion in our national life. An epic battle for the Bible is now underway in a country that has been largely ceded to white evangelical Christian nationalists. Through a well-funded network of churches and nonprofits, universities, and think tanks, and with direct lines to the nation's highest political officials, they've had carte-blanche to set the terms of what passes for religious debate in this country and dictate what morality even means in our society.

Under Trump, such religious nationalism has reached a fever pitch as a reactionary movement that includes technocratic billionaires, televangelists, and armed militias has taken root with a simple enough message: God loves white Christian America, favors small government and big business, and rewards individualism and entrepreneurship. Meanwhile, the poor, people of color, and immigrants are blamed for society's problems even as the rich get richer in what's still the wealthiest country in the history of the world.

The dangers posed by today's Christian nationalists are all too real, but the battle for the Bible itself is not new in America. In the 1700s and 1800s, slaveholders quoted the book of Philemon and lines from St. Paul's epistles to claim that slavery was ordained by God. They also ripped the pages of Exodus from bibles they gave to the enslaved. During the Gilded Age of the nineteenth century, churches and politicians alike preached a "prosperity gospel" that extolled the virtues of industrial capitalism.

Decades later, segregationists continued to use stray biblical verses to rubberstamp Jim Crow practices, while in the late 1970s the Moral Majority helped to mainstream a new generation of Christian extremists into national politics. In my own youth, I remember politicians quoting Thessalonians in the lead up to the passage of the 1996 Welfare Reform Act as proof that God believes in work-requirements for public assistance programs.

Students of religion and history know that, although such theological battles have often tipped disastrously toward the forces of violence, deprivation, and hate, Christian religious thinking has also been a key ingredient in positive social change in this country. Escaped slave Harriet "Moses" Tubman understood the Underground Railroad as a Christian project of liberation, while escaped slave Frederick Douglass fought for abolition through churches across the north in the pre-Civil War years. A century later, near the end of his life, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. explained how, to achieve his universal dream of justice, a beloved community of God would be built through a "freedom church of the poor."

After all, in every chapter of American history, abolitionists, workers, labor organizers, civil rights leaders, and other representatives of the oppressed have struggled for a better nation not just in streets and workplaces, but in the pulpit, too. In the wreckage of the present Trumpian moment, with a fascistic, white nationalism increasingly ascendant, people of conscience would do well to follow suit.

The "Psychological Bird" of Bad Religion

In my book Always with Us? What Jesus Really Said About the Poor, I focus on a reality that has long preoccupied me: how, in this country, the Bible has so often been manipulated to obscure its potentially emancipatory power; in particular, the way in which what theologian Jim Wallis has called the most famous biblical passage on the poor (from the Gospel of Matthew) -- "the poor will be always with us" -- has been misused.

Since I was a young girl, scarcely a week has passed in which I haven't heard someone quoting Matthew as an explanation for why poverty is eternal and its mitigation reserved at best for charity or philanthropy (but certainly not for government). The logic of such thinking runs through so many of our religious institutions including what's now known as "evangelical Christianity," but also our legislatures, courts, military, schools, and more. It hasn't just shaped the minds of young Christians but has helped to spiritualize (and cement in place) poverty, while implicitly or even explicitly justifying ever greater inequality in this society.

Today, the idea that poverty is the result of bad behavior, laziness, or sin rather than decisions made by those with power is distinctly ascendant in Donald Trump's and Mitch McConnell's Washington. Biblical passages like that one in Matthew have become another ideological tool brandished by reactionaries and the wealthy to deflect attention from this country's systemic failures.

Consider, for example, the historic development of what's often known as the "Bible Belt" (or alternatively the "Poverty Belt"). It sweeps across the South, from North Carolina to Mississippi, Tennessee to Alabama, home to poor people of every race. It represents the deepest, most contiguous area of poverty in the United States made possible in part by heretical theology, biblical misinterpretation, and Christian nationalism.

The convergence of poverty and religion in the Bible Belt has a long history, stretching back to the earliest settler-colonists in the slave era. It echoed through the system of Jim Crow that had the region in its grip until the Civil Rights years and the modern political concept of "the solid South" (once Democratic, now Republican). Within its bounds lies a brutal legacy of divide and conquer that, to this day, politicizes the Bible by claiming that poverty results from sins against God and teaches poor white people in particular that, although they may themselves have little or nothing, they are at least "better" than people of color.

At the end of the bloody march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, in 1965, Martin Luther King explained the age-old politics of division in the region this way:

"If it may be said of the slavery era that the white man took the world and gave the Negro Jesus, then it may be said of the Reconstruction era that the southern aristocracy took the world and gave the poor white man Jim Crow... And when his wrinkled stomach cried out for the food that his empty pockets could not provide, he ate Jim Crow, a psychological bird that told him that no matter how bad off he was, at least he was a white man, better than the black man... And his children, too, learned to feed upon Jim Crow, their last outpost of psychological oblivion."

That "psychological bird" was seasoned and cooked in a volatile mix of racist pseudo-science, economic orthodoxy, and bad religion. In fact, it retained its enormous power in large part by using the Bible and a version of Christianity to validate plunder and human suffering on a staggering scale. De jure Jim Crow may no longer exist, but its history haunts America to this day, and the Bible continues to be weaponized to validate anti-poor, white racist political power.

As jobs and opportunity continue to vanish in twenty-first-century America and churches stand among the last truly functional institutions in many communities, the Bible, however interpreted, still influences daily life for millions. How it's understood and preached affects the political and moral direction of the country. Consider that those Bible Belt states -- where Christian nationalism (which regularly displays its own upside-down version of the Bible) now reigns supreme -- account for more than 193 electoral college votes and so will play a key role in determining the fate of Donald Trump and Mike Pence in November.

I had my own experience with that version of biblical and theological interpretation and its growing role in our national politics in June 2019 during a hearing of the Budget Committee of the House of Representatives. Its subject was poverty in America and the economic realities of struggling families. A racially and geographically diverse group of leaders of the Poor People's Campaign (of which I'm the co-chair) were invited to testify on those realities. Alongside us that day were two Black pastors invited by Republican congressmen to stand as examples of how faith and hard work is the only recipe for a good and stable life for the impoverished.

We had come to present what we've called the Poor People's Moral Budget, a study showing that the United States does have the money to end poverty, hunger, homelessness, and more, just not the political will to do so. In response, members of the committee turned to the same tired stereotypes about why so many of us in such a wealthy country are poor. Some cited the supposed failure of the 1960s War on Poverty as evidence that programs of social uplift just don't work, while ignoring the dramatic way politicians had undercut those initiatives in the years that followed. Like those pastors, others replied with tales of their own success rising out of economic hardship via bootstrap individualism and they plugged Christian charity as the way to alleviate poverty. I listened to them all as they essentially promoted a heretical theology that claimed people suffer from poverty largely because they're estranged from God and lack a deep enough faith in Jesus.

That day, the walls of that House committee room rang with empty words twisting what the Bible actually says about the poor. One Republican representative typically remarked that, although he was familiar with the Bible, he had never found anyplace in it "where Jesus tells Caesar to care for the poor." Another all-too-typically suggested that Christian charity, not government-sponsored programs, is the key to alleviating poverty.

Someone less familiar with the arguments of such politicians might have been surprised to hear so many of them seeking theological cover. As a biblical scholar and a student of the history of social movements, I know well how religious texts actually instruct us to care for the poor and dispossessed. As a long-time organizer, I've learned that those in power now regularly, even desperately, seek to abuse and distort the liberating potential of our religious traditions.

Indeed, in response to that representative, Reverand William Barber, my Poor People's Campaign co-chair, and I pointed out how interesting it was that he identified himself with Caesar (not necessarily the most flattering comparison imaginable, especially as biblical Christianity polemicizes against Caesar and the Roman empire). Then I detailed for him many of the passages and commandments in the Bible that urge us to organize society around the needs of the poor, forgive debts, pay workers a living wage, rather than favoring either the rich or "Caesar." That, of course, is indeed the formula of the Trump era (where, in the last six pandemic months, the 643 wealthiest Americans raked in an extra $845 billion, raising their combined wealth by 29%). I also pointed out that the most effective poverty-reduction programs like Head Start are federally funded, neither philanthropic nor a matter of Christian charity.

Good News from the Poor

In the Poor People's Campaign, we often start our organizing meetings by showing a series of color-coded maps of the country. The first has the states that have passed voter suppression laws since 2013; the next, those with the highest poverty rates; then, those that have not expanded Medicaid but have passed anti-LGBTQ laws. And so it goes. Our final map displays the states densest with self-identified evangelical Protestants.

I'm sure you won't be surprised to learn that those maps overlap almost perfectly, chiefly in the Bible Belt, but also in the Midwest, the Mid-Atlantic states, and even in parts of the Northeast and West. The point is to show how inextricably connected the battle for voting rights, healthcare, and other critical resources is to the battle for the Bible. The stakes are measured in the health of the entire nation, because the same politicians who manipulate the Bible and the right to vote to win elections then pass immoral budgets and policies.

When Vice President Pence altered that line from the Book of Hebrews, he was charging headfirst onto that very blood-soaked battlefield with a desecrated Bible in hand. The question is: why should he and other Christian nationalists have the power to define Christianity? If they are so intent on "fixing their eyes on Old Glory," shouldn't they also fix their eyes on what Jesus actually said?

The Greek word evangelia, out of which "evangelical" comes, means bringing good news to those made poor by systems of exploitation. The Bible's good news, also defined as gospel, talks again and again about captives being freed, slaves released, and all who are oppressed being taken care of. It's said that were you to cut out every one of its pages that mentions poverty, the Bible would fall apart. And when you actually read the words on those pages, you see that the gospel doesn't talk about the inevitability of poverty or the need for charity, but the responsibilities of the ruling authorities to all people and the possibility of abundance for all.

At a time when 43.5% of Americans are poor or one fire, storm, health-care crisis, pandemic, eviction, or job loss from poverty, it couldn't be more important for Americans to begin to reckon with this reality and our moral obligation to end it. Instead, politicians pass voter suppression laws, kick kids off food programs, and allow the poisoning of our water, air, and land, while Christian nationalist religious leaders bless such policies and cherry-pick biblical verses to justify them as all-American. Consider such a reality not simply a matter of a religious but a political, economic, and moral crisis that, in the midst of a pandemic, is pushing this country ever closer to the brink of spiritual death.

If America is still worth saving, this is no longer a battle anyone should sit out.

We can make poverty a thing of the past — if we stop catering to the rich

The word jubilee comes from the Hebrew “yovel,” meaning a “trumpet blast of liberty.” It was said that, on the day of liberation, the sound of a ram’s horn would ring through the land. These days, I hear the sound of that horn while walking with my kids through the streets of New York City, while protests continue here, even amid a pandemic, as they have since soon after May 25th when a police officer put his knee to George Floyd’s neck and robbed him of his life. I hear it when I speak with homeless leaders defending their encampments amid the nightmare of Covid-19. I hear it when I meet people who are tired, angry, and yet, miraculously enough, finding their political voices for the first time. I hear it when I read escaped slave and abolitionist leader Frederick Douglass’s speech on the eve of the Emancipation Proclamation.

Keep reading... Show less

How to revive American society from its moment of hell

In the summer of 1995, when I was 18, I started visiting Tent City, a temporary encampment in an abandoned lot in northeast Philadelphia. About 40 families had taken up residence in tents, shacks, and other makeshift structures. Among them were people of various races, ages, and sexual orientations, all homeless and fighting for the right to live.

Keep reading... Show less

A theologian explains how to destroy American society from the top down

My mom contracted polio when she was 14. She survived and learned to walk again, but my life was deeply affected by that virus. Today, as our larger society attempts to self-distance and self-isolate, my family has texted about the polio quarantine my mom was put under: how my grandma fearfully checked my aunt’s temperature every night because she shared a bedroom with my mom; how they had to put a sign on the front door of the house that read “quarantine” so that no one would visit.

Keep reading... Show less

If We Don't Address Poverty, We Are Going to Lose Our Country

In March of 1968, as part of a tour of US cities to shine a light on poverty and drum up support for the recently-launched Poor People’s Campaign, the Rev Dr Martin Luther King Jr visited the northwest Mississippi town of Marks. He saw a teacher feeding schoolchildren a meager lunch of a slice of apple and crackers, and started crying.

Keep reading... Show less
BRAND NEW STORIES

Thanks for your support!

Did you enjoy AlterNet this year? Join us! We're offering AlterNet ad-free for 15% off - just $2 per week. From now until March 15th.