Republicans and the ‘Quality of Sodom’: Or, How to Distort GOP Positions and Give Biblical Cover to Bad Policy


Over at The Daily Beast, Gershom Gorenberg accuses Republicans of being sodomites. (No, not that kind of sodomite.) I’ll let Gorenberg explain:

…I am definitely not referring to sexual orientation. The idea that sodomy has to do with sex is one more piece of evidence that Judaism and Christianity are two religions separated by a common scripture. In Judaism, Sodom stands for economic injustice, selfishness and refusal to redistribute wealth.

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Republican presidential candidate and former governor, Mitt Romney, delivers remarks via satellite March 6, 2012 to the American Israel Political Action Committee (Karen Bleier / AFP / Getty Images)

In Tractate Avot of the Talmud, there’s a discussion of attitudes toward ownership. In the view of some sages, to say “what’s mine is mine and what’s yours is yours”–keep your hands off please, don’t ask me to pay for his troubles–is moral mediocrity. According to other sages, that’s “the quality of Sodom.” The latter view is more strongly rooted in biblical texts and rabbinic commentary.

This week’s haftarah, the furious prophetic riff that the sages chose as the annual prelude to commemorating the destruction of Jerusalem, is just one example: When Isaiah denounces the leaders of his country as the “captains of Sodom,” he’s talking about how they treat the powerless, personified by widows and orphans. Ezekiel, more pedagogically blunt, says that “the sin of your sister Sodom” was that the city-state “had plenty of bread and untroubled tranquility, yet she did not support the poor and needy.”

Both prophets were referring to cultural knowledge that they shared with their audiences: the original story of Sodom in Genesis. A couple of strangers show up in town. In the previous chapter they had arrived at the tent of Abraham, who hurried to put out the best meal he could provide. His wealth, he understood, was merely a trusteeship, something he’d been granted in order to share. In Sodom, the mob comes to get the strangers and the bleeding-heart liberal who tried to put a roof over their head. The threatened gang-rape is the means of aggression, not the point of it. Sodom is the original ungodly city, whose customs are the opposite of the justice that Abraham will teach his descendants.

Lest you think that Sodom was only stingy with outsiders, an ancient rabbinic tradition (preserved in Breshit Rabba) explains why the divine inquiry commission was sent to investigate the city in the first place: Sodom had a law against giving to the poor. This is meant as hyperbole; the point is that “what’s mine is mine” was public policy in Sodom.

Sodom, in short, was a polis run by the philosophy of Ayn Rand, where redistribution of wealth was regarded as immoral, where government had the responsibility to protect private property but not to insure the well-being of the people. Upstanding Sodomites would not have accepted a decision by the city elders requiring them to put coins in the kitty to pay healers who might treat people besides themselves. They would have argued that “I’m responsible for myself and I’m not responsible for other people… I should get the fruits of my labor and I shouldn’t have to divvy it up with other people.” The city elders would not have asked people to pay for more teachers to educate other people’s children, and certainly not to pay for food for those who couldn’t afford it. Not to put too fine a point on it, but in Sodom there would have been no problem passing the Ryan budget plan.

Ouch!

Over at Commentary, Jonathan Neumann pushes back:

Unfortunately for Gorenberg, all he really achieves in his post is yet another demonstration of how liberals profoundly misunderstand conservative thought. Yet, the conservative position is so straightforward that their failure to apprehend it is quite remarkable: government should be small so that society and the individual can be large. This, conservatives believe, encourages true compassion and selflessness: one cares for one’s neighbor oneself or as a community, rather than leave the government to do it, and those receiving aid do their utmost to strive for economic self-sufficiency where possible. It is a society where “redistribution of wealth” is replaced by charity and integrity. Hardly “what’s mine is mine.”

And this isn’t theoretical. The data already shows it: conservatives give staggeringly more than liberals to charitable causes, and Mitt Romney in particular has given more (in absolute and proportional terms) than any other presidential candidate for whom we have a record. Party of Sodom, eh? Now who’s being unjust?

Writing for the Cato Institute, Michael Tanner argues:

News that the poverty rate has risen to 15.1 percent of Americans, the highest level in nearly a decade, has set off a predictable round of calls for increased government spending on social welfare programs. Yet this year the federal government will spend more than $668 billion on at least 126 different programs to fight poverty. And that does not even begin to count welfare spending by state and local governments, which adds $284 billion to that figure. In total, the United States spends nearly $1 trillion every year to fight poverty. That amounts to $20,610
for every poor person in America, or $61,830 per poor family of three.

Welfare spending increased significantly under President George W. Bush and has exploded under President Barack Obama. In fact, since President Obama took office, federal welfare spending has increased by 41 percent, more than $193 billion per year. Despite this government largess, more than 46 million Americans continue to live in poverty. Despite nearly $15
trillion in total welfare spending since Lyndon Johnson declared war on poverty in 1964, the poverty rate is perilously close to where we began more than 40 years ago.

Clearly we are doing something wrong. Throwing money at the problem has neither reduced poverty nor made the poor self-sufficient. It is time to reevaluate our approach to fighting poverty. We should focus less on making poverty more comfortable and more on creating the prosperity that will get people out ofpoverty.

The question isn’t whether society ought to help the poor. On that question, the Bible is quite clear: We must help the poor. Rather, the question is how society ought to help the poor. By wedding the biblical imperative to help the poor to the social welfare state as it currently exists, Gorenberg both distorts what conservatives actually believe and provides biblical cover costly, inefficient, ineffective, and financially unsustainable poverty-fighting programs.

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