The Circle of Protection radio advertisements being broadcast in three states right now make their arguments, such as they are, from a quotation of the Bible and a federal poverty program that might be cut in a debt ceiling compromise. But the scriptural quotation is a serious misuse of the Book of Proverbs, and the claims about heating assistance programs are at best overblown: the ads are really no better than their goofy contemporary piano track.
The Circle of Protection, of which the group Sojourners that produced the ads is a founding member, enjoyed the high honor of a meeting at the White House last week, which was supposed to be about the debt ceiling crisis and which poverty programs are in danger. But they came away without even discovering President Obama’s thoughts on the program they were about to feature in a radio campaign.
LIHEAP, the federal heating assistance program Sojourners wails about, doesn’t even have the blessing of the President. The program’s $5 billion budget is twice what it needs to be, he said in February. What the President knows, but can’t say publicly, is that LIHEAP is a waste- and fraud-ridden program operating with exactly the kind of money-is-no-object attitude that precipitated the debt ceiling crisis. Believe it or not, one hundred percent of the fraudulent applications for heating assistance made during a Government Accountability Office investigation were approved.
And not only is the program inefficient, it is actually redundant. As the Heritage Foundation has pointed out, state laws prohibit energy companies from turning off the poor’s heat in the winter, so LIHEAP funds simply go to utility companies that wouldn’t have otherwise collected their fees. Sojourners set up the $2.5 billion in LIHEAP cuts against $2.5 billion in “tax breaks for oil companies.” I don’t see the towering social injustice there, but Sojourners seems to think that energy utilities are eminently more deserving of federal largess than oil companies.
The more serious distortion is the group’s misuse of the Book of Proverbs, with which they begin their ads. “The Book of Proverbs teaches that ‘where there is no leadership, a nation falls’ and ‘the poor are shunned, while the rich have many friends,’” intones Pastor Tom Jelinek at the beginning of the Nevada ad. He is actually quoting two different chapters in Proverbs—eleven and fourteen—which I have indicated by the use of quotation marks. There is no such indication in the radio ad, however: he continues right from chapter eleven to chapter fourteen as if the two passages were one. That is what we call deceitfulness, and it’s best kept out of discussions of Sacred Scripture.
The effect of the deception is that Proverbs’ statement about the poor and the rich seems quite clearly a political one, which in the context of chapter fourteen it is not (unless, like the Circle of Protection, you think that religion exists to serve politics). The surrounding verses say nothing of “nations” or “leaders,” so Sojourners went back to chapter eleven to establish their interpretation. “The poor man shall be hateful even to his own neighbor: but the friends of the rich are many,” reads Proverbs 14:20, and the message is super-political. The wise man of chapter fourteen will be mindful of this friendship gap, and tend to the needs of the poor, who often lack the social safety net of the rich. But the verse is certainly not an anachronistic call to bureaucratic political action.
How ironic. Sojourners, blinded by its own topsy-turvy approach to religious engagement in political debate and reading the Bible as a political document, didn’t see that the verse they were going to quote is an exhortation to private charity. And by welding the verse to another one from another chapter, all the while pretending that they are quoting a singular passage, the group imposes that false interpretation upon radio listeners. I am not suggesting that the trick is deliberate, for how could an organization that sees the Church as the bride of Caesar understand that the Bible is more than a manual for the curing of earthly injustice?
That the ads sound like the work of a Washington PR firm ought to alert listeners to the inherent disorder of the Circle of Protection message. Political activity must be inspired by an evangelical spirit, and when instead the use of Sacred Scripture is inspired by political ends, the Gospel is profaned.