Clinton and Trump have plenty of company. Seemingly without exception, American politicians claim to prioritize the middle class. But Christians who seek to let their faith shape their public engagement must recognize that the Bible does not.
Indeed, the Bible has basically nothing to say about the middle class. The idea of a middle class didn’t even exist in the social world of the ancient Near East and the Roman Empire. But, more profoundly, the Bible is relatively silent about the middle class because it is concerned with the interests of someone else: the poor.
To see the disconnect between the American scene and the biblical witness, try substituting “the middle class” where the Bible says “the poor.” The results tend to fit much more neatly on the American campaign trail.
“May the president defend the cause of the middle class of the people, give them deliverance and crush the oppressor” is nowhere in the Bible. “May the king defend the cause of the poor …” is Psalm 72:4.
“If a president judges the middle class with equity, his legacy will be established forever” is nowhere in the Bible. “If a king judges the poor with equity, his throne will be established forever” is Proverbs 29:14.
“Blessed are you who are middle class, for yours is the country of America” is nowhere in the Bible. “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God” are Jesus’s words in Luke 6:20.
Whereas American political discourse tends to leave the poor aside or even to denigrate them as “free riders,” Christians’ scriptures persistently declare and demonstrate God’s special care for the poor and the marginalized.
All this is not to say that we shouldn’t be concerned about the precarious place of America’s middle class today. The American middle class grew dramatically between the 1940s and the 1970s. During that time, the relatively broad distribution of the benefits of economic growth helped life go well for millions of people in important ways. We should celebrate achievements like that.
Nor do all American political candidates who claim to support the middle class actually have a plan to do so. Some of the rhetoric is disingenuous, and some of the policy proposals are surely misguided.
But for publicly engaged followers of Jesus Christ, the fact that our political conversation routinely prioritizes the well-being of the middle class ought to be unacceptable. Christians should be demanding a political outlook that prioritizes the poor, with the aim of eliminating the scourge of poverty.
This turbulent election season, with widespread discontent among voters and a strong fear that the divide between middle-class security and the insecurity of poverty is more perilously thin than it used to be, offers an opportunity to expand the conversation and overcome the reflexive tendency to make everything about the middle class. And there have been encouraging developments in this direction from both major parties.
Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) has deftly combined traditional emphasis on the middle class with consistent concern for poverty reduction. House Speaker Paul Ryan (R) announced an anti-poverty policy agenda in June, and his recent speech at the Republican National Convention identified poverty as a key public problem.
Warren and Ryan disagree profoundly at the level of policy (Warren said Ryan’s plan “looks more like an agenda for creating poverty than reducing it”). But for publicly engaged Christians, a fierce debate about how best to reduce poverty is worlds better than a public discourse that doesn’t care about it at all.
Ryan McAnnally-Linz and Miroslav Volf are the authors of “Public Faith in Action: How to Think Critically, Engage Wisely, and Vote with Integrity.” They have written previously for Acts of Faith about why it’s okay for Christians to get angry and whether Muslims and Christians worship the same God.