The Poor Christians And The Happy Poor

“WAR ON TEBOW” declared Fox News' The Five on Tuesday as the panel of four conservatives and Bob Beckel launched into a discussion of Denver Broncos quarterback Tim Tebow and his frequent public declarations of his Christian faith. “What do you think scares the media most?” asked Eric Bolling. “The clean-cut, the conservative, or the Christian aspect of Tim Tebow?” GOP strategist Andrea Tantaros opined that “it's ridiculous to go after Tim Tebow. He can express whatever he wants and it takes a lot of courage to put Bible verses on your face.”

The trials of Tebow have been well-covered by the Murdoch network. Yesterday, Fox News' unofficial culture war correspondent Todd Starnes wrote that Tebow “will always be a lightning rod for anti-Christian bigots,” and expanded the narrative to declare that “it's become something of a sport to attack Christians in this nation,” what with the “reprehensible anti-Christian propaganda” coming from Hollywood and the almost-beyond-parody “War on Christmas.” Starnes even went so far as to compare the Tebow situation to Jim Crow.

The position of Fox News is clear: Christians in America are relentlessly persecuted and need Fox News as an advocate. The hitch, of course, is that Christianity remains the overwhelmingly dominant faith not just of the nation at large but also of the people elected to lead it. But the culture war needs to be fought, so insults aimed at a football player, store clerks saying “Happy Holidays,” and similarly minor (or imagined) slights are embellished into organized campaigns of anti-Christian persecution.

That in and of itself is disingenuous, but as the network exaggerates the threat to Christianity in America, it simultaneously downplays -- even mocks -- the very real plight facing those whom Christian teachings demand be shown compassion: the poor.

Poverty in the U.S. is on the rise. Incomes are decreasing. According to the Census Bureau, right now there are over 46 million Americans in poverty, more than there have been at any time since they started publishing poverty estimates. Fifteen percent of U.S. households are "food insecure," meaning they lack money to properly feed themselves on a daily basis. They face a host of problems, both quantifiable and not: lack of access to health care, chronic underemployment, disrupted family life, and so on.

But to hear Fox News tell it, the poor don't have it so bad. Earlier this year, the conservative Heritage Foundation released a report on how the ownership of household appliances demonstrates that “most of the persons whom the government defines as 'in poverty' are not poor in any ordinary sense of the term.” Seizing on Heritage's laughably superficial assessment of poverty, Bill O'Reilly asked: “How can you be so poor and have all this stuff?”

Fox News' Stuart Varney cast the report as evidence that “poor families in the United States are not what they used to be.” After he was skewered by Jon Stewart, Varney responded by saying all he did was tell the “truth about poor people.” According to Varney: “The image we have of poor people as starving and living in squalor really is not accurate. Many of them have things, what they lack is the richness of spirit. That's my opinion.”

This past July on The Five, Monica Crowley, after ticking off a list of all the appliances poor people own, asked Andrea Tantaros: “What does it tell you about being poor in the United States?” Tantaros replied: “It sounds pretty good to me. I'm trying to make it in Manhattan. I have a microwave and a TV. I guess I'm poor in Obamanation.”

When the National Bureau of Economic Research released a study on the extent to which government programs keep millions of Americans from sinking deeper into poverty, Fox Business Network's Charles Payne castigated the poor for not being ashamed of their poverty: “There's no doubt that these are good programs. I think the real narrative here, though, is that people aren't embarrassed by it. People aren't ashamed by it.” Payne would later offer this mocking explanation for poverty in America: “After everyone's eaten their Thanksgiving meal, right, go to Wal-Mart at midnight. You're going to see why a lot of people don't have money. They're going to take their welfare checks and bum-rush the security guard, knock him down, and give away all their money.”

It's a striking contrast. One day Fox News will defend Christians from the faith-killing scourge of Rhode Island “Holiday Trees,” and the next they'll mock those in need for having refrigerators but lacking “spirit.” They'll insist on protecting the right to say Christian prayers in public, and attack a poor person for spending all their money at Wal-Mart. It's a clash of faith and politics that does double harm by hyping illusory threats to an empowered majority while obfuscating real problems plaguing the millions of Americans most in need of a little Christian charity.