By Eric H. Yoffie
November 25, 2014
IDEAS
Eric Yoffie was President of the Union for Reform Judaism from 1996 to 2012.

“Now, when you die and get to the meeting with St. Peter, he’s probably not going to ask you much about what you did about keeping government small. But he is going to ask you what you did for the poor. You better have a good answer.”

These words, spoken last year to a member of the Ohio legislature by John Kasich, the now reelected Republican governor of Ohio, are significant for two reasons.

First and most important, they are a reminder of a simple religious truth: If you don’t care about the poor, the suffering, and the sick, you cannot be a good Christian — or a good Jew, or a good Muslim. You may pretend to be a good religious person, of course. You can convince yourself, perhaps, that you are God-fearing and upright. But in the final analysis, if you forget the downtrodden and ignore the stranger and the widow, and fail to show kindness and mercy to the least among us, you have failed in your religious obligations. As Governor Kasich pointedly reminded the legislator, like him a conservative and a man of faith, St. Peter will be waiting with some very specific questions, and he will not be satisfied with platitudes or evasions.

And while the Governor was speaking as a believing Christian, his words hold true for all the Abrahamic traditions. True, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam offer a stunning diversity of practices and beliefs. Their adherents observe different rituals and pray with different liturgies. Each proposes a distinct path to salvation, and at times, each suggests the superiority of its own religious way. Still, for all of their traditional differences, there are common pillars upon which they all rest. All three assert some version of the Golden Rule, demanding that we act toward others as we would have others act toward us. And all three require compassion for the weak and the poor, requiring us to go beyond ourselves, feel pain that is not our own, and then reach out to the truly needy in our midst.

As a politician, and a good one, Governor Kasich, if pressed, would undoubtedly not say that he was calling his opponents un-Christian. Nonetheless, his words were clear in their intent and very much on target. He was reminding us that despite all the palaver that we hear about the Judeo-Christian tradition, too many religious Americans have lost sight of what religion must always be: A force for compassion, healing, and hope.

The second reason that the Governor’s words are significant is because of the context in which they were expressed.

The Governor said what he said while convincing the members of the Ohio legislature to approve an expansion of Medicaid, a government healthcare program for the poor. The expansion is provided for by the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare), and therefore was unpopular with conservatives, even though it extended medical insurance to 275,000 needy Ohioans.

It would be absurd to suggest that religion requires support for Obamacare. There are a variety of ways in which government could expand health coverage, and in fact, Kasich opposes the Affordable Care Act as an inefficient, “top-down” program. But what was important was his assertion that despite opposing Obamacare, a responsible religious person could — and, in fact, must — endorse selective use of the legislation if that is the only way to help poor and desperate people, such as the 26,000 veterans and 55,000 mentally ill persons who had no other options available to assist them.

In his little sermon to the legislator, the Governor was making it clear that it is fine to say you prefer Plan A to Plan B, but it is not fine for a religiously serious person to offer no plan at all to help truly poor, weak, and helpless Americans. To do that is to contribute to the increasingly common image of political leaders as cynical and complacent and cut off from any real understanding of the people they represent. To do that is to be untrue to the fundamental teachings of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, and to ignore religion’s understanding of our higher selves.

Twenty-two states have not yet expanded Medicaid, and most, alas, are offering no alternative to their most disadvantaged citizens. I can only hope that politicians in these states will follow the lead of the Governor of Ohio, who understood that turning our back on those at the very bottom of the ladder is not the American way, and it is not the Judeo-Christian way, either. If you are a practical politician with high ideals and religious convictions, you need to put real solutions on the table. And whatever your personal theology or the state of your belief, why not assume that the Governor’s right? If the time comes that someone is standing at heaven’s gate, asking what you did for the poor, it’s best to be ready with an answer.

Write to Eric H. Yoffie at eric@ericyoffie.com.

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