A conversation about the concept of “food as medicine” at the 2023 South by Southwest Future of Food event featured experts in health and food security, including a representative for the corporate social responsibility arm of a major U.S. grocery retailer. During the question and answer segment, a representative for a local food bank asked her what they were doing to take care of their employees.
The questioner noted how employees from the grocery chain who visited the food bank during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic often said that they “didn’t make enough money at work to purchase any food, let alone healthy food.” He went on to ask how the grocery store chain could treat the world properly if it couldn’t even treat its own employees properly.
The corporate representative gave the requisite “That’s a great question” reply. She then proceeded to list ways the company cares for its employees, including support programs through its philanthropic arm and increasing awareness of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). Lastly, it also seeks to ensure that all its customers, including employees, know about the coupons available to them to save money on groceries.
The lengths corporations in the United States will go to avoid paying workers a living wage, while still upholding an appearance of benevolence, is astounding.
And it isn’t just corporate America.
Almost every November, voters cast ballots against policies that would lift people out of poverty at home and abroad. Then, in December, these same voters will make a great show of filling shoe boxes with toys to be sent to children who are suffering from the very policies that they voted to (or not to) enact a month before.
Megachurches hold services to celebrate the purchase and forgiveness of millions of dollars of medical debt for people in their communities. But pastors of these churches are missing in action when local organizers and ministerial alliances advocate for systems that would alleviate the concept of “medical debt” altogether.
The opposition to publicly funded programs designed to elevate people out of poverty and provide a solid economic floor to stand on is often accompanied by statements about how we “don’t want people to be dependent on the government.” But I often wonder if this sentiment is accompanied by a silent, “We would rather them be dependent on our goodwill.”
Who would get to forgive all the medical debt if healthcare was affordable? What would we do with our Christmas Angel trees if everyone in our community was guaranteed a livable wage and a universal basic income?
If we funded public education justly and equitably, what would happen to all the backpack programs we spend so much time and money on? What about our food drives and GoFundMe campaigns?
The primary strategy of the Christian nationalist enterprise has been to commandeer all the influential institutions of the U.S., including the entertainment industry, business and philanthropy, but most importantly, government. Their mission is to steer the country in the direction of its vision of what a “Christian nation” should look like.
In their vision, the government can be used as a tool to enforce restrictive understandings of sexuality and gender expression. It can restore and uphold systems that prefer European-descended Americans and marginalize those racialized as non-white. It can also determine women’s bodily autonomy, which, among other things, is determinative of what women are able to do with their lives.
What the government cannot do in their vision is establish systems that would put the country on the right side of the judgment story in Matthew 25. In that parable about the sheep and the goats, the criterion for salvation was not saying a prayer but caring for those the world has forgotten.
There is a pattern here.
The ideals Christian nationalists know are a bad look, but want to enact anyway— racism, homophobia and misogyny— are the responsibility of the government. This gives them cover. It allows them to appeal to “upholding the law,” whether that be the “laws of man” they created through legislation or the “Law of God” they created through a narrow, self-serving interpretation of Scripture.
But in the Christian nationalist worldview, the government should keep its hands out of initiatives that extend generosity and care to the vulnerable. That is the responsibility of individuals, churches and the “corporate social responsibility” arms of big business.
I should note here that I am aware of the daylight between Christian nationalists and corporate America. They often distrust each other over social issues.
But they are allied in their impulse to retain a caste system in which they each are part of the benevolence class. This alliance allows churches to keep filling shoeboxes up at Christmas and companies to keep handing out their coupons.
I am not suggesting that there is no place for charity and philanthropy. Systems fail and tragedies occur. Consequently, there will always be a need for individuals, communities and organizations to step in and provide resources and care for those on the losing end of catastrophic events.
I am also not suggesting that the only answer to creating a more just and equitable world is always another government program. The behemoth that is the U.S. federal government can create inefficiencies in times of dire need.
But the government has a unique ability to scale up initiatives that make justice and equity more easily attainable. As an example, the success of SNAP in strengthening food security, as well as local economies, is well documented.
Additionally, major studies of a universal basic income have shown that it can be a game changer in a world where automation and AI are upending the labor market.
The world is full of examples of countries that have found a way to ensure the affordability of healthcare for all its citizens.
Could we envision a world without a consistent need for Christmas shoeboxes and where coupons are designed for savings, not survival? I believe such a world is attainable.
Making this vision a reality will take all the tools at our disposal, including charity, kindness and the policies of a government by the people and for the people.
Senior editor at Good Faith Media.