News Intelligence Analysis
Broadcast on Friday, October
24, 2003 by NOW with Bill Moyers
Bill Moyers Interviews Union
Theological Seminary's Joseph Hough
Bill Moyers talks to Joseph C. Hough on the intersection of politics
and religion, and why he thinks it is the duty of Christians,
Jews and Muslims to join to fight growing economic inequality,
why hes critical of how some political pundits are using
Christianity to justify their actions, and why he suspects that
the time for a non-destructive, civil disobedience may be near.
by Bill Moyers
MOYERS: You recently did a very radical thing. You called on
the children of Abraham Muslims, Christians and Jews
to engage in an act of refusal.
HOUGH: Well, my perception, Bill, is that there is a definite
intentional move on the part of political leadership in this
country. In the direction that I think is not at all compatible
with the prophetic tradition in Islam, Christianity, or Judaism.
And that is the obligation on the part of people who believe
in God to care for the least and the poorest. That central teaching,
that sacred code, I think, is very well summed up in Proverbs
where the writer of Proverbs says, "Those who oppress the
needy insult their maker." "Those who oppress the needy
insult their maker."
And I think that it would be a wonderful thing if we could
stand together, these three great Abrahamic traditions, and say,
"Look, we do not countenance this sort of thing. It is not
only unfair, it is immoral on the basis of our religious traditions,
and we believe it's an insult to God."
MOYERS: And it is what?
HOUGH: The growing gap between the rich and the poor which
has become almost obscene by anybody's standards, and the stated
intentional policy of bankrupting the government so that in the
future there'll be no money for anything the federal government
would decide to do.
MOYERS: We've all heard this from economists.
MOYERS: And political pundits, and analysts, think tank experts.
But we're hearing this from the president of a seminary?
HOUGH: Yeah. You are. And the reason you are is because I
think that it's not just a political pundit issue. It's not just
a think tank issue. It is a deep and profound theological issue.
And it has to do with whether we are faithful to the deepest
convictions called for by our faith.
Because the central teaching of Jesus is-announced when he
says, from Isaiah 61, "God has anointed me to preach good
news to the poor, deliverance to the captives, freedom to the
oppressed, and the year of Jubilee." And as you know, the
year of Jubilee was the year when land reform was supposed to
take place, debts were to be canceled, slaves freed.
Jesus drew from that Jewish tradition, that Covenental tradition,
and the obligation to care for the needy. Jesus Christ was a
Jew. To his soul, he was a Jew. By the time he was 11 years old,
people were absolutely astounded how well he knew the Jewish
He crafted his message in direct connection to the Jewish
tradition, and it was no accident that Luke put Isaiah 61 in
Jesus' mouth at Nazareth. "The spirit of God is upon me
because God has anointed me to preach good news to the poor."
If you go through the Gospel to Luke, the entire theme of Luke
It appears also in the Sermon on the Mount. It appears indirectly
in the feeding of the five thousand or four thousand, whichever
you want. It's reported four times in the Gospel, more than any
other single event in the life of Jesus. In every case, and it
also, in a way, it foreshadows the Eucharist. Because the Eucharistic
meal was first a meal for the people who were the followers of
Jesus. And if you look it Acts 3, you will see that those followers
of Jesus saw to it that people who didn't have enough to eat
could come to that table and get enough to eat. That was the
radical model they put out there. Nobody likes to talk about
that very much. But there it is. Right in the middle of Acts.
And they continued to worship in the temple. This is a continuity
with the best in the Jewish tradition, and it is also no accident
that there's some strong similarities in the Koran. And that
is why I think all of us in the Abrahamic traditions who share
this conviction about care for the least fortunate should simply
make some kind of public declaration that enough is enough. We've
gone far enough.
And it is not at all in the spirit of American democracy to
generate inequality, and to contradict equal opportunity in our
society. Those are not the norms we've lived by.
MOYERS: Again, I come back to the paradox, which is that-these
policies to which you are protesting, which you say are immoral-were
enacted by a Congress and an Administration elected to a significant
degree with the support of the religious right Conservative
Christians who got active in politics and saw that their candidates
were elected, and they're seeing now the policies that they believe
they elected those officials to carry out.
HOUGH: Well. That's true, Bill, but my Dad, as I told you,
is a Baptist preacher. He was until he was 84. And there was
a notorious drunk in town who when he got drunk, he really went
after preachers. But he said he was born-again Christian. And
one day, someone asked my father if he thought Brother Suggs
was a born-again Christian. And my father said, "Only God
But, you know, the Lord Jesus said, "By their fruits,
you shall know them." And speaking as a humble fruit inspector
of the Lord, I'd say that if this person is a Born Again Christian,
there's a mixed signal somewhere." I feel the same way.
If Tom Delay is acting out of his Born Again Christian convictions
in pushing legislation that disadvantages the poor every time
he opens his mouth, I'm not saying he's not a Born Again Christian,
but as a the Lord's humble fruit inspector, it sure looks suspicious
to me. And anybody who claims in the name of God they're gonna
run over people of other nations, and just willy-nilly, by your
own free will, reshape the world in your own image, and claim
that you're acting on behalf of God, that sounds a lot like Caesar
MOYERS: Can a secular democracy, in a pluralistic society,
where there are many faiths, including people of no faith, can
that democratic government be expected to represent the religious,
prophetic imperatives of people like you?
HOUGH: Well, maybe so, maybe not, Bill. But I'm getting tired
of people claiming they're carrying the banner of my religious
tradition when they're doing everything possible to undercut
it. And that's what's happening in this country right now. The
policies of this country are disadvantaging poor people every
day of our lives and every single thing that passes the Congress
these days is disadvantaging poor people more.
MOYERS: I don't think even conservatives dispute that the
inequality is growing in this country. You somehow sense that
inequality is more profoundly disruptive and dangerous than others.
HOUGH: I think some inequality in terms of economics is necessary.
That doesn't alarm me a great deal. It is the obscene degree
to which economic inequality has taken hold in America that I
think is highly questionable. There is no justification under
Heaven for some corporate executives to make 1,000 times as much
as their average worker. Their contribution may me great. But
it's no less than Peter Drucker, my colleague at Claremont for
25 years, said
MOYERS: Management guru par excellence.
HOUGH: Management guru and certainly nobody's fuzzy headed
liberal. Peter Drucker says, "This compromises the integrity
of a corporate executive. Why?" Because it does not accept,
and it does not in any way acknowledge the incredible contributions
of people who work at various levels, the various constituencies
of a corporation to its well being. It is driven by other factors
than acknowledgement of who contributes to the well being of
Now Bill, I'm not naive. Nobody believes that everybody can
be exactly the same, get the same. But there's certain bare minimums,
what Amartya Sen, my favorite development economist calls. A
Nobel Prize winner, Amartya Sen calls the capability to function
in society. And Sen says that no society can claim to be fair
if there are substantial number of its citizens who are not receiving
enough assistance or income to have the capability to function.
Now, what does that mean? It means to buy food, to have a place
to live, to have their children educated, to get reasonable health
care and a job.
And we want to ask the people of our traditions to join us
is asking every single political leader we encounter, "What
are you gonna do in order to help make this happen?" Let's
make that the litmus test of whether or not we're gonna vote
for a particular leader.
It's not a partisan issue. I mean, my God, who in the world
could possibly stand up and say, "I'm a Christian. I don't
think we should really give much attention to the life of the
poor." Some do. But I don't think it's a party line thing.
I mean, I'd like for this debate to be carried on in such
a way that we could, and here I'm talking about Abrahamic traditions.
We could ask ourselves "What changes in the direction of
this country are necessary if it really is gonna make a claim
to be a democracy?" We're not asking it to be a theocracy.
A democracy. That's what it's about. Politically, that's what
MOYERS: It's about?
HOUGH: It is about whether Democrats and Republicans who are
sensitive to this move, where people who are sensitive to this
move in our society politically, are able to get the will to
say, "Enough is enough." I mean, let's stop this business,
and let's look again and ask the question, "What will really
make this a country that we can be proud of, and one that that
pays attention to all the people, not just a few."
MOYERS: A recent Nobel Laureate has said that he thinks the
time is coming for civil disobedience again. What do you think
HOUGH: I think it may come to that. I think it may come to
that - I really do. I don't know what form it's to take. It's
got to be civil disobedience that is not destructive. One of
the problems I have with some of the demonstrations against for
example, the WTO and at Davos.
MOYERS: The World Trade Organization?
HOUGH: The World Trade Organization, and the Davos conferences
one of the problems I have with those is that some people seem
just bent on destruction and violence. And I think Martin Luther
King's exactly right. If you try to advance your cause with violence,
you provoke violence, and the way the world is structured, if
you try to promote your cause with violence, you're gonna lose.
The only way to promote your cause is civil disobedience and
the willingness to take the consequences for it. And I think
we're just about there.
MOYERS: Joe Hough, thank you very much.
HOUGH: Thank you.
Joseph C. Hough, former dean of the Vanderbilt Divinity School,
is currently President of the Faculty and William E. Dodge Professor
of Social Ethics at the Union Theological Seminary. Hough graduated
from Wake Forest University with a B.A. in 1955. He went on to
receive the B.D. (1959), the M.A. (1964), and the Ph.D. (1965)
from Yale University. Dr. Hough is an ordained minister in the
United Church of Christ, Congregational. His teaching and research
interests are in social ethics, theological education, the Church
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