When (Loan) Forgiveness Becomes a Conservative (Christian) Devil Term

When (Loan) Forgiveness Becomes a Conservative (Christian) Devil Term

There’s been some gold out there in the reasonable world the last few days since the student loan forgiveness policy was announced, especially in responding to the conservative Christian rhetoric critiquing the policy. In the remainder of this piece, I hope to build on these excellent critiques that are already out there as well as some previous pieces here. In so doing I plan to discuss the details of why at least some conservative Christians are decrying student loan forgiveness when, as many have pointed out, debt forgiveness is literally a cornerstone of much of biblical narrative. In so doing I hope to help explain how right-leaning Christians who are reactively critiquing the program may be participating in fascistic rhetoric.  

Why This Is Personal—and Professional—for Me

So as always, I’m coming at this as a pastor’s kid from a right-leaning moderate church. That church actually emphasized education a lot, but it specifically emphasized Christian education, as I’ve discussed in the past. Nonetheless, I grew up to get a PhD in Communication and have taught at a variety of public and private universities in recent years.

This last part is extremely relevant. See, I went to school for undergrad long enough ago that my undergrad education at a private institution was cheaper than students I’ve taught much more recently at a regional public university that’s now considered to be a “good deal school.” That makes me sad.

We regularly have evidence-based problem-solving discussions in my group communication classroom. And tuition and loan stuff comes up quite a bit. Which means I’ve worked through the evidence with students quite a lot.

Understanding Fascistic Rhetoric and Propaganda

I also come, as I’ve now discussed many times, from a discipline that’s consciously been working since the world wars to unwrap unhealthy propaganda techniques and combat them, especially those from fascistic rhetoric and policies.

I’ve previously talked about fascistic rhetoric here, here, here, here, and here, among other places. One of the things I haven’t yet covered about fascistic rhetoric, from Jason Stanley’s excellent and accessible How Fascism Works, is the fact that fascistic rhetoric is filled with causing harms against groups of people and then victim-blaming those same groups for the consequences of their own actions.

The student loan crisis, which if you look at the data, is largely a result of the removal of government funding from universities (thereby creating the exorbitant tuition rises of recent decades), is definitely an example of this. Especially when put alongside many other policies that have resulted in stagnant wages for people in all types of jobs.

This frame is really helpful moving into the student loan forgiveness topic. Especially when thinking about the further financial crises that the pandemic and the inflation that followed caused for those with existing student loans.

Close to Home Religiously as Well

So yeah, this topic is close to home professionally for me. It’s also close to home religiously.

Forgive Us Our Debts? Or Maybe Only Us…

See, I grew up in a context where we used the translation of the Lord’s Prayer that uses “debts,” as in “forgive us our debts, as we’ve forgiven our debtors.” And despite a range of understandings around atonement theories, there was a lot of singing of hymns and songs referencing Christ paying our debts on the cross.

So it’s been FASCINATING this week to see all the reactive conservative Christian rhetoric coming out against student loan forgiveness, and all the Tweets and memes coming out pointing out just those kinds of foundational things about a lot of Christian theology.

Oh, Wait, Maybe Only Abusive or Exploitive Folks…Wait, that Doesn’t Sound Like Jesus…

It’s been especially interesting to hear all of this anti-(loan) forgiveness rhetoric from the right this week in light of the use and often abuse of the “unlimited forgiveness” paradigm in ways that end up centering abusers over and above their victims. (I talked about this here.)

And yeah, based on the Tweets and memes that have been pouring out about the hypocrisy of some of this, I am definitely not alone in noting this.

Especially when considering the lack of governmental funding for higher education is hitting vulnerable groups the most, and Jesus had all sorts of strong words against abuse and exploitation, it’s pretty clear that these sentiments don’t come from Jesus, that’s for sure.

When the “Literalists” Get All Contextual On You…

Others have commented that Christians who claim to be literalists are suddenly getting all “but that was metaphorical/spiritual/a different time and place” when it comes to questions of debt. Or they’re taking the popular out, a fascinating twist for people who mostly identify with *Christian nationalist rhetoric,* that the Bible is only meant to apply to *individuals* rather than to governments.

All of this is true and the disjunctions are soooo worth calling out. They’re just SO OBVIOUS.

And yeah, as many are pointing out, these disjunctions point out that we’re not actually working with standard Christian theology here so much as fascistic anti-education/anti-people who are wanting to help people who aren’t hugely rich rhetoric.

Fascistic Rhetoric—Not Allowed to Deal with Real Texts and Such!

None of which means that we can’t have legitimate differences over solutions to the problems of rising university tuition. But, as Stanley points out in How Fascism Works, engaging in reality with real-world problems is, well, opposite day for fascistic rhetoric.

Which is how suddenly, as one meme hilariously and aptly puts it (see the AS Facebook page this week for a bunch of these memes if you’re reading after I just posted this!), a bunch of conservative church worship leaders have likely been scrambling to make sure no song with debt-paying metaphors ends up on the screen this weekend.

Because, well, it would be terrible if someone thought that the idea of paying off debts might be actually LITERAL. (Even though lots of places in the Bible make it clear it is just that there.)

But Where Do Those Questions of DESERVING Come From?

But today and here I want to focus on something I haven’t heard discussed much in this recent conversation, which is the broad theological underpinnings I think are being exploited by bad actors to get conservative Christians to come out against student loan forgiveness.

Which is to say all the teachings across much of conservative and moderate Christianity that none of us DESERVE anything—that all the good things are gift of God.

The Opposite of Prosperity Gospel and “Works Righteousness”?

These teachings, which often come packaged with the idea of original sin, were definitely taught to me growing up. See, my upbringing was very against prosperity gospel teachings that if we just prayed hard enough, we would be given what we needed.

We were taught that we didn’t deserve anything, ever, basically. That whole gift of Jesus dying on the cross for us? Well, that wasn’t because of anything we did.

This teaching was also presented to me, in good old fashion that went all the way back to the Protestant Reformation, as over and against “works righteousness”—the idea that a person could somehow work their way into heaven.

And yeah, sure, all of this is presented in the context of the idea of God’s profligate grace for people. You have your Parable of the Prodigal Son, for instance. And that one about how the last people in the vineyard to work were paid the same as the first.

Oh Wait, But…Conservative Churchy Exceptionalism…

But that idea of grace, of profligate forgiveness?

It’s SO D*MNED EASY to layer on churchy exceptionalism to that idea. And I can see now how much my upbringing was steeped in that combo platter. I’ve talked about churchy exceptionalism previously here and here—it’s the idea that people in the church are somehow better than those outside the church.

When “Conservative Churchy Exceptionalism” Meets Undeserving Meets Fascistic Rhetoric

And when you intersect this with conservative political leanings as well, complete with fascistic demonization of the other side? Well, having grown up with all the anti-“secular humanism” rhetoric that saw education as a battleground (I wrote about this here), and in a right-leaning moderate denomination that thought Christian education was so important in a slightly quieter way, I totally get how (secular) education might be seen as Other.

When those two things become fused together, a kind of conservative (Christian only in parentheses) monstrous viewpoint might be brought roaring to life. I can see how suddenly all of those passage in the Bible might become blindingly “contextual” all of a sudden.

And yeah, with a lot of really selective reading, I can see how that whole concept of “none of us deserve anything” can get twisted together with “everything good comes from God” to somehow justify not giving basic debt relief for usurious loans to humans.

(Even though, again, the Bible is strongly against usurious loans and literally mandates forgiving all debts every few years.)

Wait…Did that Take Us Away from Key Biblical Themes? Oops!

Especially since many of those humans who are benefiting from these policies are not active in the church, even. (Insert many eyeroll emojis.)

But let’s be clear: as, ironically, all of my Christian education and mandatory childhood Bible dives have taught me, in order to maintain this view, you really do have to go against A TON of the major themes of Scripture.

If you’re thinking this way, but subscribe to that whole forgive us our debts thing, the substitutionary atonement, etc. etc. etc. you have to be working through some MAJOR cognitive dissonance.

Over-Spiritualized Language Only Goes So Far

You can spiritualize your conservative churchy exceptionalism all you want—“the only faithful way to have your needs met is to ask God, not other humans,” blah blah blah.

But ultimately, what you’re really doing is showing many non-Christians how anti-education you are—at least for groups of people you’d rather not be educated (oops, is that the quiet part out loud?). And resentful you are about other people receiving free gifts.

To Those Who Keep Taking On the Wrong Roles in Jesus’ Parables—Ooops!

And just to build on that, let’s be clear: if you’re in a previous generation who had cheaper education because of governmental funding and you’re begrudging this small measure now (I know many of my audience are fine with it!), you are definitely exactly the person you’re critiquing.

If you’re in that camp: Stop projecting outward, friends. And deal with your own discomforts that if you were born and raised and educated in a previous era, there are some bits of progress you received, but also a lot of regressive things you missed out on.

Don’t be the eldest son in the Parable of the Prodigal Son. It’s not a great look on you.

Jesus came to draw attention to that sort of thing.

Maybe listen to him?

Again, Let’s Work Together to Actually Solve the Problems

At any rate, I could go on—there are so many aspects to this that I could unwrap.

And let’s be clear, I’m with the people who think that this particular step isn’t enough to fix hardly anything. There are other and more complete measures to be taken in this area for sure.

But it is helping some people quite a bit, and will help others quite a bit moving forward as well, provided the action stands.

Time to Keep Fighting Against Decades of Anti-Higher Ed Policy

If nothing else, this particular policy has done an excellent job of pulling out the fascism in a lot of conservative religio-poltical rhetoric in stark terms. And that’s a huge gift, honestly, for those of us seeking to help reasonable people to understand how disturbing this rhetoric is.

We need to keep fighting toward reversal of decades of anti-higher education fascistic rhetoric and policies against our students. We can do this.

But as we move forward, let’s be mindful of the anti-education forces in our society—and let’s keep working to push back toward a healthier system. And let’s continue to push back against subtly fascistic rhetoric that tries to bring a disturbing form of institutionalized conservative Christian exceptionalism to national policy.

A Final Charge

Go team #AssertiveSpirituality! Let’s continue to do what we can where we are with what we’ve got to work toward a healthier world for us all. We can do this thing.  

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When (Loan) Forgiven…

by DS Leiter Time to read: 9 min
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