1 percenter's religious fraud: Why Ken Langone is an enemy of the Church

What it really means when Home Depot's co-founder, a self-described Catholic, slams the pope's ministry to the poor

Published March 21, 2014 11:43AM (EDT)

  (AP/Shiho Fukada/Andrew Medichini/photo collage by Salon)
(AP/Shiho Fukada/Andrew Medichini/photo collage by Salon)

You might remember Ken Langone, billionaire and co-founder of Home Depot, as the remarkably unflinching character who threatened to withdraw donations from the Catholic Church back in 2013 because he was ruffled by Pope Francis’ ministry to the poor. "You get more with honey than with vinegar,” Langone reportedly informed Cardinal Timothy Dolan (meaning “crumbs of my immense fortune” by “more,” “distortions of Christ’s message” by “honey,” and “faithful witness to Scripture” by “vinegar"). Third- and fourth-century heretics lived and died without ever coming up with such a dazzlingly warped view of Christianity, and Langone is at it again, unabashed as ever.

Speaking of populist political appeals to the downtrodden, Langone told Politico this week: “I hope it’s not working. Because if you go back to 1933, with different words, this is what Hitler was saying in Germany. You don’t survive as a society if you encourage and thrive on envy or jealousy.”

Langone is right that political efforts to support the poor resemble Hitler’s regime “with different words” insofar as the words used by the Nazis in support of their reign of terror are not even remotely similar to those used to campaign for minimum wage hikes and universal healthcare. In that regard all political regimes are virtually identical but with “different words.” While it’s always a magical moment when diminishment of Jewish suffering aligns in a perfect storm of ignorance with anti-poor Christianist whining, the quickest way to slice through the nonsense is to have a quick peek at what the persecuted Catholics executed by Hitler’s brutal regime had to say about the support of the poor.

Take, for instance, Alfred Delp, a Jesuit priest and resistance member who was executed by the Nazis in 1945 for his work against Nazi tyranny. Writing in prison, Delp outlined the necessary establishments needed for human flourishing, arguing that “an ‘existence minimum’ consisting of sufficient living space, stable law and order and adequate nourishment, is indispensable. The “socialism of the minimum” is not the last word on the subject but the essential first word, the start. No faith, no education, no government, no science, no art, no wisdom will help humankind if the unfailing certainty of the minimum is lacking …”

If the Catholics murdered by the Nazis were strong enough yet in their faith to die bearing incredible witness to the necessity of establishing a firm ground for all to flourish upon, one wonders what’s so harrowing that Langone and his ilk have been so thoroughly turned against the cause of the poor. His argument that appeals for the improvement of the conditions of the most vulnerable members of society are based purely on envy and jealousy are also notably theologically unschooled and suggestive of a pretty overt ulterior motive.

Most simply put by Thomas Aquinas, envy is sorrow at another’s good. To envy is not to covet: One covets things while one envies people. Envy therefore intimates ill will against a person whom one perceives as having achieved or obtained a good. In that sense it is the opposite of charity not because it takes, necessarily, but because it requires a destructive attitude toward a person. In Langone’s case, an uncharitable attitude underlies his entire worldview: not in that he doesn’t give money, but in that he refuses to charitably imagine the intent of social programs for the poor. One could (and should) charitably view said programs as efforts to build up an existence minimum toward the goal of flourishing; instead, Langone suggests they’re merely petty efforts at making him and other extremely rich people less happy due to paltry little personal hatred on behalf of the poor and/or the people who campaign for those programs.

Some will always have more than others; this is no reason to hate them. When some have more to the exclusion of others having enough, it is a reason to correct that arrangement. Petty personal malice may be involved on behalf of some, but it’s madness to prefer the moral discipline of those unknown few to the many who would materially benefit from programs that improve the lives of the poor. And before the conversation dissolves into whether or not the poor in the United States really do need assistance, a recent study shows that rich people in the United States not only live better but longer than their poor counterparts, meaning that poverty itself is anti-life and anti-flourishing. The claim that anyone who takes exception with this arrangement must just be envious and jealous wrongly situates the rich person as the center of moral concern in the creation of policies for the poor, which they are not: The poor are. Though the rich might have a difficult time believing they are anything other than the subject of all consideration at all times, it is sometimes the case that policies are undertaken with an eye for the least of these, not the greatest.

Lastly, it is neither envious nor covetous to desire justice. Justice is God’s will for humanity, and it can never be sinful to desire what God desires for mankind: after all, desiring what God desires is the foundation of human flourishing, not a threat to it. Christians like Langone are thus an extraordinary threat to the moral authority of the religion as they effectively intend to undo what people like Pope Francis set out to do: witness faithfully to the Gospels with a heart to use all tools we’re given to support our vulnerable brothers and sisters. When Christian ethics, such as the prohibition of envy, are used to cast doubt on the rightfulness of justice for the poor and to frame the weak as evil and undeserving, all relationships of mercy and charity and love disintegrate in favor of pushing Christianity into the service of the dominant culture of consumerist free market capitalism.

By Elizabeth Stoker Bruenig

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Catholicism Editor's Picks Inequality Kenneth Langone Pope Francis The One Percent The Poor The Pope