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When trying to solve a problem, many Christians ask themselves: What would Jesus do? Well, that question is now at the center of a fierce debate about the economy, with conservatives promoting a small government Jesus, and liberals seeing Jesus as an advocate of more programs to help the poor.

NPR's Barbara Bradley Hagerty reports.

BARBARA BRADLEY HAGERTY, BYLINE: After the House passed its budget last month, liberal religious leaders said the Republican plan - which lowered taxes and cut services to the poor - was an affront to the Gospel and especially Jesus' command to care for the poor.

Not so, says Wisconsin Republican Paul Ryan, who chairs the House Budget Committee. He recently told Christian Broadcasting Network that it was his Catholic faith that helped shape the budget plan. In his view, the Catholic principle of subsidiarity suggests that government should have little role in helping the poor.

REPRESENTATIVE PAUL RYAN: Through our civic organizations, through our churches, through our charities, through all of our different groups where we interact with people as a community, that's how we advance the common good.

HAGERTY: The best thing that government can do, he said, is get out of the way.

STEPHEN SCHNECK: I think that he's completely missing the boat and not understanding the real heart, the real core, of Catholic social teaching.

HAGERTY: That's Stephen Schneck, a political scientist at Catholic University. He says Catholicism sees everyone as part of a mystical body that serves one another. True, the New Testament does not specifically speak to the government's role...

SCHNECK: But charities and individuals and churches can't do it all. When charities are already stretched to their limit, Catholic social teaching expects the state to step up and to fill that gap.

HAGERTY: Peter Montgomery at People for the American Way says conservative evangelicals have been arguing for years that the Bible favors a free market system. But since Barack Obama was elected, he says, they've shifted into high gear.

PETER MONTGOMERY: They are finding biblical justification for opposition to progressive taxation, opposition to unions and collective bargaining, opposition to the minimum wage, opposition even to social welfare spending and Social Security.

HAGERTY: Because, in their view, he says, God intends the government to have a minimal role in society. You heard echoes of that from megachurch pastor Rick Warren, who was asked about the budget recently on ABC's "This Week."

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THIS WEEK")

RICK WARREN: The primary purpose of government is to keep the peace, protect the citizens, provide opportunity. And when we start getting into all kinds of other things, I think we invite greater control. And I'm fundamentally about freedom.

HAGERTY: Evangelicals cite the book of Romans, which is one of the few places in the New Testament that refers to civil government. Then there's the conservative resistance to taxation, which some say violates the 8th Commandment: Thou shalt not steal. Richard Land at the Southern Baptist Convention says of course Jesus paid his taxes and advised followers to do the same. But he says...

RICHARD LAND: The Bible tells us that socialism and neo-socialism never worked. Confiscatory tax rates never work.

HAGERTY: The Bible never mentions socialism, obviously, but Land says the whole of scripture says that people are sinful and selfish and therefore...

LAND: People aren't going to work very hard and very productively unless they get to keep a substantial portion of that which they make for them and for their families.

HAGERTY: For other religious conservatives, the Bible is a blueprint for robust capitalism. Recently, on his radio program, "Wallbuilders," David Barton and a guest discussed Jesus' parable of the vineyard owner.

In it, the owner pays the worker he hires at the end of the day the same wage as he pays the one who begins work in the morning. Many theologians have long interpreted this as God's grace being available right up to the last minute. But Barton sees the parable as a bar to collective bargaining.

DAVID BARTON: Where were unions in all this? The contract is between an employer and an employee. It's not between a group. He went out and hired individually the guys he wanted to work.

HAGERTY: Stephen Schneck at Catholic University says many Christians would not recognize this Gospel, and he says there are more biblical verses about feeding the hungry and taking care the least of these. Schneck agrees that the Bible encourages initiative and hard work. But he says theologians through the ages have said there must be a balance.

SCHNECK: Pope after pope after pope argued that we're called to be more than market creatures; we're called, in fact, to always bear in mind the common good and our responsibilities to others.

HAGERTY: We can probably expect both parties to claim Jesus as their favorite economist in the months to come.

Barbara Bradley Hagerty, NPR News.

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