Call it Providence, luck, or simply the world we live in, but the Internet has produced another star. In this case, it is a country music singer and songwriter from Virginia with the stage name Oliver Anthony. While he had already been publishing songs on Spotify, his YouTube video for the song “Rich Men North of Richmond” has exploded in popularity and catapulted him into the realms of both fame and infamy.
It is a simple song sung with a strong, soulful voice while Anthony strums a Dobro. It is the protest echoed in the lyrics, however, that adds to the heartfelt lament in the melody.
In one particular section, Oliver sings:
Orthodox. Faithful. Free.
Sign up to get Crisis articles delivered to your inbox daily
Lord, we got folks in the street, ain’t got nothin’ to eat
And the obese milkin’ welfare.
Well, God, if you’re 5-foot-3 and you’re 300 pounds
Taxes ought not to pay for your bags of fudge rounds
On the surface, these words are a direct criticism of someone using government subsidized money—money meant to feed those without needed means—to buy unhealthy foods, resulting in being grossly overweight. It is a declaration that if you want to eat until you are overweight, you should spend your own money and not money meant for the unfortunate.
In response to the criticism in these lyrics, Hannah Anderson wrote in Christianity Today an article titled, “Oliver Anthony’s Viral Hit Doesn’t Love Its Neighbors.” Her main, well, protest is that people who legitimately receive subsided money for purchasing food are stereotyped and marginalized with words like “welfare.” She recounts her own time of seeking food subsidies when her pastor husband could not earn enough to feed their five children and their particular church was not able to give him enough of a raise to cover their expenses:
But protest against wealthy elites and government corruption, no matter how justified, cannot ride on the backs of others who are also suffering. The price of accessing food through SNAP or a church food pantry must not be the poor’s dignity and self-worth.
Mrs. Anderson’s complaint is true enough. Those who are in genuine need and receive government help should not be ostracized for doing so (though it can be easily argued that private charity is far more in keeping with Catholic principles than federal subsidies). What Anderson does not like is the word “welfare” and its connotations. In and of itself, the word simply describes government subsidies for food and shelter. The negative connections are derived entirely from the real and perceived exploitation of these subsidies by those who do not have real need.
What the song is protesting is not the hungry and homeless receiving genuine help. It is the fat and satiated who abuse their subsidies by eating for pleasure rather than necessity. A bag of fudge rounds is not the same as milk, eggs, and bread. If someone is buying enough unhealthy food to become obese, then their need for the subsidies comes into serious question. What the song is protesting is not the hungry and homeless receiving genuine help. It is the fat and satiated who abuse their subsidies by eating for pleasure rather than necessity.Tweet This
The accusation that Anthony’s song is not loving one’s neighbor misses the point. The blunt observations are, indeed, an act of charity, in that they expose both material and spiritual realities.
Obesity in the United States is a serious problem. According to the CDC, 41 percent of Americans qualify as overweight and/or obese. And the list of health issues associated with obesity is long. During the Covid crisis, obesity was, and still is, considered a factor in whether or not a person would develop a serious case of infection, which led to death for many.
As an aside, it might be argued that if restaurants and stores offered healthier alternatives, there would not be an obesity problem. The economics of Supply and Demand, though, speak for themselves. The 41 percent of Americans who spend money, either earned or subsidized, on unhealthy food do so because they want to and choose to, even though subsidies are supposed to come with limitations meant to prevent misuse.
Being obese reveals spiritual problems as well. One of the deadly sins is gluttony. When someone consumes more than they need, they are most likely committing a venial sin; but if they consume large amounts of food well past satisfying hunger, such as getting a fourth plate at a buffet when two plates were enough, they have likely crossed the line into mortal sin.
If someone is eating copious amounts of food for the sake of pleasure and is obese because of it, he may very well be in a state of mortal sin. Doing so with government subsidies adds to the sin by allowing for the deadly sin of sloth. Not being willing to work for one’s own food and then gorging on tasty junk food because it is free is to add sin upon sin.
While Anthony may not have been thinking in such spiritual terms, the truth of what he wrote still carries weight. Loving one’s neighbor, including the obese, sometimes includes the truth of a situation, even if that truth is unpopular. This is why “Rich Men North of Richmond” has struck a nerve with so many who have heard it.