Civil War

The debt crisis looming in Washington makes clear that we are in the midst of a new civil war in this country. The divisions between us are deep, even spiritual.

The fight is not really over the size of the deficit, nor even about expenditure cuts. It is about taxes as the lifeblood of government.

Why are taxes so important? The playbook is no secret. Grover Norquist, the founder of Americans for Tax Reform and the driving force behind the “no-tax-increase” stance, said it over 20 years ago: “Our goal is to shrink government to the size where we can drown it in a bath tub.” The way to do that is to cut taxes.

The George W. Bush administration supported this goal. It happily organized the political religious right concerned about social issues: pro-choice, sexual orientation, sex education, and school prayer. Many of the religious right feared that secular values were eroding their fundamentalist reading of the Bible. Their numbers swelled Republican ranks.

Those seeking to limit the size of government surely continue to welcome this faith-based support, but they now have a new moral underpinning: Ayn Rand as their resident philosopher.

We do not need to tackle her 800-page “novels” to get her message. The title of one of her smaller essays says it all: “The Virtue of Selfishness.” In it she writes, “Altruism is incompatible with freedom, with capitalism, and with individual rights. One cannot combine the pursuit of happiness with the moral status of a sacrificial animal.” For her, the Great Commandment to love your neighbor is tantamount to “moral cannibalism.”

Michele Bachmann brings another clear and—to me—alarming spiritual perspective. She received her legal training at Oral Roberts University School of Law. The curriculum was based on Christian Reconstructionism, which argues that “God granted certain jurisdictional authority to the government, the church, and the family—therefore any government action exceeding its God-granted authority is in violation of God’s commands. “ Under this view, it is not within the government’s ‘authority’ to take care of the poor.

We who believe government has a role in providing society’s safety net think it is essential to give a hand to those whom society counts least. Protestants for the Common Good, for example, supported the recent tax increase in Illinois because we were both saddened and shocked at the cuts in human services. Aid to children, the elderly, the mentally ill, and the disabled has been reduced by $3.1 billion since 2002 and $600 million in the current year alone.

We believe that freedom exists in two forms: we are free from loyalty to anyone or thing other than God; and we are free for the opportunity to serve all whom God loves. We are free to care for, and love, others. That’s what our faith calls us to do.

The political religious right may argue that they want the same things we do. But they would say that it is freedom from government that makes it possible for people to flourish. The best way to help others is to get government out of the way.

In disagreeing, I think is time for progressive Christians to insist that those who hold this view start talking in something other than negative terms. Those who are for smaller government rarely express concern for people in need. We don’t hear them acknowledge that almost 20% of Illinois children live in poverty, that only about half of people who need treatment for mental illness receive it, that after health care reform, there will be over 700,000 Illinoisans without health coverage. These concerns just never come up.

Those of us who think government is central to establishing community and serving others have been enablers in this debate. We have not insisted that the political religious right, and those who oppose raising the debt ceiling, explain why the current deficit is so high. We have not pressed for a public discussion of how the economy performed under the tax cuts and financial deregulation starting in 2000. And for those on the political right who profess the Christian faith, it is time for them to reconcile the views of Ayn Rand with Jesus’ concern for the poor.

There is no Christian answer to complicated matters of public policy. But there are spiritual values that should inform how we think about such questions. The divisions now are clear and deep. If we act as though they do not exist, we are endorsing the status quo. That is something we know Jesus never did.

(The assertions about Christian Reconstructionism and Oral Roberts University Law School are drawn from an excellent piece by Sarah Posner in the July 11 issue of Religious Dispatches.)

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