In his best-selling book “God’s Politics,” Jim Wallis argues that governmental budgets and tax policies are moral issues. The reason why? Because the way communities raise revenue, normally in the form of taxes, and how that money is spent in the form of programs and services, affect people’s lives. That means budgets have moral consequences. The moral standard for Wallis, of course, is the biblical vision of economic justice.
Susan Pace Hamill, a University of Alabama law professor, has taken Wallis’ basic insight to a whole new level. Writing in the 2006 Virginia Law Review, Hamill suggests that depending on how funds are generated and spent, a governmental budget may actually reflect what she calls an “atheistic” worldview.
Professor Hamill cites the thinking of Grover Norquist as a case in point. Norquist is a well-known conservative anti-tax activist. He is best known for his quip that government should be starved until it is small enough to drown in a bath tub. And the way to starve government is accomplished is by means of tax cuts. For Norquist it’s a win/win. People are allowed to keep more of the money they earn, and without tax revenue government cannot fund its various programs.
Hamill argues that Norquist’s ideas reflect an atheistic world view—that is a view of the world which does not believe that God has any interest in economic matters. Norquist, and many other conservative thinkers, believe that people should, first and foremost, actively pursue in their own rational self interest. The only role government should have is protecting individuals while they pursue their own self interest.
The reason this sort of thinking is atheistic, according to Hamill, is that it makes the individual person the center of the universe. For those who believe that God is the creator and owner of the universe, making individual self interest the most important thing in life is a form of idolatry–idolizing the self. We may recall that when Jesus was asked what was the most important thing in life, he replied, “Love God with all your heart, and your neighbor as yourself.”
Professor Hamill points out that Norquist has had significant influence on President Bush’s economic policies. The President’s commitment to tax cuts, especially for the wealthiest of the wealthy, defies economic logic, according to Hamill. In the face of an expensive war and with the devastating impact of several natural disasters, continuing to cut taxes doesn’t make any sense.
And it is immoral. While conservatives continue trying to shrink government down to the size where they can drown it in a bath tub, it is the poor, the elderly and the vulnerable in our society who are actually drowning. While providing massive tax cuts for America’s most wealthy citizens, programs that help the elderly and children, the Bible’s widows and orphans, have been drastically cut.
Professor Hamill finds it interesting that over 80 percent of Americans claim some affiliation with either Judaism or Christianity. In the scriptural traditions of these two faiths there is a consistent call for the community to take care of the weak and the poor. The command to do this is referred to repeatedly as “the word of the Lord.”
Wouldn’t it be tragically ironic if the most overtly Christian president we have ever had, in a country that is dominated by believers in the Judeo-Christian tradition, put together and defended a tax and spend policy that is grounded in a philosophy that completely disregards the will of God.
James L. Evans is pastor of Auburn First Baptist Church in Auburn, Ala.