Religious leaders and congregations are strangely silent while a fierce debate is occurring about whether to allow reductions in tax rates to expire that were enacted in 2001 and 2003 at the behest of then President George W. Bush.
The debate over extending the Bush-era tax cuts is part of a longstanding and larger argument dating to the presidency of Ronald Reagan, who campaigned for the Republican nomination for president by urging that taxes be slashed “to reduce the size of government.” By his reckoning, government was too large, too intrusive and imposed too many regulatory burdens on private enterprise.
George H.W. Bush, Reagan’s major opponent for the Republican presidential nomination, called Reagan’s perspective “voodoo economics.” But Reagan won the Republican nomination and later was elected president. Reducing tax rates was one of his signal efforts. Slashing tax rates led to the largest federal deficits in U.S. history at that time.
By the time Reagan’s presidency ended, cutting taxes was so much a part of Republican ideology that his successor, George H.W. Bush, promised “no new taxes” when he accepted the 1988 Republican nomination for president. After his election, the first President Bush realized the folly of that pledge. So he supported a modest increase in tax rates to provide needed revenue to the federal treasury. Conservatives in the Republican Party never forgave him.
The tax increases that Bush supported, coupled with budget measures enacted early during President Bill Clinton’s first term, led to budget surpluses. By the time Clinton’s presidency ended in 2001, the federal debt was going down and budget surpluses were going up.
George W. Bush spent the surplus money on the tax cuts, which are scheduled to expire Jan. 1. The tax cuts didn’t produce job growth anywhere close to what President Bush promised. Federal law requires that they expire Jan. 1 because they add to the federal deficit (federal budget policy sets a 10-year limit on tax cuts that increase the federal debt). People who want to make the tax cuts permanent hope to extend them until they have votes in Congress to do so.
So when President Obama’s Treasury Secretary, Timothy Geithner, recommended extending the Bush-era tax cuts for persons earning less than $200,000 and couples earning less than $250,000, he was channeling Reagan’s philosophy of denying revenue to the federal government.
Ironically, Obama’s administration is embracing Reagan’s thinking about denying government the revenue needed to pay for programs and policies, such as Medicare, Social Security, funds for education, environmental regulations and other regulatory measures that conservatives consider harmful to free enterprise.
People who follow the religion of Jesus should pay attention to this debate for several reasons. In the first place, Reagan’s notion about denying government the revenue needed to care for senior citizens, to provide education and to regulate private enterprise so that foreseeable harms are less likely to occur – if not prevented altogether – violates the biblical imperative that political leaders protect people from harm. According to the Bible, caring for poor, sick, defenseless, vulnerable and weak people is part of executing justice, an essential function of government.
Political leaders are supposed to execute justice for vulnerable people and communities. They cannot fulfill that duty without the revenue produced by taxes. Cutting taxes to starve the government means weakening the protection government owes poor, sick, defenseless, vulnerable and weak people and our threatened environment.
Obama knows this is true. His willingness to extend the Bush-era tax cuts merely shows he lacks the political will to allow the cuts to expire and restore badly needed revenue to the federal treasury so government can execute justice more effectively.
It’s unlikely that Obama will insist on allowing the tax cuts to expire in 2012. After all, 2012 is a presidential election year. A third of the Senate and every member of Congress will be seeking re-election. If he doesn’t have the fortitude to allow the Bush-era tax cuts to expire now, Obama surely won’t have it when he’s running for re-election against opponents who will be clamoring to extend the tax cuts, if not make them permanent.
Pastors and congregations say we believe God has ordained government to execute justice. Our indifference toward or support for tax cutting says more about our devotion to God and justice than we realize.
Have we forgotten Jesus warned against trying to serve God and materialism? Or do we love tax cutting because materialism is our god?
Wendell L. Griffen is pastor of New Millennium Church in Little Rock, Ark.
Pastor at New Millennium Church in Little Rock, Arkansas, a state court trial judge, a trustee of the Samuel DeWitt Proctor Conference, author of one book and three blogs, and a consultant on cultural competency and inclusion.