Some stars seem to be aligning in a way that makes clear what is happening in our congressional leaders’ efforts to respond to our deep economic deficit problem.
· First star: Wail and woe over how much “government spending” goes to “entitlement programs” – Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid.
· Second star: A Republican plan proposing $4 trillion of deep cuts over 10 years to these entitlement programs with little or no reductions of benefit for oil companies, banks, defense and other corporate entities. Billed as a “prosperity plan,” it is exactly that – for some.
· Third star: A March 24 New York Times story followed by Robert Parham’s March 28 editorial reporting that General Electric, with worldwide profits of $14.2 billion last year, paid no income tax on its $5.1 billion in U.S. profits.
· Fourth star: Sen. Bernie Sanders’ press release identifying the top 10 corporations that benefit most from our tax system, paying little or no federal income taxes.
· Fifth star: The Supreme Court’s ruling in January 2010, overturning its own 20-year-old ruling that limited corporate contributions to political campaigns.
What should concern us about this new constellation of reality is not that a judicious effort is being made to address our economic challenge; there is little question how needed and necessary that is.
Rather, it is becoming clear that what is billed as “entitlement reform” is simply a not-very-thinly-veiled effort to reduce one kind of entitlement in order to protect and preserve another.
The problem for folks who want to embrace and apply a biblical ethic for making public decisions and establishing public policy is that this revolution in entitlement thinking is exchanging a long-standing and helpful entitlement of need and collective support (perhaps one of the best examples of American “exceptionalism”) for an entitlement of power.
The image comes to mind of the bully on the playground who transforms playtime into a game of king of the hill – just because he can and wants to.
The age-old distinction between a covenant community and institutions of power (often its own) seems only to change costumes through history. The classical prophets challenged the royal theology of the Davidic kingdom and its misplaced priorities and tolerance of injustice; they identified and called out its replacement of the power of covenant with a covenant of power.
The early Christian message offered a concept of a new kingdom as an alternative to the expansionist power of the empire. The Reformation challenged the ecclesiastical power of the Church with an emphasis on grace and personal faith.
The “American experiment” has been an effort to combine a commitment to the opportunity to pursue “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” with the kind of compassion and justice that protects those who for one reason or another have not overachieved in the competitive contest.
“Compassionate capitalism” is a term that might describe the economic ideal we would hope to follow.
But this ideal is a delicate balance to maintain, as its historical predecessors have shown us. While we are being encouraged to accept radical frugality on entitlements of need and protection, we are cleverly being distracted from the preservation of entitlements of greed and power.
The new representatives of the people (and many of the old ones) are clearly “dancin’ with the ones that brung ’em,” and the long-term consequences for our well-established systems of collective support are being pushed into the shadows so they can’t be seen.
The irony of this situation is that many of those who stand to be harmed most in the long run by this exchange are the ones most easily distracted from seeing it for what it is.
Colin Harris is professor of religious studies at Mercer University and a member of Smoke Rise Baptist Church in Stone Mountain, Ga.
Editor’s note: Click here to learn more about “Sacred Texts, Social Duty,” the EthicsDaily.com documentary on faith and taxes.