The deficit and budget battles in Washington make clear that the divisions between us are deep, even spiritual.
The fight is not 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 more than 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 shorter 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.”
U.S. Rep. Michele Bachmann brings another clear 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.
Recalling her own family’s struggle against poverty as she was growing up, Bachmann has said: “We had our faith in God, we depended on our neighbors, we depended on ourselves, and we just did without … And we were just grateful for what we had. We knew that one day things would be better than they were. And God was faithful, and they were better.”
Her view of government, perhaps shaped by her law-school training, may explain her questioning of Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner in a congressional hearing over federal bailout programs.
She asked: “What provision in the Constitution could you point to that would give authority for the extraordinary actions taken by the Treasury since March of ’08? What specifically in the Constitution?”
She has called for the abolition of the Departments of Education, Energy and Commerce: “Wherever we can cut and abolish, we should cut and abolish.”
Those 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.
Protestants for the Common Good believe that freedom exists in two forms: We are free from loyalty to anyone or anything 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.
Those who are for smaller government rarely express concern for people in need, even though almost 20 percent of Illinois children live in poverty, only about half of the people who need treatment for mental illness receive it, and after health care reform, there will be more than 700,000 Illinoisans without health coverage.
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. How can the views of Ayn Rand be reconciled 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.
They are expressed as ideology and pursued through politics and the media. But they have an underlying spiritual basis that is as profound and explicit as it was at any time in our national history.
Alexander E. Sharp has served since 1996 as the founding executive director of ProtestantsfortheCommonGood, a faith-based education and advocacy organization in Illinois. His column first appeared in Sightings.
Watch the trailer below for EthicsDaily.com’s documentary on faith and taxes, “Sacred Texts, Social Duty,” and click here to learn more about it.