April 10, 2011

Morality and public policy

As everyone knows, I am stunned by the lack of compassion and morality from the right in these recent years. Using the cover of fiscal responsibility, conservatives are in open attack-mode on the poor and the weak. Slacktivist notes that even the Economist thinks Paul Ryan's plan is “fundamentally immoral.”

But I see this just about everywhere I turn. People on FB saying that they don't think that well-off Americans should be mandated to pay taxes for social programs, but think that they should be allowed to just give as the Holy Spirit tells. I know I am cynical, but I suspect that this guy's Holy Spirit would oddly agree with him that he shouldn't have to give too much. Or the woman on another thread joking about how stupid liberals lie and cheat to steal money for the poor and then stick conservatives like her with the bill. Or the aforementioned person referring to taxation as "robbing" him. Oh, and a friend of mine told me that his neighbor ranked Ayn Rand's books with the Bible in importance. I told him that his neighbor hadn't read either, and had to pull out this quote from Leighton:
"There are two novels that can change a bookish fourteen-year old’s life: The Lord of the Rings and Atlas Shrugged. One is a childish fantasy that often engenders a lifelong obsession with its unbelievable heroes, leading to an emotionally stunted, socially crippled adulthood, unable to deal with the real world. The other, of course, involves orcs."

What is more, I hear conservatives everywhere saying that these kinds of social programs should be handled at the state and local level--of course, ignoring that they will oppose any taxations at the state and local level too.

I am still waiting for an answer from conservatives. If we remove Medicaid and Medicare, will the private charities step up to help those elderly who can't afford coverage, or those severely disabled, or those poor kids who aren't getting enough nutrition? Or will they just look the other way and continue to complain about immoral poor people getting abortions?

We are watching a version of Christianity that embraces cruelty as policy. Unbelievable.

13 comments:

leighton said...

I've seen several trustworthy sources point to this as the original citation for that quote. I wasn't able to track it down when I first posted it, but luckily other people have since done the legwork for me.

I tend to agree with Yoder -- defining Christianity as institutionalized cruelty is a straightforward and predictable extension of the church's decision to adopt the ethic of empire in the fourth century. But what is puzzling to me is how many actual Christians are unaware of the consequences of the policies they advocate. I'm not sure there's a simple explanation for this.

Streak said...

Thanks for the cite. It is still one of my favorite quotes, and the one that so clearly works for the tea party types.

I suspect you are right about the church. I haven't read Yoder, but can see that conclusion. Institutions have a lifespan and they often, if not usually become about self-protection more than anything they originally wanted to do. At least part of the explanation for why people follow this without thinking is that this particular brand of Christianity has focused on feeding their individual selves, and reinforcing their own individual needs and wants above others. When talking sin, it talks more about others. When talking divine connection, it emphasizes the personal and unknowable, and it leaves broader moral questions to that same individual.

leighton said...

Politics of Jesus is probably Yoder's most popular work, but I liked Jewish-Christian Schism Revisited even more. He argues (persuasively, I think) that the split between Jews and Christians toward the end of the first century wasn't because the Christians' acceptance of Jesus as messiah (messiahs back then weren't a dime a dozen, but neither were they uncommon), but because Christians wanted gentiles included as full members in the synagogues. As with all religious conflicts, the wedge was political rather than doctrinal.

Lifespan does seem to be a constraining factor for the worth of organizations; I suspect geographical reach is another. It's really hard to spread a movement across several different languages and cultures without cutting away its deep organic roots in its culture of origin, and winding up with a "core" comprised of abstract dogma that leaves practice outside to rot. It's kind of like how McDonalds is so popular and successful around the world, even though nearly everyone can get better and more nutritious food somewhere else nearby. It's a quick and dirty way to fill an immediate craving, with no thought of the future. That sounds exactly like churches in the U.S.

Streak said...

Truly fascinating. I showed part of a video on the history of the Mormons the other day and was struck by how weird it is to see the craziness of a religion in such recent times. As many of the people on the Frontline video pointed out. there are so many weird stories from the early days of Christianity, but they are seen through the mists of time and take on a sense of a completely other world. That last part is true for 1820s NY, but very different to hear about it in the last few hundred years.

I like that idea of a core and abstract dogma. We can see that in the variety of Christian expressions that all claim to be orthodox or true to the origins. Yet their own practices are miles apart.

leighton said...

Was the video on Mormons part of the Frontline series? I've been meaning to watch that for a while, but there are so many things on my to-do list. Le sigh.

One of the things I don't get (or wish I didn't get) about the "Let's abolish taxes so Christians can give what they want" mentality is the failure to appreciate that it's not just Christians who are taxed to provide a social safety net for the most vulnerable members of society; everyone is taxed, where "everyone" also includes corporations. It's not like Christians paying zero taxes would be able to make up even just the Social Security revenue from taxes generally. What do they think is more important: that the poor are helped, or that Christians get to stand in the marketplace announcing their charity to the world? I wish I didn't know the answer to that question.

leighton said...

Citations for the last claim, by the way:

* IRS reported $1.16 trillion in personal income taxes collected in 2010.

* 40% of U.S. residents claim to attend Christian worship services regularly.

* Fudge things and assume income is evenly distributed; that would make around $464 billion collected from serious Christians in personal income taxes. (This is a silly figure, but as I'll show below, knowing the exact number isn't important because of the scales involved.)

* Assume these Christians whose taxes are voided are so inspired by the generous and selfless examples of preachers like Joel Osteen, the Bakkers, Pat Robertson and Benny Hinn and give 100% of their forgiven taxes -- all $464 billion -- to the needy.

* In 2010, Social Security Administration disbursed $695 billion to approved recipients. So completely generous Christians still can't make up the shortfall.

* Going back to the IRS tax figures, if you throw in estate and excise taxes, and assume that rich Christians do something they have never, in history, done and give 100% of their tax refunds to the needy, you could make up the void left behind by Social Security. But you'd still be short on Medicare, Medicaid and every other aid program in the system.

In summary, creating safety and dignity for the oppressed in our society requires the help of all members of society, not just Christians. To pretend that the Church could ever shoulder the burden alone is naive at best and crass power-mongering manipulation at worst.

leighton said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
leighton said...

Sorry, Blogger ate my comment and I posted an older draft version to replace it. Here's what I originally posted:

---

Citations for the last claim, by the way:

* IRS reported $1.16 trillion in personal income taxes collected in 2010.

* 40% of U.S. residents claim to attend Christian worship services regularly.

* Fudge things and assume income is evenly distributed; that would make around $464 billion collected from serious Christians in personal income taxes. (This is a silly figure, but as I'll show below, knowing the exact number isn't important because of the scales involved.)

* Assume these Christians whose taxes are voided are so inspired by the generous and selfless examples of preachers like Joel Osteen, the Bakkers, Pat Robertson and Benny Hinn and give 100% of their forgiven taxes -- all $464 billion -- to the needy.

* In 2010, Social Security Administration disbursed $695 billion to approved recipients. So completely generous Christians still can't make up the shortfall.

* Going back to the IRS tax figures, if you throw in estate and excise taxes, and assume that rich Christians do something they have never, in history, done and give 100% of their tax refunds to the needy, you could make up the void left behind by Social Security. But you'd still be short on Medicare, Medicaid and every other aid program in the system.

In summary, creating safety and dignity for the oppressed in our society requires the help of all members of society, not just Christians. To pretend that the Church could ever shoulder the burden alone is naive at best and crass power-mongering manipulation at worst.

---

Followup to the original comment: Interestingly enough, if you use the 76% figure of self-reporting Christians and assume they will use 100% of their taxes for charity, you could cover Social Security, but no other programs. We really do need everyone's help (especially corporations) in providing for the needy.

Streak said...

Nope. It was just that for some reason, Blogger thinks you are a spammer. :) I have fixed that.

leighton said...

Ha, now I really do look like a spammer. :)

Streak said...

And I realized I didn't answer your question. Yes, it was the Frontline piece and it was fascinating--at least the first 45 minutes that I used for class. I liked several things about it--the way that early Mormons seemed to have thrived on persecution and how that has characterized their institutionalism. I also liked the discussion about the Joseph Smith origin story--in that it seems quite ridiculous (as it sure does to me)--but that it compares to other faith origins in equal ridiculousness. And I also liked that they placed the origins in a time where people, especially poor people, believed in magic in a way that most do not.

Monk-in-Training said...

Leighton's point
institutionalized cruelty is a straightforward and predictable extension of the church's decision to adopt the ethic of empire in the fourth century.

is, in my mind the central problem here. The original question Christians faced was "is Jesus Lord, or is Caesar"? For many centuries the answer was Jesus. But then when the temptation changed from recanting over a tortured death to comfort and political power, the Church took the easy path, and fudged the original question. Caesar became Lord with his gold and sweet treats. We still suffer from Imperial hangover.

Last night at Church, one of the topics was critically examining our beliefs, to in fact know consequences of ideas we hold. It is frighteningly easy to live an unexamined life. Asking what you believe and why is vital, especially when you are advocating policies that affect other people.

Monk-in-Training said...

I couldn't help but post this also. A quote by Rev. Robin Myers in his book Saving Jesus from the Church

It seemed to me to fit the conversation.
"the fourth century, when a first-century spiritual insurgency was seduced into marrying its original oppressor."