Dan Nejfelt, Faith in Public Life’s Senior Editor and Training Coordinator, worked at Sojourners magazine as part of his graduate study of journalism at the University of Missouri before coming to FPL. Prior to that, he taught remedial reading and writing to 7th and 8th graders in rural Arkansas as a Teach For America corps member. Dan blogs about health care, the Religious Right and budget issues.
State of the Union addresses err toward the formulaic. The laundry lists of policy proposals, the obligatory proclamations that we’re the greatest nation ever, the media gossip about who sits next to whom, and the endless applause always strike me as rather trite. But once in a while a speech includes simple yet substantive moral arguments about the ideas driving our political debates. Among several important points last night, President Obama’s unapologetic rebuke of “class warfare” rhetoric stood out as one of those moments:
Now, you can call this class warfare all you want. But asking a billionaire to pay at least as much as his secretary in taxes? Most Americans would call that common sense.
We don’t begrudge financial success in this country. We admire it. When Americans talk about folks like me paying my fair share of taxes, it’s not because they envy the rich. It’s because they understand that when I get tax breaks I don’t need and the country can’t afford, it either adds to the deficit, or somebody else has to make up the difference – like a senior on a fixed income; or a student trying to get through school; or a family trying to make ends meet. That’s not right. Americans know it’s not right. They know that this generation’s success is only possible because past generations felt a responsibility to each other, and to their country’s future, and they know our way of life will only endure if we feel that same sense of shared responsibility.
For years, conservative cries of “class warfare” have shut down the crucial debate about building a just, moral economy that ensures opportunity and basic security for all. As long as I’ve been paying attention to politics, faith leaders have never been deterred by this, but too many politicians have. The President’s direct confrontation of those who stifle the debate with cheap (but effective) rhetorical tools marks a turning point that has been years in the making.
The Chronicle of Philanthropy reported yesterday that Goldman Sachs drastically cut its contributions to charity in 2011:
Goldman Sachs cut its charitable giving by more than three-quarters to $78-million last year while reducing compensation at a far lower rate, the Daily Mail and The Independent write.
The banking giant, announcing its annual results Wednesday, said its total compensation bill, including salaries and bonuses, declined 21 percent in 2011. Goldman reported profits of $4.4-billion, a 4.4 percent drop, and planned to hand out $12.2-billion in bonuses, down by 26 percent from 2010.
The company gave $320-million to charity in 2010 and $500-million in 2009, according to the Mail.
While this is certainly emblematic of the moral shortcomings of our 1%-centric economic system, there’s another important point here.
Opponents of a robust, government-funded safety net often say caring for the poor and vulnerable should be left to charity, churches and the private sector, but this report about Goldman’s drop in donations shows just how inadequate of a solution that is. Lots of bad things happened last year. The global economy stalled, poverty increased, the Horn of Africa suffered a famine of Biblical proportions, and let’s not forget the Fukushima catastrophe. But donations fell as needs rose.
This dynamic is inevitable. Expecting private charity to pick up the slack fails to account for the fact that economic forces that harm the poor can also affect the bottom line (and thus the contributions) of the donor class. Gutting a safety net that responds to rapid economic fluctuations and catastrophes with increased spending thus guarantees disaster. If Goldman Sachs responds to a 4% drop in profits with a 75% cut in charitable giving, we cannot take it on faith that the private sector is equipped to handle the needs of the poor in times of crisis.
In an important story that hasn’t gained much national attention yet, New York state is in the middle of a heated debate about whether to open up vast western areas of the state to hydrofracking for natural gas. Last week, the state Department of Environmental Conservation closed the public comment period on a study of the environmental impact of this destructive form of drilling, pushing the issue into local headlines.
A coalition of faith leaders from MICAH (Moving in Congregations Acting in Hope) and antipollution advocates affiliated with GDACC (Gas Drilling Awareness of Cortland County) contributed an important perspective by holding a press conference that lifted up the moral dimension of the issue and released a new poll showing a majority of residents oppose hydrofracking. Here’s some local coverage:
I spoke extensively last week with leaders of the movement to protect their communities from the soil, air and water contamination that hydrofracking causes. They were dedicated and well-informed, pointing out that the DEC’s study ignored many key aspects of hydrofracking’s impact (for example, it didn’t even explore public health impacts). These clergy and activists were also motivated by faith to insert a needed moral voice to the debate on an issue with serious health, environmental and economic consequences.
Kristin noted this week that religious groups are playing a key role in the nationwide movement to move money out of predatory big banks such as Bank of American and into more responsible institutions.
Two mainstays of the religious left in Washington, the Church Council of Greater Seattle and Faith Action Network, will close accounts at Bank of America and take their business elsewhere.
The groups are proclaiming themselves part of a newly minted Washington Faith-Based Organizations to Divest from Bank of America.
They will settle accounts on Friday afternoon, joined in the University District by what a statement predicts will be “a broad coalition of people of faith, community members, students, and others who are fed up with banks that have been receiving tax benefits while avoiding tax payments and making profits at the expense of communities.”
Bank of America has proven itself to be a bad actor in communities nationwide, so it’s especially encouraging to see them face consequences from the faith community. Nick pointed out recently:
The Family Research Council announced today that they submitted a Supreme Court amicus brief on the Affordable Care Act (aka “Obamacare”) arguing against the severability of the individual mandate from the rest of the law. In other words, FRC contends that if the court finds the requirement that all Americans purchase health insurance unconstitutional, then the whole law rather than just the individual mandate must be struck down.
Think about that for a second. Among other things, the Affordable Care Act protects people with pre-existing conditions from discrimination, has already resulted in 2.5 million young adults getting health insurance, makes prescription drugs much more affordable for seniors, bans the health insurance industry’s most abusive practices, and will expand coverage to 30 million uninsured Americans over the next several years. And FRC made a deliberate choice to argue that it all must be taken away if one part of the law is ruled unconstitutional. In short, they want the Supreme Court to take away protections that are alleviating hardship already and will save countless lives if the law is fully implemented. The consequences would be lethal.
With seemingly little interest in ensuring a feasible, alternative plan would be ready to step in and care for those who would suffer without these valuable protections, this supposedly pro-life organization is sending a clear message about their willingness to toss their values aside when partisan politics demands.