This year’s Tax Day came at a time of intense debate about the moral dimension of the federal tax code. The outcome of this struggle has huge implications for our nation’s future. On Monday afternoon all but one Senate Republican (along with one Democrat) filibustered the Buffett Rule, blocking a vote on a bill that would have ensured people who make more than $1 million per year no longer get away with paying lower tax rates than middle-class American families.
The Buffett rule is fair, practical and responsible. Thousands of the wealthiest Americans pay lower effective tax rates than middle-income households. This is especially wrong when conservative ideologues are using the budget deficit as an excuse to cut off protections for the middle class and the poor, as well as defunding investments in future generations.
The arguments against the Buffett Rule are weak. Some say it’s “class warfare.” But if making sure hedge fund managers don’t get away with paying lower tax rates than teachers is class warfare, what does a class ceasefire look like? Others say it would hurt the economy by hitting small businesses and so-called “job creators.” Republicans and some conservative Democrats say this every time anyone proposes slightly raising taxes on rich people, but the facts simply do not bear it out.
The most common refrain from Republicans is that the Buffett Rule is a “gimmick” that won’t solve our national debt. No one claims the Buffett Rule alone will balance the budget – it’s simply one step in the right direction. And those who support Rep. Paul Ryan’s federal budget proposal really have no grounds to accuse others of fiscal gimmickry. The Ryan plan would practically dismantle the federal government other than the military and entitlements, and it relies on wishful claims about closing unnamed loopholes that supposedly offset the cost of still more gigantic tax breaks for millionaires.
Republicans make these empty arguments because the Buffett Rule exposes their true values. If you look at deeds rather than words, their most core political principle is an unbending dedication to making sure the richest Americans never see their taxes go up one cent. It’s nothing less than anti-tax fundamentalism.
Last week 59 Catholic theologians and social justice leaders rebuked Rep. Ryan for defending his radical budget plan on theological grounds, and yesterday the US Catholic Bishops slammed Republican leaders for eviscerating the safety net. Now that Republicans have voted yet again to put tax breaks for investment bankers before our fiscal health and the needs of American families, I expect the faith community’s drumbeat for economic fairness to grow even louder.
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Last week, Franklin Graham set off a media firestorm when, in an interview on MSNBC, he unequivocally vouched for Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich’s faith but falsely insinuated that President Obama’s Christian faith might be insincere. Graham even alleged that the president could be complicit in a secret plot by the Muslim Brotherhood to infiltrate the government.
The incident drove home to me just how surreal our public dialogue about religion and politics has become. Given his extensive history of bigoted rhetoric and baseless attacks on the President’s faith, it’s a shame that Graham was invited on air in the first place. The media seems all too willing to manufacture political controversy by inflaming religious bigotry.
In the wake of Graham’s offensive comments, I joined more than 100 faith leaders in releasing a letter standing up for the President’s faith and condemning politically motivated attacks against it. Faith leaders also held a press teleconference call to defend the President by pointing to their experiences working with the administration to strengthen their communities. Prominent evangelical pastor Joel Hunter penned an op-ed in The Hill explaining his personal, pastoral relationship with President Obama.
In addition to setting the record straight, our statements helped further the growing narrative that the faith community rejects the Religious Right’s political divisiveness. People of faith have spoken out continually on this matter. More than 20,000 members of Faithful America recently called on MSNBC to stop inviting Tony Perkins (head of Family Research Council, a Religious Right organization designated a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center) onto their network. Earlier this month, more than 1,000 pastors signed a pledge to hold politicians accountable for religious attacks, and a diverse coalition of prominent religious groups released a statement calling on candidates to refrain from religiously divisive campaigning.
There’s plenty of room for reasonable differences of opinion on the appropriate uses of religion in politics. What sounds like authentic witness to some might sound like religious pandering to others. But personal attacks on individuals’ religious beliefs for political gain are clearly beyond the pale, and the vast majority of people of faith reject them. Let’s make sure the media and the Religious Right get the memo.
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On Sunday, the last convoy of U.S. combat troops exited Iraq, ending our nation’s 8-year war in that country. The human consequences of this misguided, unnecessary conflict are staggering – over 100,000 Iraqis and nearly 4,500 American service members killed, millions of Iraqis displaced from their homes, and hundreds of thousands of civilians and soldiers suffering psychological and physical injury.
The Bush administration, hawkish Congressional leaders in both parties and the news media face the harsh judgment of history for telling the world that Iraq constituted a just cause, a grave threat, and an easy win – none of which were true. At the onset of the invasion, more than 70 percent of Americans believed Saddam Hussein was personally involved in the September 11th plot. That was no accident. It was the fruit of one of the most effective propaganda campaigns in American history.
Pleas for caution and peace from the faith community fell on deaf ears in Washington during the run-up to the invasion. And unfortunately, many religious leaders either remained silent or helped build the drumbeat for war. Prominent conservative Christian thinkers such as Chuck Colson and George Weigel, along with numerous influential pastors, all spoke in support of military action. One month after the war began, 87 percent of white evangelicals approved of the decision to invade Iraq. Even in 2006, when sectarian bloodshed and U.S. casualties spiraled out of control, only a minority of weekly church attenders said the war was a mistake.
The abuses and torture at Abu Ghraib prison shocked the nation’s conscience and provided a terrifying testament to the evil that war unleashes. The images of the victims and torturers outraged the faith community. Faithful America and the National Religious Campaign Against Torture, which brought together ideologically and theologically diverse faith leaders, were founded in the aftermath of Abu Ghraib and raised a powerful witness against human rights abuses.
As America’s post-Iraq War era begins, we have an obligation not only to support innocent civilian victims and care for our veterans (who face unemployment, post-traumatic stress and numerous other challenges), but also to learn from our mistakes and reexamine our attitudes toward war. Although our government bears most of the blame, citizens of the most powerful nation in the world have a responsibility to approach war with great reluctance and skepticism, not eagerness and credulity. Clergy have a special obligation to ensure that we learn this lesson.
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Following the defeat of a radical “fetal personhood” ballot initiative on Election Day in Mississippi, another abortion legislation battle looms in Ohio, where the state Senate is considering H.B. 125, which would make performing an abortion a felony if a fetal heartbeat is detectible. Such a far-reaching restriction would likely lead to a legal challenge to Roe v. Wade. Republican Ohio House Speaker William Batchelder even admitted that “we’re writing bills for courts.”
As the New York Times reports, the legislation is dividing social conservatives:
Ohio Right to Life, which has been the premier lobby, and the state Catholic conference have refused to support the measure, arguing that the court is not ready for such a radical step and that it could cause a legal setback. But the idea has stirred the passions of some traditional leaders, even winning the endorsement of Dr. John C. Willke of Cincinnati, the former president of National Right to Life and one of the founders of the modern anti-abortion movement.
At issue is a strategic difference about whether to continue the traditional approach of incrementally restricting abortion — which has steadily narrowed access in dozens of states — or to make an immediate, direct challenge to Roe v. Wade by outright criminalizing abortion. This divide is more than a momentary split – it’s a schism that signals an intensification and radicalization of the abortion debate.
Making abortion a felony in an effort to overturn Roe v. Wade (as Ohio’s H.B. 125 would do), and restricting contraception and outlawing abortion even in cases of rape (as Mississippi’s fetal personhood amendment would have done), would bring the issue back into the partisan spotlight just in time for an election year. Similar legislation is in the works in at least ten other states, which leads the debate away from finding common ground and toward greater polarization than we’ve seen in decades.
In the context of the upcoming elections, it’ll be fascinating to see whether the usual pro-life boilerplate and vague assurances about “activist judges” suffice when controversial, concrete measures are on the agenda and division grows among opponents of abortion.
But regardless, this political dance does nothing for the women facing the difficult circumstances that lead to abortion. Doubling down on stalemated federal court battles and drastically cutting protections for vulnerable families instead of preventing unintended pregnancies and supporting those facing economic hardship is a recipe for polarization, not progress. Thankfully there are also people of good will on both sides of the abortion debate working on pragmatic solutions.
Photo credit: katerkate, Flickr
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This week’s political drama is squarely focused on a proposal payroll tax cut, financed by a modest tax on millionaires. The proposed cut could help millions of working families, but entrenched right-wing interests in Washington aren’t having any of it. And on the heels of a fascinating New York Times article about how the richest Americans continue to take advantage of our tax system, avoiding paying their fair share, the debate is more charged than ever.
Earlier this month, Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY), who subscribes to Ayn Rand’s anti-Christian ideology of selfishness, even told CNN that since we all “work for rich people” it won’t help the economy to “punish rich people.” But the wealthy aren’t exactly in need of a break. The federal income tax rate for the 400 wealthiest Americans fell from about 30 percent in 1995 to 18 percent in 2008. A recent report from the nonpartisan Congressional Research Service found that a quarter of U.S. millionaires pay a smaller share of their income in federal taxes than many middle-class families.
Thankfully, there’s a new voice for middle-class families in Occupy Wall Street. While not long ago the Tea Party and conservative ideologues dominated national political debates over debt, taxes and government spending, Occupy Wall Street is shifting the debate towards jobs, inequality, and opportunity.
A groundbreaking recent statement from the Vatican calling for more robust regulation of the global financial sector and a financial transactions tax also made a potent moral argument for economic fairness and the common good. And it seems that top Democrats in Congress are sensing the shifting cultural and political winds made possible by this steady moral drumbeat and are focusing on jobs and income inequality as the leading issues heading into 2012.
We have a responsibility to hold politicians accountable when they ignore or distort basic economic reality, and to ensure that they put the needs of families before the desires of the wealthiest 1%.
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