John Gehring, Faith in Public Life’s Catholic Program Director, joined FPL after three years at Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good. He blogs about Catholics in public life.
Conservatives are often quick to accuse progressives of engaging in “class warfare” for supposedly promoting policies that “redistribute wealth.” The charge, of course, is rich with hypocrisy. Economic inequality has reached the worst level since the Great Depression. The 400 richest Americans now have more wealth than half of all Americans combined. The number of people relying on food stamps is at a record high. If there’s class warfare, it’s the working poor and the middle class who are the casualties of an increasingly radical conservative economic agenda.
In Nevada, the Las Vegas Chamber of Commerce is pushing to repeal the state’s minimum wage. Representative Darrell Issa, a California Republican, has proposed a bill that would effectively cut the minimum wage in states where it was higher than the federal threshold by allowing employers to count health benefits toward wages. A flurry of state legislatures are weighing cuts to the Earned Income Tax Credit, which primarily benefits the working poor. Some Republicans in Congress even want to deny food stamps to families of striking workers. Meanwhile, the New York Times had this sobering headline on Friday: “Many Low-Wage Jobs Seen as Failing to Meet Basic Needs.”
Steve Benen over at the Washington Monthly nails it today:
The agenda appears to have been pulled from a Dickens novel. Congressional Republicans, filled with self-righteous certainty about public attitudes, envisions an ambitious agenda, including the privatization of Medicare, gutting Medicaid, taking away health coverage for millions of struggling Americans, and lavishing tax breaks on millionaires and billionaires.
The GOP’s immodest goals, in other words, are to turn back the clock — not to the Bush or Reagan eras, but to a time before the Great Society and the New Deal. Republicans are working under the assumption that working families and the middle class have had it too good for too long.
When hardworking Americans who play by the rules can’t provide basic security for their families, that’s a moral issue. Religious leaders and faith communities must continue speaking out against cruel and misguided plans to gut workers’ rights and budget cuts that hurt working families and the most vulnerable. A HuffPo commentary today from Alexander Mikulich of the Jesuit Social Research Institute at Loyola University in New Orleans shows why political leaders will be hearing from people of faith:
Tough times call for shared sacrifice and prudent use of resources. But the working poor and public servants who teach our children and keep our communities safe did not create the budget crisis, and hurting them with drastic cuts won’t solve our fiscal problems. Wall Street recklessness, irresponsible tax cuts for the rich and a culture that celebrates excessive materialism all contribute to a crisis that will require more than political grandstanding to solve. In response to this urgent challenge, religious and civil rights leaders are once again standing up for workers, just as Martin Luther King did. Interfaith Worker Justice and the NAACP will host rallies, vigils and teach-ins this week in Ohio, Alabama, New Jersey, Florida, Washington, D.C. and other cities to mark the anniversary of King’s assassination and renew his tireless call for economic justice. It’s no surprise that religious leaders are again at the forefront of the struggle for economic fairness. For centuries, diverse faith traditions have emphasized the vital role of unions and the dignity of work.
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A year ago this week, President Obama signed the Affordable Care Act, landmark legislation that makes quality health care affordable for millions of Americans and curbs our system’s most cruel and abusive flaws. The long debate over this law was marred by a seemingly endless series of false claims, and FPL and faith leaders played a key role in countering the misinformation. The most contemptible political lie of them all was that the ACA would “pull the plug on grandma.” Thanks to Sarah Palin, “death panels” became a chilling and common conservative talking point. (See an exhaustive history of the smear from Media Matters here; in case it doesn’t go without saying, this fearmongering claim had no basis in fact.
On the contrary, seniors are benefiting from the Affordable Care Act in myriad ways that honor our moral obligation to ensure the elderly are cared for with dignity.
Because of the law, if you were one of the 4 million seniors who fell into the prescription drug “donut hole” last year, you probably received a $250 rebate check to help lower your costs. The law completely eliminates the donut hole in a few years, ensuring that seniors will no long have to make the agonizing choice between paying their bills and covering the cost of their prescription drugs.
The Affordable Care Act also helps seniors get the care they deserve before they become sick. More than 44 million seniors who have Medicare can now get annual checkups and screenings for diabetes or cancer without a co-pay. Early detection and treatment saves money and, more importantly, saves lives. In addition, the law ends Medicare overpayments to insurance companies and provides states with new options for offering home and community-based services.
These achievements should be celebrated, but we still have work to do defending the law from partisan attacks. Reckless politicians who want to roll back reforms already helping seniors will have to answer for why they are putting politics and ideology before compassion and common sense.
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Last week, I took note of how Utah Republicans are acting like grown ups and working with faith leaders and the business community to chart a more prudent path toward immigration reform than their neighbors in Arizona. Not so much in Kansas, a state where evangelical Christians frequently set the tone and substance of political debates. The Lawrence Journal World reports:
A legislator said Monday it might be a good idea to control illegal immigration the way the feral hog population has been controlled: with gunmen shooting from helicopters. Rep. Virgil Peck, R-Tyro, said he was just joking, but that his comment did reflect frustration with the problem of illegal immigration. Peck made his comment during a discussion by the House Appropriations Committee on state spending for controlling feral swine. After one of the committee members talked about a program that uses hunters in helicopters to shoot wild swine, Peck suggested that may be a way to control illegal immigration.
Rep. Peck’s comments are vile, cruel and unworthy of someone entrusted with the responsibilities of public service. Dehumanizing immigrants is not a conservative or Christian value. It’s contemptible hate speech. Peck’s remarks also reflect a frightening tenor that characterize many our most contentious debates over abortion, immigration and other polarizing issues. Sharron Angle famously mused about “Second Amendment remedies.” Tea Party activists frequently show up armed at rallies. A Catholic bishop in Kansas used militant rhetoric at a pro-life rally not long before late-term abortion doctor George Tiller was gunned down in church. Right-wing extremists continually “otherize” President Obama by insisting he is a Muslim and not a citizen.
While it’s tempting to dismiss these examples as aberrations from the loony fringe, these days it seems the outliers drive even mainstream discourse. Politicians take to Twitter with rhetorical bombshells. “Citizen journalists” entrap ideological foes in gotcha moments. Our 24-hour news cycle – an insatiable beast in need of feeding – has no trouble finding talking heads ready to offer up red meat heavy on sizzle but light on substance. Democracy is messy. Spirited debate is healthy. But we’re inching closer to a cliff that none of us should want to fall off.
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While a growing number of states introduce Arizona-style immigration bills and Republicans hold Capitol Hill hearings that seek to re-brand their deportation-only strategy as an economic recovery plan, conservative lawmakers in Utah are showing us the difference between pragmatic governing and fear-based pandering.
The Utah legislature, led by Republicans, has passed immigration bills in recent weeks that balance enforcement with a guest worker program. The approach is drawing national attention because it contrasts starkly with the Republican Party’s hard-line stance and ugly anti-immigrant rhetoric. The New York Times reports that this alternative path was paved by a diverse coalition of faith, business and immigrants rights leaders.
The guest worker bill came after intense lobbying by business and farm groups as well as by some immigrant advocates, and it enjoyed the quiet but all-important endorsement of the Mormon Church…In contrast to Arizona’s approach, Utah lawmakers framed their bill to set up a negotiation, rather than a confrontation, between the governor and the federal authorities. Gov. Gary R. Herbert, a Republican who handily won election in November, is expected to sign the bill. “Utah is the anti-Arizona,” said Frank Sharry, executive director of America’s Voice, a group in Washington that favors legislation by Congress to grant legal status to illegal immigrants. “Instead of indulging the fantasy that you can drive thousands of people out of your state, it combines enforcement with the idea that those who are settled should be brought into the system.”
Rather than demonizing immigrants and offering enforcement-only measures that are both impractical and inhumane, Utah leaders met to chart a moderate course that would avoid separating families through deportation. The Utah Compact – a set of principles signed by leaders of the Catholic Church, the Salt Lake Chamber of Commerce and the Salt Lake Police Department, among others – emerged from the discussions.
Paul Mero, the executive director of Utah’s most prominent conservative think tank, explained to the Washington Post how the approach differs from Arizona’s: “They’ve had their 15 minutes in the media and now the adults are going to start talking about how to handle matters. We’ve been able to break through that political barrier put up by the wing nuts who see every brown person as a criminal.”
It’s good to see glimmers of sanity on immigration reform, an issue that has recently been pushed off the national agenda by debates over the federal budget and deficits. And while many GOP lawmakers seem more interested in appealing to Tea Party xenophobia and spreading myths that immigrants are a drag on the economy, Utah Republicans deserve credit for showing that we can fix a broken immigration system without compromising our nation’s core values. Let’s hope conservative leaders in Washington will get the memo.
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Given that a sizable segment of the Catholic hierarchy has lurched right in recent years, it’s not always easy to find bishops showing prudent leadership on prickly political issues. Headline grabbing prelates such as Archbishops Charles Chaput and Raymond Burke politicize the communion rail and have publicly denounced pro-choice Catholic public officials during the heat of presidential campaigns. Many bishops blasted the University of Notre Dame for inviting President Obama to give a commencement address. It’s an understatement to say this is a group not always inclined toward finding common ground and embracing engagement over confrontation in the public square.
So it’s noteworthy that one of New York’s leading Roman Catholic bishops said yesterday that he disagreed with a Vatican consultant who called for denying communion to Gov. Andrew Cuomo because he lives with his girlfriend outside of marriage. This may seem like rather mundane news, but in Catholic political circles Bishop Howard Hubbard’s stance is significant because it demonstrates at least some healthy fatigue with communion politics or “wafer wars,” as headline writers dubbed it during the 2004 presidential election. Here are Bishop Hubbard’s comments as reported in the New York Times.
“There are norms for all Catholics about receiving communion and we have to be sensitive pastorally to every person in their own particular situation,” Bishop Hubbard said. “And when it comes to judging worthiness for communion, we do not comment on either public figures or private figures. That’s something between the communicant and his pastor personally. It’s not something we comment on.” Bishop Hubbard also distanced New York bishops from bishops in other states who have sparked controversy in recent years by calling publicly for communion to be denied to elected officials who disagree with church teachings on issues like abortion or same-sex marriage. “Some bishops have done that but not all bishops have done that,” Bishop Hubbard said. “Quite frankly, there is a disagreement among bishops about using the communion line as a place for a confrontation. And I don’t think that the bishops of New York State feel that’s appropriate.”
I bolded those words because it’s not every day that bishops speak, to use Hubbard’s word, “frankly” about disagreements with other bishops on controversial issues. Moderates in the hierarchy who emphasize pastoral sensitivity and the full spectrum of Catholic teaching are often drowned out by those who prefer throwing sharp elbows over abortion. Perhaps Hubbard and other New York bishops can broker a ceasefire in the wafer wars. Let’s also hope that conservative Catholic bloggers, including Thomas Peters – whose father is the Vatican consultant who urged denying communion to Governor Cuomo – will take a cue from Bishop Hubbard the next time they consider playing Catholic orthodoxy police.
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