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The Tea Party and Catholic social teaching don’t mix

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Church teaching favors taxes over tea when it comes to promoting the common good.

[Editors' Note: Sounding Boards are one person's take on a many-sided subject and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of U.S. Catholic, it's editors, or the Claretians.]

By John Gehring, senior writer and Catholic outreach coordinator for Faith in Public Life (faithinpubliclife.org).

Tea Party activists elbowed their way into the national media spotlight after the 2008 election with a “Don’t Tread on Me” rallying cry that struck familiar themes rooted deep in the American experience. Crowds of flag-waving, self-styled “rugged individualists” told us that they were “Taxed Enough Already” and cast themselves as patriotic defenders of freedom in the revered tradition of Washington, Adams, and Paine.

Despite inflated claims of revolutionary lineage and an undercurrent of racial grievance that has sometimes blemished the Tea Party’s image, many political leaders—including GOP presidential candidates Newt Gingrich, Mitt Romney, and Gov. Rick Perry of Texas—embrace this energized movement with the hope of riding a wave of anti-government backlash into the White House. Many Catholics have embraced the movement as well, as a Hart and Associates study found that 28 percent of Tea Partiers identify as Catholic.

Given the Tea Party’s rise to prominence and its political success in pushing Republican leaders farther to the right, it’s worth examining how the movement’s core priorities—particularly on smaller government and fewer taxes—contrast sharply with Catholic values. How should Catholics groomed in a religious tradition that emphasizes the vital role of government and views taxes as a moral responsibility respond to the Tea Party?

Catholics are encouraged to put moral principles before partisanship, and the U.S. bishops’ document “Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship” has emphasized a broad range of issues for Catholics to consider before voting. The bishops warn against efforts “to reduce Catholic moral concerns to one or two matters, or to justify choices simply to advance partisan, ideological or personal interests.”

Catholic Democrats, Republicans and Tea Partiers will all find aspects of Church teaching that challenge their political views in discomforting ways. However, the Tea Party’s anti-government rhetoric and emphasis on individualism chafes against Catholic notions of solidarity and a vision for economic justice that seeks to balance personal rights with social responsibilities.

The Tea Party Patriots, one of the largest factions in this decentralized movement, gets straight to the point in its mission statement. “The impetus for the Tea Party movement is excessive government spending and taxation,” the statement reads. While no one relishes paying taxes, the Bureau of Economic Analysis reports that federal, state and local income taxes consumed 9.2% of all personal income in 2009, the lowest rate since 1950.

Jesuit priest Father Fred Kammer, a former president of Catholic Charities USA and current president of the Jesuit Social Research Institute in New Orleans, has written that “some 30 years of anti-tax propaganda whose most vociferous current harbinger is the Tea Party” has given many Americans the false impression that they are overtaxed.

In an article for Just South Quarterly, a publication of the Jesuit Social Research Institute, Kammer noted that the United States is one of the lowest-taxed countries in the developed world. Many states also have regressive tax policies that fall hardest on the working poor. Laws that cap property taxes and other sources of municipal revenue often erode the capacity to fund public schools, transportation and social-safety nets that protect the most vulnerable. These tax policies contribute to “a widening of the gap between rich and poor to its currently morally grotesque levels and the substantial deterioration of the U.S. infrastructure,” Kammer wrote.

The non-partisan Congressional Budget Office released a widely covered report in October that found the top 1 percent of earners more than doubled their share of the nation’s earnings over the last three decades. The report shows that over the last 30 years a greater tax burden has fallen on middle and working class Americans.

Tax policies that contribute to the most extreme gap between rich and poor since the Great Depression have inspired billionaires like Warren Buffet and Bill Gates to call for higher taxes on the wealthy, a view supported by most Americans according to numerous surveys. The 400 wealthiest Americans now have a greater combined net worth than the bottom 150 million Americans. Buffet and Gates are not the only ones raising alarms. In his 2008 encyclical, Caritas in Veritate, Pope Benedict XVI denounced the “scandal of glaring inequalities” and called for a more just distribution of wealth.

The Catholic approach to taxes and government often cuts against prevailing political and cultural winds. In Catholic terms, paying taxes is part of our collective responsibility for the common good. “The tax system should be continually evaluated in terms of its impact on the poor,” the U.S. Catholic bishops wrote in Economic Justice for All, a 1986 pastoral letter that echoes the teaching of several popes.

The bishops called for a more progressive tax system “so that those with relatively greater financial resources pay a higher rate of taxation.” Last October, U.S. bishops wrote a letter to lawmakers noting that “too often the weak and vulnerable are not heard in the tax debate,” and urged Congress to preserve the Child Tax Credit and the Earned Income Tax Credit that help many low-income Americans avoid falling below the poverty line.

In his encyclical, Mater et Magistra, Pope John XXIII wrote that “as regards taxation, assessment according to the ability to pay is fundamental to a just and equitable system.” Pope John Paul II, while embraced by many conservatives, was also a bold critic of unregulated capitalism who warned against an “idolatry of the market” and insisted that private wealth was subject to a “social mortgage.”

Compare this insistence on a sound ethical foundation for economic policies with the priorities of some presidential candidates and political leaders who support tax policies that most economists say would cut taxes for the wealthiest one percent of Americans without benefiting struggling workers.

For example, Newt Gingrich, Gov. Rick Perry and former GOP presidential hopeful Herman Cain (who still plays a visible role as a political commentator) have all proposed versions of a “flax tax” often embraced by Tea Party supporters. Despite its egalitarian sounding name, this method of taxation falls hardest on the poor and working families, according to most economists and analysis from the non-partisan Tax Policy Center in Washington.

Debates over taxes and size of government have also been influenced by a network of Washington “think tanks” and prominent figures on Capitol Hill. Washington anti-tax lobbyist Grover Norquist, president of Americans for Tax Reform, has long been a powerful force in conservative politics with a “starve the beast” approach to defunding government. Most Republican members of Congress (and 3 Democrats) have endorsed his “Tax Payer Protection” pledge, which according to Norquist’s lobbying organization prohibits lawmakers from supporting “any and all tax increases.” Norquist once remarked that it was his goal to reduce the size of the federal government to the point where it could be “drowned in a bathtub.”

While Republicans have led the charge for lower taxes on the wealthy in recent decades, leading Democrats have also fought hard to keep capital gains taxes low even as they criticize the GOP for tax policies that coddle the rich. Seeking to find compromises with a Republican controlled-Congress in the 1990s, Bill Clinton cut the capital gains tax rate, which disproportionately benefits a small minority of elite investors.

President Barack Obama, pressured by Republicans during debt negotiations, agreed to maintain Bush-era tax cuts for the rich in exchange for an extension of unemployment benefits conservatives wanted to end. When President Obama last fall proposed a deficit reduction plan funded in part by closing tax loopholes for corporations and ending Bush tax cuts for those making more than $200,000 a year, conservative political leaders, including Catholic Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, accused him of engaging in “class warfare.”

Ryan appears to draw the wrong lessons from his Church’s teachings on economic justice and failed to mention that the 400 richest Americans now own more wealth than the bottom half of Americans combined.

The principles of just taxation encouraged by the Catholic social tradition are rooted in a positive vision for government and a healthy skepticism of unbridled markets. The radical individualism and anti-government ideology espoused by the Tea Party simply don’t fit with Catholic communitarian values and Gospel commands to care for our neighbors, especially the poor and vulnerable.

Church officials are unlikely to show up at a rally any time soon, but if they do, it’s safe to say you’re more likely to find Pope Benedict XVI standing in solidarity with Occupy Wall Street protestors than Tea Party activists.

Flickr photo cc by AR Nature Gal