Catholics and the Tea Party: Not our cup of tea

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Article Politics Social Justice
Catholics fed on the church’s social teaching won’t like the taste of what the Tea Party is serving.

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.

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 George Washington, John Adams, and Thomas Paine.

Despite inflated claims of revolutionary lineage and an undercurrent of racial grievance that has at times blemished the Tea Party’s image, many political leaders—including prominent Republicans such as Newt Gingrich, Mitt Romney, and Gov. Rick Perry of Texas—embraced 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 that 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 when 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 the 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.”

While no one relishes paying taxes, the Bureau of Economic Analysis reports that federal, state, and local income taxes consumed 9.2 percent of all personal income in 2009, the lowest rate since 1950. Jesuit Father Fred Kammer, a former president of Catholic Charities U.S.A. and current president of the Jesuit Social Research Institute in New Orleans, writes 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 writes.

The nonpartisan 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 Buffett and Bill Gates to call for higher taxes on the wealthy, a view supported by many Americans.

Buffett 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 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 was also a bold critic of unregulated capitalism who warned against an “idolatry of the market.”

Compare this insistence on a sound ethical foundation with the priorities of some political leaders who support policies that most economists say would only cut taxes for the wealthiest 1 percent of Americans. For example, Newt Gingrich and former GOP presidential hopefuls Rick Perry and Herman Cain 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 nonpartisan 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. 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 three 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, President 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 that 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 tax cuts for those making more than $200,000 a year, conservative political leaders, including Catholic Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, accused Obama 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 protesters than Tea Party activists.

"And the survey says..."

1. As a Catholic, I see nothing wrong with supporting the Tea Party.

28% - Agree
68% - Disagree
4% - Other

2. In general, the current tax system in the United States is:

62% - Too much of a burden on the middle class; the rich should pay more.
16% - Unbalanced. Everyone should pay a flat tax.
14% - Mostly fair but can be adjusted to better distribute the tax burden more evenly.
6% - Totally unfair. Everyone is overtaxed.
1% - As good as it can be in making sure everyone pays their fair share.
1% - Too much of a burden on the rich; the poor and middle class should pay more.

3. Catholics are called to care for one another only through individual charity and sacrifice, not through paying taxes that fund government programs. 

18% - Agree
73% - Disagree
9% - Other

4. I think we need more taxes, not less, to help fund higher education, modern infrastructure, and services to the poor and unemployed.

58% - Agree
29% - Disagree
13% - Other

5. For Catholics, paying their taxes is part of their responsibility to promote the common good.

87% - Agree
6% - Disagree
7% - Other

6. The fewer taxes Americans pay, the more they will contribute to charity.

16% - Agree
73% - Disagree
11% - Other

6. When it comes to the growing wealth gap in the United States between the rich and the poor, I believe that:

56% - Government policies, especially low tax rates, favor the wealthy and thus increase the gap.
54% - We should even out the tax burden so the wealthy are paying their fair share.
42% - We should use tax money to make a quality education, including college, available to every child, which would help to eliminate the wealth gap.
12% - Keeping tax rates low for the wealthy will allow them to create more jobs, which in the long run will help the poor.
15% - Other

Representative of “other”:
“We need to examine government policies that influence the wealth gap other than favorable tax rates for the rich, such as our current approaches to criminal justice and immigration.”

Feedback

My attitude toward paying taxes is…

It is my obligation to pay my fair share without cheating on my tax return.

I want to pay the least amount necessary to fund the necessities of society.

I hope I can earn enough so that I have to pay taxes.

I'm glad to pay my fair share.  I'd like to see everyone do so, regardless of income. Government has a role to play in ensuring the common good.

It is a moral obligation.

While I'm glad to be able to pay, I get annoyed at the fact that my tax dollars are wasted on unnecessary government programs, agencies, and staff.

I know we have to pay our fair share, but the ultra rich and large corporations are not paying their share of taxes. 

The burden of higher taxes should fall on the rich.

I hate it. There are too many taxes. The government needs to learn to be financially responsible.

Paying taxes is a small price to pay for the freedoms we enjoy in this country.

I pay my taxes despite knowing that a significant proportion of it will be utterly wasted and large amounts will be used in ways that I find offensive and immoral.

I pay taxes to provide essential services for society and feel privileged to do so.

This is the price we pay for having a government that is meant to promote the common good. 

It is a royal pain in the neck but it is the only method we have for redistribution of wealth from the rich to those who need help.

I have no problem paying taxes. I just want everyone to pay their fair share and that goes for corporations too.

To whom much is given, much is expected. I have an education and a job and my health, so to pay taxes that may help those that don't is something I’m glad to do.

If I could make one change to the current tax system in the United States, I would…

Tax at a higher rate all those who make more than $500,000 per year.

Eliminate all the loopholes for corporations and the very wealthy.

Have a flat tax so that everyone pays the same percentage of their income.

Eliminate the Social Security tax cap. Those with less income currently pay on 100 percent of their earnings while those with more pay on only a portion of their income. I see that as unfair.

Eliminate many of the loopholes but keep basic deductions for things like donations to charity and mortgage payments.

Go back to the level of taxation during the 1990s and end the tax cuts introduced by George W. Bush.

Offer tax incentives for businesses to keep jobs in this country.

Lower the rates and reduce the deductions in order to increase revenue. 

Remove the working poor from payroll tax without removing their benefits in the Social Security system.

Hold those in government more accountable for where the tax revenues are spent just as one would in a business.

Make it easier to understand.

Get rid of automatic deductions from our paychecks. We should all be aware of how much we give to the government and what it is used for. Write a check once a month to federal, state, and local entities and you'll realize how much you're billed.

Cut taxes and let the church take care of the poor.  People would contribute if they were not being bled to death by their taxes.

Simplify the system so individuals can do their own taxes and not have to pay someone to do it for them.

Make all income, from any source, taxed equally and progressively.

The most appropriate way for the government to spend taxpayer money is…

To use it to improve our schools, our infrastructure, and encourage business growth.

Taking care of those who cannot help themselves and putting more money into education and health care.

The administration of the government, law enforcement, and national defense. Everything ales should be done at the state level.

Social welfare and safety net programs.

Concentrating on the needs of the United States first, and then attending to other nations if possible.

To eliminate public funding going to religious organizations, eliminate school vouchers, and increase public school funding.

On the military to defend us and keep us safe.

To ensure that all Americans have an adequate standard of living, including living wage, health care, support for elderly and infirm--in short, to promote the common good.

To spend our money with the same guidelines they would use if it were their own personal funds—wisely, carefully, and without waste.

To avoid trying to create jobs through stimulus programs and realize that employment is created by the private, not the public, sector.

Creating jobs by fixing our roads, bridges and cities that are torn down. Repairing schools and up-dating them, so that they are safe for our children.

Asking us how we would like the money we pay in taxes to be spent.

Fairly, with the preferential option for the poor.

More on human needs, less on weapons.

The most effective way for Americans to financially contribute to the common good is…

Paying their taxes and donating to charity.

Through their parish/church or favorite charity, or by donating it to state programs if they so choose.

To support, to the best of their ability, American farms and companies that produce or manufacture their goods in the United States and reinvest their profits in the American economy.

Out of their own generosity, not out of government requirements.

Through a fair and balanced tax system.

Giving directly to those who are needy or through local organizations.

To pay what they owe in taxes and vote for politicians who will raise taxes on the rich.

To establish a healthy and growing economy and make opportunities available for all to share in these benefits.

For employers to pay fair wages to all workers.

Helping your family and friends.

To contribute to civic and charitable organizations that advocate for policies that are enacted to benefit all of the population.

To decide what is best for themselves, not to follow what is required by the government.

By paying a flat tax.

Buying American made goods. 

Paying taxes but also living simply and sharing their abundance with effective programs for education and nutrition.

Contributing both monetarily and through giving their time by volunteering for local charities.

General Comments:

The government should give people the legal right to refuse to have their tax money used for the military and war.

Maybe we should just cut military spending by 50 percent or more and set up a special foundation to which people can make "charitable" donations for the military.

I am not opposed some taxes, but I am more against the waste and corruption. If that could change, then we wouldn't need so many taxes.

Perhaps taxes should be used to fund a program to teach common sense and frugality lessons to members of Congress.

Conservative Republican Catholics flat out don't accept Catholic social teaching and are almost never called on it by the clergy.  They make me lose my faith in the church.

The idea that taxes somehow punish people completely misses the point that we are all in this together.  The future of our world depends upon the realization that no individual(s) has more right to earth's resources, especially when they are pursued at the detriment of other's lives.

The national dialogue about taxes, the deficit, jobs, and government spending contains far too much propaganda and rhetoric and far too little factual information.

It's amazing that so many people expect government to take care of all their needs while they pay little or no taxes.

The Tea Party may support eliminating abortion, but that is the only Catholic social teaching that they believe in. If the only thing that Catholics support is anti-abortion laws then what is there at the end of the day? A lot of babies to support in homes that don't have enough money to pay for the babies they already have. We Catholics also have to look at the big picture.

Our country cannot sustain its present spending madness. It must receive more income through a more equitable tax system, as well as eliminate programs and agencies that are superfluous.

I think it is very sad that people have been made to feel that government is a bad thing.  The cure for bad government is not no government, it is good government. I also think everyone would learn a lot by serving on a local board or service committee.

The Tea Party's main focus is not reducing taxes, but rather reducing government and addressing our national deficit.

People need to take the time to learn and understand the issues and then to be able to clearly state and defend their beliefs in their own words. They need to critically listen, read, and understand what politicians are saying.

Some folks talk about all social services as though they were thefts from the rich.  If ordinary middle and working class Americans want public roads, police, fire departments, and schools, they are also the ones paying for these services—they are not stealing these services from the top one percent.

I would like to see more education of us folks in the pews regarding the Catholic social teachings.  We need to know more, get more leadership in areas beyond the right to life. No one in the last three parishes I have attended regularly over the past few years ever even mentioned a bishops' statement on Catholic social teaching.

This rich versus poor argument over taxes gets us nowhere.  Our entire system is corrupt and needs to be thrown out and replaced with something that is truly fair.

I agree that the Tea Party subverts Catholic social justice teachings, as do the policies endorsed by all of the Republican candidates.  However, I also hold President Obama responsible for continuing the wars in Iraq (where soldiers have been withdrawn but civilian aid on a grand scale will remain) and Afghanistan. I believe he also violates human rights in use of drones against civilians, detentions without trials, and signing of the Patriot Act extension and of the language on domestic surveillance in the defense appropriation.

This article appeared in the April 2012 issue of U.S. Catholic (Vol. 77, No. 4, pages 22-25).

Image: Pat Kinsella