Jordan Ballor has already ably commented on President Obama’s recent comments on taxation and Christian social responsibility. Acton President Rev. Robert A. Sirico now joins the fray, having been called upon by Fox News Channel to add his insight to the discussion. In case you missed yesterday’s appearance on “Your World with Neil Cavuto,” we’ve got it for you.
Much has been made already about President Obama’s comments yesterday at the National Prayer Breakfast concerning the Christian faith’s teachings about social responsibility. During his time at the breakfast, the president opined that getting rid of tax breaks for wealthy Americans amounted to a Christian obligation:
In a time when many folks are struggling and at a time when we have enormous deficits, it’s hard for me to ask seniors on a fixed income or young people with student loans or middle-class families who can barely pay the bills to shoulder the burden alone. And I think to myself, if I’m willing to give something up as somebody who’s been extraordinarily blessed and give up some of the tax breaks that I enjoy, I actually thinks that’s going to make economic sense. But for me as a Christian, it also coincides with Jesus’ teaching that, from to whom much is given, much shall be required.
As Breanne Howe has pointed out (HT: The Transom), the text itself has to do with the basic idea of stewardship (the best resource for exploring the truly biblical conception of stewardship in its fullness is the NIV Stewardship Study Bible). I do think Howe draws a bit too sharply the lines between obligations and giving, as she writes, “Giving out of obligation is not truly giving, it’s merely following the rules.” There’s a complex relationship between legal requirements, moral obligations, and Christian gratitude that can’t be summed up by simply juxtaposing Christian charitable giving and government taxation.
But at the same time, paying your taxes can’t be simply conflated with meeting Christian social obligations, either. Christians are to pay taxes, certainly, but that doesn’t mean that Christian social responsibility is reducible to paying taxes.
More problematic, perhaps, is this latter identification, with our responsibilities before God being transferred to our responsibilities to government. If the president can use a text like Luke 12:48 to argue for progressive taxation, then what kind of tax policy should we implement on the basis of Luke 19:24-26?
Then he said to those standing by, ‘Take his mina away from him and give it to the one who has ten minas.’
“‘Sir,’ they said, ‘he already has ten!’
“He replied, ‘I tell you that to everyone who has, more will be given, but as for the one who has nothing, even what they have will be taken away.
It’s too easy and sometimes irresistibly tempting to move directly from the text of Scripture to the text of legislation.
Prooftexting for the purpose of political posturing does violence to the Scriptures and damages our public discourse. That might be the most important political lesson arising from yesterday’s breakfast.
Dr. Donald P. Condit, the author of the Acton monograph A Prescription for Health Care Reform, responds to the Obama administration’s mandate that most employers and insurers must provide contraceptives, sterilization, and abortifacient drugs free of charge. For more on this issue, see Acton’s resource on “Christians and Health Care.” Sign up for the free, weekly Acton News & Commentary newsletter here.
An Unconscionable Threat to Conscience
By Donald P. Condit, M.D.
In May 2009, President Obama delivered the commencement address at the University of Notre Dame where he proclaimed, to naïve applause: “Let's honor the conscience of those who disagree with abortion, and draft a sensible conscience clause, and make sure that all of our health care policies are grounded not only in sound science, but also in clear ethics … ”
What a difference a few semesters make. Last week, Health and Human Services (HHS) Secretary Kathleen Sebelius ordered most employers and insurers to provide contraceptives, sterilization, and abortifacient drugs free of charge. Taxpayers and premium payers are complicit in paying for these “preventive health services” whether they object or not.
Sebelius deferred, until after the 2012 election, the deadline for religious employers to comply. Meanwhile they must provide instructions so that employees can obtain abortions and services only considered “treatment” if one considers pregnancy a disease.
With the passing of time, it has become painfully obvious how relativistic and clouded are this administration’s sense of ethics. The subsequent threat to our liberty is crystal clear and faith leaders representing diverse traditions are speaking out against the White House’s assault on religious freedom in the most forceful way.
Cardinal-designate Timothy Dolan of New York, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB), did not pull any punches: “Never before has the federal government forced individuals and organizations to go out into the marketplace and buy a product that violates their conscience. This shouldn’t happen in a land where free exercise of religion ranks first in the Bill of Rights.”
Archbishop Dolan met the challenge of this HHS edict: “To force American citizens to choose between violating their consciences and forgoing their healthcare is literally unconscionable. It is as much an attack on access to health care as on religious freedom. Historically this represents a challenge and a compromise of our religious liberty.”
Last month, in advance of the ruling, a group of more than 60 Protestant and Orthodox Jewish religious were out front on this issue when they released a letter to President Obama. The religious leaders pointed out that, “It is not only Catholics who object to the narrow exemption that protects only seminaries and a few churches, but not churches with a social outreach and other faith-based organizations that serve the poor and needy broadly providing help that goes beyond worship and prayer.”
Last week, the National Association of Evangelicals said it was "deeply disappointed" by the administration’s ruling. “Freedom of conscience is a sacred gift from God, not a grant from the state,” said Galen Carey, NAE Vice President for Government Relations. “No government has the right to compel its citizens to violate their conscience. The HHS rules trample on our most cherished freedoms and set a dangerous precedent.”
On the Huffington Post, Romanian Orthodox priest Fr. Peter-Michael Preble, an early supporter of President Obama, said the HHS ruling was a “direct attack” on religious freedom in America and the beginning of more attacks on the faith of Americans. He’s also changed his mind about the president. “Well I now feel I was duped and his brand of change is not what America needs at all,” Preble wrote.
The Catholic Medical Association also responded: “This latest attack by the Obama administration on religious freedom and free speech rights should be of grave concern to all Americans because it is destructive of individual rights and of the common good. It should be challenged and resisted by all legitimate means.”
This HHS decree tremendously threatens the liberty and consciences of organizations across the United States that provide vital health care, social services, and education – to people of all faiths, and no faith – to millions of people by hundreds of thousands of employees.
The scope of these services in the American Catholic world is immense. One in six patients receives care in a Catholic hospital in the United States. There are more than 50 Catholic health care organizations with more than 750,000 employees. More than 150,000 professional educators serve more than 2 million students a year in Catholic primary and secondary schools. There are more than 200 Catholic colleges and universities that educate more than 900,000 students annually.
Pope Benedict XVI’s diagnosis seems prescient. As Dean of the College of Cardinals, his 2005 homily at the Papal Conclave warned that, “We are building a dictatorship of relativism that does not recognize anything as definitive and whose ultimate goal consists solely of one's own ego and desires.”
President Obama’s relativistic ethos obscures the truth behind the right to life, the right to conscience protection, and the right to free speech. His administration’s apparent compulsion for re-election and control over so many foundational elements of our society has led to oppressive policies. This HHS mandate is another tangible example of the threat of relativism.
Let us pray for, and work toward, restoration of consciousness of truth in this country.
Over at National Review Online, Acton Research Director Samuel Gregg recaps President Obama’s State of the Union address:
There is always something surreal about a Chicago politician talking about “fairness” and “playing by the rules.” There is something even more bizarre about a president talking about the need to expand energy production after his administration has generally undermined significant progress in facilitating energy development for three years in the middle of a recession. And who would describe Detroit as “on the way back”? A stroll down the ghost town otherwise known as downtown Detroit — which is teetering on the edge of being put into administration — would suggest the opposite. It’s not often that I agree with very much said by the New York Times’s Maureen Dowd, but this State of the Union speech illustrated that the lady was dead right in describing the Obama presidency as a bubble within a bubble.
Read it all on NRO.
I was asked for my initial reaction to President Obama’s State of the Union speech, and the handsomely redesigned Think Christian posted them last night, “Jobs, Steve Jobs, and the State of the Union.”
As I point out, the president’s protectionist posturing is belied by the realities experienced by companies like Apple. The president is essentially telling companies: Ask not what you can do for your company, but what your company can do for America. My contention is that “in casting global trade in terms of a simple win/lose proposition, the president missed a wonderful opportunity to show that Americans need not be made better off at the expense of other countries.”
The president also provided the latest instance of the yearly bi-partisan political ritual, in which the commander-in-chief is transformed into the cheerleader-in-chief, praising the American dream to high heaven and extolling the virtues of the American work ethic. The state of our union is always strong, it seems. “Our workers are the most productive on Earth, and if the playing field is level, I promise you – America will always win,” said the president. He also claimed the priority of “the basic American promise that if you worked hard, you could do well enough to raise a family, own a home, send your kids to college, and put a little away for retirement.”
That the government’s attempts to underwrite this promise has played a large role in putting us in the dire fiscal straits we face today was a concern absent from the president’s speech. That the biggest threat to continued flourishing in this country is a spendthrift federal government continues to be ignored, while more and more promises about what government can and must do are made.
Anyone who would put foreigners to work is unpatriotic, it seems. Anyone who would point out the very real problems facing America are equally erroneous: “Anyone who tells you otherwise, anyone who tells you that America is in decline or that our influence has waned, doesn’t know what they’re talking about,” says the president.
Mark Twain said that patriotism is “supporting your country all the time, and your government when it deserves it.” And as Christians, we know that our ultimate purpose is not to promote our own individual (or national) interests at the expense of others. A government that uses trade and tax policies as a club to bring other nation’s to heel is little deserving of support.
Perhaps the best way we can support our country in this time of trial is to call our governmental leaders to account. As the president’s speech also made clear, we are entering the prime time of election season, and there’s no better way to hold politicians accountable than at the polls.
Acton’s director of research, Samuel Gregg, has contributed his thoughts on last night’s debate to National Review’s roundup. He was disappointed by the candidates’ performances: “with the exception of Newt Gingrich, substance did not feature highly in this debate.” These debates tend to be about talking points and about subtle digs at your opponent, not the kind of serious debate we had at the Palmetto Freedom Forum, but Gregg says,
It’s too easy to say that such formats as Thursday night’s don’t lend themselves to that type of presentation. Whoever runs against President Obama is going to have to articulate, in very similar settings, a vivid, powerful, and content-rich contrast to the present administration’s economic policies.
Though none of the candidates was able to offer the “serious, public, and substantial reflection” on our economic problems that Gregg was looking for, he’s not expecting to hear it from the incumbent in debates with the GOP choice:
Angry voters (especially independents), disillusioned with politics and politicians in general, aren’t going to buy in to messianic 2008 hope-’n’-change rhetoric in 2012. Yet while anti-Obama sentiment will take the Republican candidate a long way towards victory, it won’t be enough in the current economic climate. Substance — and the ability to communicate it — will matter.
Read his full commentary here.
A friend of mine preached a sermon last week from the gospel text of the Parable of the Workers in the Vineyard, with the title, “Brother, Can You Spare a Denarius?” You can check out the video here. One of the things Rev. Eichinger highlights is what a gift the ability to work and earn a living truly is.
Echoing Martin Luther’s famous dictum Wir sein pettler (“We are all beggars”), Rev. Eichinger says, “It is God demonstrating his grace when he provides us with work and vocation so that we can provide for ourselves and our family.” The hymn following the sermon was, “Hark, the Voice of Jesus Calling.” Here’s the first stanza:
Hark, the voice of Jesus calling,
“Who will go and work today?
Fields are white and harvests waiting,
Who will bear the sheaves away?”
Loud and long the master calls you;
Rich reward he offers free.
Who will answer, gladly saying,
“Here am I. Send me, send me”?
In God’s Yardstick, their book on stewardship, Lester DeKoster and Gerard Berghoef note that it is our habit to “take for granted all the possibilities which work alone provides. And we become aware of how work sustains the order which makes life possible when that order is rent by lightning flashes of riot or war, and the necessities which work normally provides become difficult to come by.”
The way in which God’s providential care for us extends to providing us the regular means to earn our daily bread was the theme in a brief reflection on President Obama’s jobs speech a few weeks ago. In the meantime, Baylor University released a survey that found some correlation between faith in God, work, and government. According to Christianity Today, the survey “found that nearly three-quarters of Americans agree that ‘God has a plan for all of us.’ Those who agreed more strongly were more likely to see financial success as the result of hard work and ability. As a result, they were also least supportive of government programs that help those out of work.” Below the break is a full story courtesy ENI that explores the Baylor study. For a heart-breaking glimpse into what uncritically sharing a “denarius” with a stranger can do, read this story.
Reactions from religious communities to last week’s jobs speech from President Obama are running the political gamut, as one might expect. Over at Think Christian, my piece has garnered some rather vociferous response.
And at the Faith in Public Life blog, Jessica Barba Brown compiles some responses that focus on “the need for serious job-creation legislation.” The problem here is that while a society with opportunities for employment for all is seen as a moral imperative, the primary agent responsible for creating those jobs is viewed as the government rather than actors in the market.
The faith in government evident here is really just astonishing. Politicians promising jobs is just another example of making grandiose promises that they can’t hope to fulfill. It’s really just telling us what we want to hear (or at least what they think we want to hear), rather than what we need to hear.
It’s true of course that work is an essential part of what it means to be human. But it is a serious confusion of our social life to think that government is the institution primarily responsible for providing work. Rev. Kevin DeYoung addressed the question cogently last week, “Daddy, where do jobs come from?” The answer, as you might suspect, is not the government (at least it shouldn’t be!).
And Cal Thomas’ piece from yesterday is also worth noting: “If we want government to become smaller and perform within its constitutional boundaries, we are going to have to expect less from it and more from ourselves.”
For more on the real moral imperative of work in our lives, I highly recommend Lester DeKoster’s little classic, Work: The Meaning of Your Life–A Christian Perspective.
The folks over at Think Christian asked me to write up a response to President Obama’s jobs speech from last Thursday. That response is now up over at the TC site, “The misplaced faith of Obama’s job speech.”
I took special note of President Obama’s invocation of a couple lines from JFK: “Our problems are man-made – therefore they can be solved by man. And man can be as big as he wants.” I found this quote, used in this context, to be particularly illuminating. It illustrates perfectly, I think, an idolatrous view of human ability, particularly of human politics.
So when you add the formula, “Man can be as big as he wants,” to the president’s derision of “some rigid idea about what government could or could not do,” and you’ve got an equation that results in government as big as we want.
In some ways then the question really does come down to this: How big of a government do we really want? We’ve been electing politicians for decades that have been promising us things that could only be accomplished by massive expansions in government. If we want truth-tellers in politics, as Thomas Friedman rightly urges, then citizens have to demand them, and hold ourselves to the maxim, “If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.”
Over at National Review Online, a panel of experts reacts to last night’s jobs speech by President Obama. Acton’s director of research, Samuel Gregg, was not encouraged by what he heard: a jumble of disproven Keynesian theories and strong-man rhetoric. Gregg’s commentary in full:
Tonight’s speech was more of the same. President Obama’s hectoring lecture reflected the usual fare of Keynesianism mixed with mild nods to the private sector that we’re come to expect. It also embodied an abiding faith in government that would be touching if it weren’t so detached from economic reality. Granted, Paul Krugman will surely bewail that the president didn’t go far enough with this third stimulus plan. But that’s what it is.
There was much talk about fixing infrastructure. Public works is something even Adam Smith thought the state should do. But haven’t we been here before? Didn’t we hear something about “shovel-ready” jobs a while ago? Why should this time be different?
Likewise, on the president’s reference to mortgage relief: When will he understand that policies that slow down the market-clearing process merely prolong the pain?
Naturally, there was the now-monotonous call to increase taxes on those who, well, already pay most of the taxes. These are the same individuals and businesses whose capital fuels the creation of jobs—not the personifications ofAmerica’s economic problems who were sitting with the first lady: GE’s Jeff Immelt, the face of American corporate welfare, and the AFL-CIO’s Richard Trumka, the symbol of union obstructionism.
Over and over again, the president insisted: “You should pass this jobs plan—right away.” I thought the legislature’s job was to carefully assess legislation, not just roll over because the boss wants something. Such rhetoric—and the speech’s substance—suggests the president has never really left the mental horizons of Chicago politics. America is the poorer for it.