Monday, September 24, 2012

Grace Within the Political Margins

Regardless of whether his statistics were accurate, many Republicans seem proud of him.

Last week, we heard Mitt Romney unscripted and unedited.  When news broke that Jimmy Carter's grandson had provided videotape to the press in which Romney says he's not trying to woo the 47% of moochers in America, there was an audible gasp from some conservative corners.  And then after the obligatory media frenzy, some right-wingers took Romney's idea and embraced it.

The statistic may be accurate in the strictest sense, regarding federal payroll taxes, but it cannot be used to say that 47% of Americans don't pay taxes and rely too much on government.  For one thing, many retired Americans may not pay taxes on their savings or retirement income, and many working families obtain earned income credits that reduce their federal tax bills.  But most workers still pay into the Social Security system, even though many of us have given up hope of ever taking advantage of it ourselves.  Many Americans also pay property taxes, sales taxes, and government fees.

We Need to See Need

So in a sense, 47% of what Romney said was flat-out wrong.  About the only part he got right was that in terms of political reliability, the presidential race comes down to the relatively small percentage of "undecideds."  But that's not nearly enough motivation for a politician trying to work a room in Boca Raton, Florida, full of big-money Republican donors.

Indeed, some Republicans almost seem to enjoy pitting people who supposedly don't pay their "fair share" against themselves, assuming that they themselves never benefit from government programs for which other taxpayers are paying.

Then too, right-wingers like to bash entitlement programs, but they've come to display their own attitude of entitlement.  They believe they're entitled to not be bothered by the problems other people may have.

To the extent that certain government programs, such as welfare and public housing, have actually created the phenomenon of institutionalized poverty, then yes; we have a lot of work to do in streamlining the ways in which our government tries to help people we ourselves don't want to help.  We need better ways of determining legitimate need, and setting policies - both in government and in the private sector - which help our country avoid drastic economic swings like the one we're experiencing now.  People who champion capitalism - of all people - also need to realize that our chosen economic system has a history of swings, and that usually, many more people suffer than profit during downturns.  Just like even in the good times, fewer people profit richly than profit modestly.  Capitalism isn't a we-can-all-be-kings system.  If it was, it would be called communism.

It's not even like we're really interested in helping everyone succeed anyway.  Right-wingers like to rant about the alarming rise in the number of people qualifying for food stamps, but how many communities of faith participate in effective food pantries?  How many churches are full of self- righteous people who either see the need to ask for food a result of shameful personal failure, or would never ask their church for assistance for fear their friends would find out and ostracize them?  How much easier is it to apply through relatively anonymous government programs to provide food - and shelter - for your family?  We seem more interested in helping to feed people we'll never see again in far-off places than people in our own spheres of influence.  Speaking of basic needs is taboo in many evangelical circles.

When the Right is Right

Not that conservatives have everything wrong in this narrative.  One area where it's hard to fault hard-line Republicans is in our emphasis on personal responsibility.  Having each person in a society develop an awareness of what they need to contribute is a good thing.  Initiative, integrity, tenacity, and productivity are words and themes one often hears in Republican rhetoric, and there's nothing wrong with that.  With the exception that Republicans sometimes don't understand how one person's initiative can deprive somebody else of their opportunity, having conservatives look to free markets instead of government intervention in terms of personal responsibility makes a lot of sense, and plenty of passages from the Book of Proverbs provide a solid basis for doing so.

When conservatives point out that in American society, we appear to have arrived at a tipping point in terms of the number of people who seem to be lost without government assistance, I've never argued otherwise.  The institutionalized poverty with which we now suffer seems to be solidifying a subculture of ambivalence, slothfulness, and outright anti-social contempt in the United States.  In a way, extremes on both sides of the socioeconomic scale seem to be fighting against the common goals towards which we should all be working.

Hopefully, the recent rise in food stamp recipients will reverse itself once our economy improves and our employment market thaws.  The assistance many people need these days should be temporary.  Of course, this means that our economic models will need to rediscover the value of employees, no easy task in our brave new world of automation.  But the hard-core assistance - increasingly seeming more like guaranteed provision - that our society gives to a persistent percentage of our population shows no sign of abating.

And that is not good news no matter your faith or political views.

"Charity" is Not a Four-Letter Word

Christ teaches us that "the poor will always be with us."  Perhaps in our society, we've been fortunate thus far to have experienced as much wealth and economic vitality as we have, and that now with globalization forcing lower-skilled jobs offshore, our socioeconomic structures need to recalibrate themselves for a less prosperous new normal.  But Christ doesn't teach us to ignore the poor and wait for conditions to improve.  He doesn't tell us to blame the poor for why more and more of our tax dollars are going to fund "entitlement" programs.  Poverty, like wealth, is a relative concept.  At least for conservatives of faith, we need to understand that as much as we talk about personal responsibility, this topic extends not only to how we provide for our own families, but how we administer all of the resources with which God blesses us.

Natural human emotions concentrate on self-preservation at the expense of broader humanitarian concerns.  It may speak more to a weakness of free market capitalism than whatever "Christian" values our Founding Fathers may have had, America's conservatives view money - and not ethics - as the major, pivotal, critical consideration in our upcoming presidential election.

And to the extent that poverty is, by definition, an economic problem, Americans who are worried about our country's financial future have a right to be concerned.  Government spending needs to be cut, and regulations inhibiting job growth reduced.  Neither left-wingers, whose social altruism can actually enslave the poor, nor right-wingers, who vilify those who don't pay as much in taxes as they do, have a lock on the way to fix what ails America's finances.  We need to advance the expectations of personal responsibility along with a realization that charity's work still needs to get done, either on macro or micro scales.  After all, charity, too, is part of being a responsible citizen.

Mitt Romney is an easy target for liberals who don't like his venture capitalist background and his off-the-cuff fundraising platitudes.  But we Christ-followers had better beware making the poor an easy target for our political blame games.

Let's not marginalize grace, or those of us who need it.

Lest we make ourselves unfit ambassadors for the One from Whom all grace originates.

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