NPR today features a story on the religious debate around Paul Ryan's budget plan. At issue is the question of whether Ryan's budget is consistent with Catholic teaching, but the story also invokes recent remarks by Rick Warren and Richard Land in support of an economically conservative reading of Jesus' teaching:
After the House passed its budget last month, liberal religious leaders said the Republican plan, which lowered taxes and cut services to the poor, was an affront to the Gospel — and particularly Jesus' command to care for the poor.
Not so, says Wisconsin Republican Rep. Paul Ryan, who chairs the House Budget Committee. He told Christian Broadcasting Network last week that it was his Catholic faith that helped shape the budget plan. In his view, the Catholic principle of subsidiarity suggests the government should have little role in helping the poor.
"Through our civic organizations, through our churches, through our charities — through all of our different groups where we interact with people as a community — that's how we advance the common good," Ryan said.
The best thing that government can do, he said, is get out of the way.
This is a complete misrepresentation of the doctrine of subsidiarity, of course, and leaves out vast swaths of other Catholic teaching on the subject of society's obligation to the poor. Steve Thorngate at the Christian Century notes:
Leave aside that Ryan moves from subsidiarity to federalism to let-the-churches-handle-it in a hot second (along with, to be fair, an ellipse). The problem with collapsing the federal safety net in the name of subsidiarity is that this particular Catholic social teaching simply demands more.
And, also from the Century, David Heim:
Subsidiarity is a fertile idea, though more suggestive than prescriptive. It's hard to pin down what subsidiarity actually means, apart from some extreme cases. (Yes, we can agree that the federal government shouldn't decide what families eat for breakfast or when neighborhoods hold their block parties or who should teach seventh grade.)
Most users of the term tend to forget one crucial element of the subsidiarity principle: larger organizations are always obligated to step in to coordinate or supplement the activities of smaller organizations when such action is necessary to protect human rights and serve the common good. John Paul II made this point explicitly when invoking subsidiarity in his 1991 encyclical Centesimus Annus.
As Daniel McGuire notes in Religion Dispatches, if conservatives are really interested in what Catholic teaching has to say abou the economy, they should read the recent Vatican document on the subject, but they might not like what they find there:
The Catholic tradition of “subsidiarity” means that nothing should be done by a higher authority that can be done by active participation at lower levels. Right-wingers like Paul Ryan grab that one word, “subsidiarity” and claim it supports their maniacal hatred of government. It doesn’t. It calls for a more active citizenship, not voter suppression. Internationally it calls for “a new model of a more cohesive, polyarchic international society that respects every people’s identity within the multifaceted riches of a single humanity.” The goal is a solidarity that would end poverty and obsessive reliance on military violence for security.
The Vatican document supports fair taxation, greed-controlling regulation and bailouts “with public funds” when necessary. It excoriates “neoliberalism,” the greed-is-good creed of the right wing. Maggie Thatcher used it, and when she entered office 1 out of 10 Britons was in poverty; when she left, 1 out of every 4 (1 in 3 children) was impoverished. Reagan was married to it—as are his worshiping successors—and the 99% continue to lose while the 1% gorge and the economy sinks. It’s not complicated. It’s dumb. And, as the Vatican says, it’s immoral.
Catholic social teaching is not wild-eyed idealism; it is a pragmatic realization that without the taming of greed and without poverty-ending sharing, we face global economic chaos.
But, lest I leave my own tribe untouched by criticism, I just have to note briefly the absurdity of the comment by Richard Land (who has Slacktivist has repeatedly noted, continues inexplicably to be employed by the Southern Baptist Convention despite is explicit racism):
Richard Land at the Southern Baptist Convention says of course Jesus paid his taxes and advised followers to do the same. But, he says, "the Bible tells us that socialism and neosocialism never worked. Confiscatory tax rates never work."
The Bible never mentions socialism, obviously, but Land says the whole of Scripture says that people are sinful and selfish and, therefore, "people aren't going to work very hard and very productively unless they get to keep a substantial portion of that which they make for them and for their families."
Someone is going to have to help me square this with the "Acts of the Apostles," where it is recorded that in the early church, the followers of Jesus "held all things in common" (Acts 5:32-35). While this shouldn't be read as an endorsement of socialism or the modern social welfare state, it certainly offers a direct contradiction to Land's claim that "the Bible tells us socialism and neosocialism [what's neosocialism exactly?] never work." In the early church at least, it provided the basic model for their common life.*
And then there's Rick Warren, who wants so badly to be today's Billy Graham, but he makes it clear at every opportunity that when push comes to shove, he's as partisan as they come. His description of the proper role of government -- "The primary purpose of government is to keep the peace, protect the citizens, provide opportunity. And when we start getting into all kinds of other things, I think we invite greater control. And I'm fundamentally about freedom" -- has absolutely no theological content to it. It's just a Republican talking point.
And this, people, is the state of the conversation about morality and economics in U.S. public life today.
*Although, as my former New Testament professor would hasten to note, it's significant that this is talked about in Acts in the past tense. By the time Acts was written, they weren't doing this any more, though the author seems to see this as a sad thing, as I read the text.