Wednesday, April 27, 2005

The Idolatry of Tax Cuts

Michigan and Grand Rapids are in bad shape. With thousands of jobs leaving the state, and decreasing tax revenues, every level of government has been hit in the state--and often the worst effects seem to trickle down to municipalities (though the trickle is more like a downpour, gaining steam from Washington on down!). The City of Grand Rapids faces a $35 million dollar shortfall and has to contemplate closing parks and pools to scrimp and save (though such drastic attacks on quality of life will barely make a dent on the deficit). And the Grand Rapids Public School board faces an $18 million dollar shortfall. Desperate times.

Of course, there is a solution to all of this, but it can never be uttered in our current, still-post-Reagan climate (a climate that Clinton only fostered, by the way, and which W. has run with): we could increase taxes, and specifically, we could increase taxes for the wealthiest elite in our state (there's no shortage of them). The problem, of course, is that it's generally that same group/class who make it to Lansing. Uttering the words "tax increase" in West Michigan is tantamount to treason (it might actually be worse than treason for Besty DeVos).

So I was quite intrigued this morning by a story on NPR about Indiana's Republican governor (and former Bush budget advisor), Mitch Daniels. While elected on the now universal promise of tax cuts (geez, not even the fricking Democrats will talk about raising taxes!), Daniels' experience of revenue shortfalls has got him singing a different tune, asking for--if you can believe--a TAX INCREASE. And not only that, he's asking for a specific tax increase ON THE RICH (rather than the ridiculous schemes promoted in Michigan to increase the sales tax, which is really just a way of disproportionately taxing the poor). Daniels has requested what to any charitable Martian must sound eminently reasonable: a 1-year, 1% tax increase on the income of those who make OVER $100,000. As you can imagine, the idea landed like a lead balloon.

Interestingly, Daniels tried to make the case for this by invoking the analogy of an old-fashioned barn-raising where a community, together, out of a concern for the common good, each plays a part and does that they can to help achieve a stated goal (raising a barn). This is often seen as a snapshot of communal affirmation of a commmon good. The problem is, the metaphor--and the very idea itself--assumes something that has been consistently eroded in this country since Reagan: a spirit of altruistic, disinterested concern for my neighbor and a commitment to a good that is greater than my own self-interest. In short, the barn-raising project requires a community of people who have been formed to not put their own interest first, to care about the whole more than the part. In short, it assumes a social system of "cooperation" as sketched by John Ruskin, F.D. Maurice and others--an understanding of cooperative social arrangements that runs counter to the competitive arrangements needed by and produced by capitalism. But even since Bush the Senior uttered "It's YOUR money," any hope of such a cooperative framework has been steadily eroded. Hell, not even the CHURCH forms people to care about others any more! Indeed, the most vociferous opponents of tax increases in Michigan are all of the Vandersomething Republicans who dutifully attend their so-called "Reformed" churches every Sunday.

But could it be that the Gospel of incessant tax cuts (especially for the rich) is, in fact, another Gospel? This diabolical message has nothing to do with the vision of Jesus who came preaching liberation for captives, healing for the sick, justice for the poor--and yes, tax increases for the rich.

Saturday, April 23, 2005

Elections don't entail Democracy

A recent article by Nir Rosen in Harper's points out the flawed, populist notion of democracy embraced by the Bush administration. In "After the Election: Iraq's democratic preamble to civil war" (April 2005, pp. 71-74), Rosen shows that the White House's fetishization of elections is incredibly naive. The administration pressed for "free" elections in Afghanistan and Iraq as proof that democracy had emerged in the region, but as Rosen concisely notes: "elections are the result of democracy, not the catalyst for it." And in fact, the fetishization of elections (and the subsequent "branding" of purple-inked fingers as symbols of "freedom") actually meant that the elections were conducted under some of the most un-democratic conditions one could imagine, including paid "reporters," ballots without names, restriction of free speech, and above all, the continued climate of terror and fear. Rosen thinks that this sham of an election is actually a prelude to civil war. All the White House can see is their supposed triumph in all those purple fingers.

Wednesday, April 20, 2005

"American Catholics": American, or Catholic?

It was only a matter of time: with the election of Cardinal Ratzinger as Pope Benedict XVI, news outlets from NPR to the New York Times were quick to divine the response of so-called “American Catholics.” The trickle of laments so far (Jack Miles, Charles Curran, and Jesuits everywhere) is sure to be followed by a torrent of jeremiads over the next several weeks from the usual suspects (Peter Steinfels, Gary Wills, et. al.) who will bemoan the fact that the cardinals chose a Pope who, of all things, endorses the teaching of Church. (This happens even as other American neocons like Michael Novak and Richard John Neuhaus are eager to paint Benedict XVI as the Pope of the free market.)
But the apoplexy of these “American Catholics” is not the sort of response you’ll find in the Pulaski Square or Burton Heights neighborhoods in Grand Rapids. Nor will you find such weeping and gnashing of teeth amongst those worshipping in the basilica in Dyersville, IA—or even in the Cathedral of our Lady of the Angels in Los Angeles, where immigrants from Mexico and Guatemala greet the news of Benedict XVI with joy. No, for the opinions of these so-called “American Catholics” you’ll have to make your way to the halls of east coast Jesuit universities and New York editorial offices.
So the notion that these New York and Washington intellectuals represent “American Catholics” is a gross overstatement and misnomer. (Sometimes the label is more specific and rightly indicates that these are the opinions of “liberal Catholics.”) Many Americans who are Catholic—not too mention the Catholic faithful in Latin America and Africa—won’t find the election of Cardinal Ratzinger the least disturbing or surprising. In fact, they will eagerly look to Pope Benedict XVI as shepherd of the flock.
Why the difference of response? Why does Cardinal Ratzinger’s election as Pope generate such despair among “American Catholics,” and yet is welcomed by many Catholics who live in the United States?
I think it has something to do with how you conjoin the terms. The so-called “American Catholics” want a church that conforms to the sensibilities of American liberalism: personal freedom and autonomy, a rejection of authority, a disparaging of tradition, and an expanding “private” sphere that let’s us do what we want. The Church is great, they’ll say, as long as it doesn’t get in the way of us pursuing our version of the American dream.
But that is precisely to miss what it means to be Catholic—indeed, what it means to be a Christian. The way of the cross is not the way of self-invention and private fulfillment. It is the way of discipleship. And discipleship requires learning to subject one’s desires and interests to God’s authority. As we see in Mary, the first disciple, to follow Jesus means learning to say, “Let it be.” In this respect we must recognize, as Pope John Paul II argued, that there is a deep antithesis between liberalism and Catholicism. The fact that Pope Benedict XVI agrees with this only indicates that he affirms the centuries old tradition of the faith. Should we really be surprised that the Cardinals elected a Pope who affirms the faith?

The chorus of “American Catholics” want a church without discipleship. I expect Pope Benedict XVI’s papacy will force them to be honest and choose between being American liberals and being Catholic.

Monday, April 04, 2005

Pope John Paul II: A Reformed Appreciation

The passing of Pope John Paul II into eternal life is not only a loss for the Catholic church; it is a loss for Christians of all traditions and confessions. Indeed, though I trace my confessional identity to the Reformation protest against “Rome,” it was John Paul II who reminded me that to be Christian is to be catholic.
Pope John Paul II articulated what papal biographer George Weigel describes as “the catholic difference;” that is, the Pope unapologetically asserted that to confess Jesus is Lord is to see the whole world differently. The Pope’s vision of catholicism, in other words, is what Weigel calls an “optic:” “a way of seeing things, a distinct perception of reality” that made a difference. But this was a catholic difference: on the one hand, this vision was generous and ecumenical, such that Christians from across traditions and around the globe could join together to proclaim the Gospel to the modern world. It is no surprise, then, that Pope John Paul II was committed to reconciliation, overseeing the most comprehensive commitment to religious dialogue in the history of the Vatican–including fruitful dialogue between Rome and the churches of the Reformation. (This passion was articulated in his 1995 encyclical Ut Unum Sint.) On the other hand, this catholic vision was different. The Gospel proclaims that the whole world belongs to God, and that this makes a difference: for the way we think about justice, economic distribution, our relation to material goods, human relationships and bodies, and even how we think about suffering. So the Pope was also unabashed in his assertion of this difference, never shy to articulate a prophetic critique of what he saw as the creeping “culture of death” taking hold of the modern world, whether in the oppressive form of Communism which he helped topple, or in the form of America’s persistent use of the death penalty and unjust military interventions. The Pope’s prophetic vision of the Gospel’s impact on every sphere of life helped those of us who are Reformed to be reminded that ours is a catholic vision.
The Pope’s vision will forever be known as one committed to the “culture of life” as opposed to the culture of death. Unlike the simplistic versions of this bandied about in American party politics, Pope John Paul II left us with a rich philosophical and theological articulation of this moral vision in encyclicals such as Evangelium Vitae and Veritatis Splendor. At the heart of this was a theology of the body that could affirm all the goods of embodiment, from the arts to sexuality, in a way that avoided the puritanical gnosticism of much of evangelicalism. And in his final years the Pope modeled for us a profound theology of suffering, trying to show a modern world that, despite all our pretensions to mastery and control, that there is redemption to be found by living out of control, and receiving grace from a God of great gifts.
Christians of all confessions, and perhaps especially Christians from the so-called “Reformed” churches, should take time this week to give thanks to our giving God for the gift of John Paul II. We would do well to learn to see the world through the optic of “the catholic difference.”