Public-service announcements are everywhere. For some time now it has been common for them to repeat a moral proverb that goes something like this: “You can judge a society by how well it treats its weakest members.” There are variations on this theme, but what they have in common is the idea that we have a moral duty to those who are unable to care for themselves or defend themselves.
Great civic and religious leaders have reminded us of this in different ways.
According to the gospels, Jesus of Nazareth argued for the rights of the poor and the necessity for his followers to be generous in offering assistance to them (Matthew 25:45f). Mohammed insisted on the practice of giving assistance to the poor; it is one of the five most important “pillars” of Islam to this day (Qur’an 9:60). Gandhi described poverty as “the worst form of violence.” In all of the great religious traditions of humanity we find an emphasis on compassion, kindness, and mutual care.
These enlightened traditions are arguing for a sense of human community–a recognition that none of us is here alone and therefore, how we live our lives affects one another. They encourage us to act in solidarity (for mutual responsibility) rather than solipsism (acting as if the only thing that matters is the self).
At the risk of sounding like a preacher, let me share with you what I believe at the very depths of my being. I believe in God and in the overflowing goodness of God. To my understanding, the entire cosmos is infused with divine possibility. Following the teaching of my favorite theologian (Jesuit Karl Rahner), I believe that the human person has an unlimited capacity for the divine, both in our experience of living and our capacity to act.
I also believe that kinds words and small actions can make a world of difference. In fact, I know it from experience.
But I also know from experience that people can be shallow, selfish, uncaring, and foolish in their choices. The great religions of the world have dealt with this reality as well. Christians often refer to it as original sin. Another Jesuit theologian, William O’Malley, has gone on record saying that original sin is the only Christian doctrine that you can see on the front page of the newspaper every day. Recent events in Newtown, CT and closer to home in Lucedale, MS demonstrate that O’Malley is correct.
Believe it or not, I’m actually trying to live my life as a person of peace, as a person who fosters the dignity of others, as a person who is compassionate. Though I may not always succeed, in my work and in my personal affairs I actually try to do a bit more than expected, to reach out to those who are hurting, to make a real difference for the betterment of the lives of others.
That’s our moral duty. Or so I believe.
I’m willing to bet that lots and lots of my neighbors believe likewise. We’re called to lives of moral activity. And by that I don’t just mean that we should stay out of trouble. As the Boy Scouts like to say, we should leave the place better than we found it. My Jewish friends refer to this as tikkun olam, “repairing the world.” In my system of belief I am responsible for this. You are responsible for this. We are responsible for this.
So why do we cede this personal responsibility to the state? I realize that Jesus said to “give to Caesar that which belongs to Caesar,” but I can find no evidence in the gospel accounts to justify the idea that we should give to Caesar so that Caesar can provide for the needy. It seems that Caesar isn’t doing a very good job of it, anyway.
When did it become the duty of the state to care for our neighbors? When did we decide that government bureaucrats could better care for the poor than churches? Why are those on the so-called “progressive” side of American politics considered to be the compassionate ones while those who argue for limited government supposedly have hard hearts and unreasonable demands? How did the insistence that laws, taxes, and regulations be applied equally and not to special parties become misrepresented as a preferential option for the rich?
Let’s get back to morality for a moment.
I truly believe the things that I enunciated above. I think many others believe those things, too. But the problem with morality–like religion–is that it’s very subjective. I may believe that my moral standards are universal and should apply to everyone. You may disagree. You may have different universal standards. Whose will prevail? Who gets to tell everyone else how to live, how to work, and how to spend their money?
The great wisdom of our nation’s founders was that they recognized this inherent problem. They also recognized that ceding moral responsibility to centralized government necessarily implied the expansion of force. The more you authorize government to do, the greater must be its power to enforce its way. This would appear to be one more reason for limiting the power of government to essentials.
Obviously, in our federal system, certain prerogatives must be delegated to the federal government. The Constitution severely limits those things, and for good reason. Once they are ceded power, governments tend to accumulate more and more of it (both at home and abroad). Because of our history and our understanding of governmental power as based upon the will of the people, we Americans have generally been comfortable with the exercise of governmental regulation.
In my view it’s unfortunate, however, that we have now come to equate our society’s moral goodness with how much money government is taking from some to give to others.
This is not what the great religious traditions have in mind when it comes to their teaching on moral action. There is nothing inherently moral about bloated bureaucracies, wasteful spending, or specialized taxation aimed at particular segments of our society. If federal taxation is necessary, and it seems that it is, then it should be accomplished fairly, evenly, and with an eye to funding only the responsibilities specifically delegated to the federal government by the Constitution.
Anything else is immoral, especially when it has resulted in $16 trillion in debt–a debt that is already harming the poor and destroying the economic future of our children (meaning an increase in future poverty).