Is Paul Ryan’s Budget ‘Un-Christian’?

Photo: TIME

Here is my TIME.com column today on the Paul Ryan budget.

Americans often tell pollsters they yearn for a return to the Christian principles on which the U.S. was founded. If so, they should take a closer look at the Romney-Ryan ticket. Jesus’s teachings regarding wealth are nowhere to be found in Paul Ryan’s budget proposals…

Continued here: http://ideas.time.com/2012/08/14/why-paul-ryans-budget-unchristian/#ixzz23Ws24Yjp

As usual, my opinions in the comments section over at TIME are being pilloried and distorted. I take this as a compliment, by the way. For the record, I understand full well the difference between private philanthropy and a government safety net.  There is clearly an argument for keeping taxes low for the wealthy in order to free them to direct their charity (or their profligacy) as they see fit. Naturally, most people (including myself) would love to live in the fantasy world where we could force others to pay for medical research, roads, security, and the like.

Who wouldn’t want that? I, for one, would love to keep all of my money — as Mitt Romney will be able to do, under Ryan’s tax plan (and this analysis was done by the non-partisan Tax Policy Center, by the way, and not concocted in my feverish brain). But we have a social contract which still provides for services and opportunities to others, through taxes, some of which are beneficial to me, and some of which have no impact on me or even contradict my belief system and funding priorities. This is life in a representative democracy. When we don’t like the way the government spends our money, we have three choices: we can vote for a new government; we can exercise civil disobedience (and pay the consequences, as Henry David Thoreau did); or we can accept it as the price we pay for democracy, taking comfort in the fact that other people find different government expenditures just as intolerable and/or excessive as we do: military expenditures, food stamps, medicare, prisons, schools, public transportation infrastructure, agriculture subsidies, health clinics, capital punishment appeals, tax breaks for various sectors of society, take your pick.

My view is that a tax structure that punishes the working poor is immoral. And I also think there is a lot of disingenuous obfuscation about what counts as government assistance. For example: there are a couple very different ways to look at Food Stamps. Some believe they are a hand-out to people who may or may not ‘deserve’ it. On the other hand, Food Stamps can also be viewed as a business subsidy to companies, allowing them to keep wages low, since many recipients of Food Stamps (nearly 50 percent) are full-time employees who can’t feed their families on their meager salaries.

Others can debate the evidence for trickle-down economics. From my perch, it doesn’t work. But I think we need to have political arguments that are rooted in evidence. The Republican party was once the party of reality; the democrats espoused the big ideas – some of which were idiotic and not grounded in real life. Now, it seems, the reverse has happened. I really miss the New England-style fiscal conservatives. Their absence in our national discourse is a terrible loss. I often disagreed with them, but their principles were tempered by a cold-eyed realism I respected a lot.

About ErikaChristakis

Yale Lecturer in early childhood education/Licensed teacher/Former preschool director and Harvard College house master/some-time journalist. In possession of: unmarketable bachelor’s degree (Harvard, anthropology), semi-marketable graduate degrees (public health, education…). Rewarding career at the intersection of family, society, and schools (including long stint in parenting vortex). Forging a new path to connect all of the above.
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24 Responses to Is Paul Ryan’s Budget ‘Un-Christian’?

  1. Mr Ryan’s net worth is even more interesting given that he’s spent his entire life in government — government is obviously must be working for him: http://www.celebritynetworth.com/richest-politicians/republicans/paul-ryan-net-worth/

  2. soren says:

    I thought we were suppose to have separation of church and state?

    What’s unchristian is not allowing Christians to be Christians anymore and to replace God with government.

    • Of course we need separation of church and state! But let’s not pretend for a second that there aren’t many, many Christians who are working very hard to insert their beliefs into law and public policy in ways that harm or offend others. If they are going to be vocal, and try to control other people’s bodies and relationships through legislation, they should at least be consistent and not hypocritical about the biblical teachings they’re voting for.

      • A. Smith says:

        Be real nifty if you could explain to us what the following means, not technically but in practice. Specifically this little diddy starting from the OR: Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, OR prohibiting the free exercise thereof;

      • Nothing I’ve said remotely contradicts the separation of church and state. I think we can agree that people vote according to their values, which are inspired by all kinds of things – religious beliefs, among them. I am merely highlighting the inconsistencies and hypocrisy of certain Christian-values voters who want to dictate policies about women’s health, for example, or marriage practices but who show little commitment to tackle poverty, which is arguably one of the most important Christian values. I don’t mind people not liking my opinions, of course, and I appreciate feedback of all kinds. But it would be ‘real nifty’ – as you say – if you wouldn’t make a claim that isn’t supported by my words. Thank you.

    • Jay Maybruck says:

      No One has remotely suggested “replacing God with Government.” Reread the Sermon on the Mount and then do the Christian thing and vote to re-elect our President.

  3. MrBillwulf says:

    Suppose I have obligation to do X. It doesn’t follow that the government has an obligation to do X or that it should force me to do X. After all, even if the intention behind a policy is good, the policy itself might not be a good one. For example, several years ago, Seattle residents decided against a ten cent coffee tax that would have supported daycare for the poor. They rejected it on the grounds that it was an arbitrary tax. Ten cents isn’t much, but it opens the way for more taxes. Hence, the intention was good, but the policy was bad.

  4. Your article makes me wonder, though, if you are a Christian who really is concerned about the un-Christian nature of Ryan’s budget, or if your post is an attempt by an “outsider” to convince Christians that Ryan should not be their man?

    I ask because I think you’re misunderstanding Christianity. Most importantly, you’re missing the fact that Christianity makes a distinction between the actions of the individual and the actions of the government. For example, takes Romans 13:3-4,

    “For rulers are not a terror to good works, but to evil. Do you want to be unafraid of the authority? Do what is good, and you will have praise from the same. For he is God’s minister to you for good. But if you do evil, be afraid; for he does not bear the sword in vain; for he is God’s minister, an avenger to execute wrath on him who practices evil.”

    I assure you that Christian individuals are not to see themselves as avengers to execute wrath! But that is a role of the government. In brief, I think the Bible teaches us that as individuals, our lives should be characterized by mercy – by contrast, our governments are to be characterized by justice. If you steal my wallet, it is my duty to forgive you, and it is the governments duty to find you and punish you.

    So, first of all, Jesus comments about sharing cloaks were directed at individuals, not at governments – they have absolutely nothing to do with tax rates. (As a Christian, I think all of Jesus’ ideas were good ideas, and a 100% tax rate would be a terrible idea!) Secondly, I respect Christians who think there is a charitable role for government, but there is much less Biblical justification for that position than is commonly believed. (The Bible doesn’t speak against it, it just doesn’t say much about it. It is mostly a book about God, the Church, and ourselves.)

    I’d also add that I think the best “charity” government can provide is an environment low in taxes, low in regulation, and high in economic freedom – history and a quick glance around the world teach us that that is the best way to ensure the most good for the largest number of people. To the extent Ryan’s budget would take our nation in that direction, it is good for the poor, and everyone else besides.

  5. Darin says:

    …and Jesus said unto them, “covet your neighbors wealth for that’s okay, because they’re the one percent and you’re allowed to hate them for what has been given, lie about them if necessary.” Then Jesus went down into the Congress and proclaimed, “taking others’ money by force is okay as long as you do some good with it, that or pass it along to your cronies who will kickback some sweet campaign cash.” Finally, He said unto all, “forget the other commandments too, and put the state above God for it will solve all the problems.”

    Okay, enough sarcasm :) Seriously, Jesus was talking to individuals “to give and give with a cheerful heart” not compelling them to pay taxes. Social justice isn’t Biblical, you have to twist meaning to make it fit, conflating charity with government.

    • Please see my full comments below. You are drawing an overwrought and false dichotomy between “government” and “charity.” We all live in the world together. Our actions are connected. Our taxes and national budgets reflect our priorities as human beings as much as our personal giving, and unless you are willing to live in a world where you do not benefit from the public good — no schools, no medicines, no roads or electricity — paying taxes IS “giving with a cheerful heart.” We have the luxury of voting for elected officials who represent our interests. It’s representative democracy.

      People are hiding behind this issue of personal vs. public charity to avoid the central issue in my column: Why is the Ryan budget preserving the freedom and choices of the wealthy at the expense of the middle class and the poor? There aren’t enough private charities on the planet to repair our safety net. That’s the role of the collective, the role of our government. I believe it’s un-Christian to ignore this reality.

      • Darin says:

        Okay, I gave you the benefit of the doubt before, but I don’t think you’re a Christian. I’ll leave it at that.

  6. K T Cat says:

    Is it moral compared to what? Is it moral to spend your children’s money and act like you’re being compassionate doing it? Is it moral to run up massive debts and then spend your money paying interest instead of caring for the poor? Is it moral to have no budget at all despite that being your primary job? Does salvation happen at the national level so that if we all pay a certain percentage we’re spiritually better off? Is the government a proxy for God so that offerings made to the IRS are the same as offerings for the poor?

  7. Eric says:

    Erika, I understand and agree with your position on the importance of keeping the “social contract” within a democratic society. But that concept simply does not exist in Jesus’ teachings. What made me very uncomfortable about your opinion piece on TIME.com is that you claim Jesus would have advocated for 50-100% taxation. You may have been overstating your position to make a point, but do you realize that you missed _the_ point that Jesus makes again and again about the law? When laws force people to give, they may comply but they will never really care about the poor (if anything, they may resent them more!). Jesus’ message is that God wants to change our hearts — and voluntarily giving away our wealth follows from that heart change. Do you see the difference?

    • Thank you for your feedback and for being civilized. I much appreciate it. I’m going to reply more generally to everyone, and not just your comment, if you don’t mind. First of all, I was mainly trying to make the general point that it’s hypocritical to use the bible as a guide for some kinds of social policy and not others. I don’t appreciate people who are trying to dictate how others use their bodies and conduct their personal relationships yet seem comfortable with a totally regressive and, yes, un-Christian tax proposal.

      In addition…GIVEN that we have to live in a world where we don’t get to spend ALL of our money exactly as we please, I want to understand why people think it’s fair and “Christian” to allow rich people not to pay taxes (or to pay almost no taxes, per Ryan’s plan) whereas poor and working class folks are not given the same luxury. I’d like to hear an answer to that question that makes sense from an economic and/or theological perspective. Moreover, I’d like to know why people think that we should place such an inordinately high priority on preserving the right of rich people to pay essentially little or no taxes that, in order to do so, we cut off programs that have historically assisted disadvantaged people (the disabled, for example, or people who grew up in poverty) and given them opportunities to take responsibility for their lives. Food stamps are an obvious example.

      I feel you (and others) are misunderstanding me when you talk of “forcing” people, through taxation, to give money. Anyone who lives in a functional representative democracy must understand that it’s not “forcing” anyone to expect a fair and reasonable tax plan. We all have to pay taxes, plain and simple. We can’t entirely outsource roads, security, schools, medical research, prisons, warfare, infrastructure development etc. And occasionally we need governmental intervention to correct markets that have run amok (such as the recent financial bailout) or redress extreme social injustice (such as the Voting rights act.) The good news is that we have the right to vote and assemble. We can advocate for representatives to enact the policies, laws, and expenditures we think are most reasonable. Most of the world has no such rights and privileges. It’s distasteful to me that so-called Christians balk at paying taxes and feel it is represents theft or coercion. It’s an unproductive and even dangerous attitude, and one that is at odds with caring for one’s fellow human beings. We simply can’t address all of society’s needs through private charity. What an ungenerous and immature attitude for people who live in one of the world’s greatest democracies, a country truly by/for/of the people.

      Elections are an opportunity to weigh the risks and benefits of giving one person freedom at the expense of another. Is your or my ‘right’ to hold on to virtually all of our income possibly hurting the ‘right’ of another person to live in peace and safety, take advantage of opportunity, have access to public goods, and so on? What if I want more drone strikes and you want better schools? What if I want to live off the grid and you want better public transportation? What if I want Mitt Romney to keep 99 percent of his income, and you think he should do a better job paying back society for the corporate and personal advantages he has accrued. These are questions we ALL must engage, especially in an election season. I see very little evidence that people who call themselves Christians are really engaging in the problems of poverty and income inequality in our society. They can hide behind the straw man of personal vs.’forced’ charity. But at the end of the day, no amount of private giving will get us to where we, as a society, need to be if we are to call ourselves decent human beings, much less Christians.

      People seem to think there is a stark difference between “taxes” (or a government ‘taking’ money from people) vs personal giving. Of course there is a difference – but only to a point. This is in many ways a false dichotomy. Civilized people who participate in a representative democracy have elected to ‘outsource’ all kinds of “giving.’ It feels disingenuous for these supposed libertarians to think that we can have a functional society without fair and appropriate taxation. I am calling out people who think that it’s fine to let rich people avoid taxes but NOT THE POOR and WORKING CLASSES. We have only to look at countries like contemporary Greece, where there is a cultural distaste for paying taxes to see what happens when people delude themselves into thinking that contempt for the government safety net is a noble stance.

      • Dear Erica; it is good to have a heart for the poor but what do we do to fulfill this mission? Do we take matthew 5:40 out of context to try and reconfigure a Biblical 50% tax rate when in fact the Scriptural Exegesis says, “when you are going to court to be sued…..and asked for your tunic…give your cloak as well.” that would suggest a 100% tax rate, yes? But that is NOT what Jesus is talking about. He is talking about a LACK of retribution and retaliation because in His day, people fought like cats and dogs over STUFF and their RIGHTs and this is Rome remember? It is brutal. But Jesus offers a corrective to worldly possession, he says, “don’t be like the world here. Just give it up.” Often a man’s cloak covered him at night. it was his blanket. So, if he was to give tunic and cloak he would walk around naked. Is Jesus advocating this? NO! this is about depossessing ourselves for the need to retaliate. We never have a discussion about the COOPERATION between Church and STate. How about that? Jesus talked about that when he said, “render to caesar what is his” when held up a Roman coin. So, he said “pay your taxes.” and Rome taxed Israel heavily. But, Jesus also said, “Render to God what is God’s.” that means: final allegiance and loyalty to the Lord when the STate wants you to BOW down to anyone as their Lord. So, we must cooperate on the one hand and resist on the other, right? What of Romans 13 where Jesus’ disciple Paul of Tarsus ( a Jew and Roman citizen) says, ” cooperate with the magistrate for he is God’s agent of judgment when the law is broken.” What about cooperating with the mayor, or governor, or president? Well, is the law just? St. Augustine said that not all laws are just so can we refuse to cooperate with an unjust law? Martin Luther, the Great German reformer said we could. Martin Luther King JR. did. So, can we? Yes we can! Would a 50% or greater tax law be unjust? Some think so. Should we resist by conscience? Or is that just greed? Is it just men or women saying, “I made this money I am going to keep it for myself.” Well, what I despise is the Christian who lives lavishly and does not give to the poor. For this is what we are crabbing about. Rich Christians. Democrats and Republicans. Rich corporate people who go to church. They claim to be moral but are they? They provide jobs but is that enough? What about the millionaires who drive simple cars and live simply. Don’t we admire them more? They do not accumulate wealth. They use it for others. Isn’t this what we want? yes! End the corporate golden parachutes, immoral high salaries, wall street corruption and both Democrat and Republicans, that means Romney and Reid, and Boehner, and Pelosi, USE your wealth for the poor. All of it! If Catholics like Pelosi are worth 25 million yet do not give or lend that money directly to the poor to end poverty then they are forked tongue and if Republicans like Boehner do not reach out as Abraham Lincoln did in solidarity with their African American brothers and sisters and SOLVE minority poverty, well double speak to all of them. Solve poverty! What of Ryan? He is a bean counter. Will his plan solve poverty and in particular minority poverty? Because THAT is what we are waiting for isn’t it? I don’t think Ryan is unChristian but I do think he is a bean counter wanting to balance a budget and be a good steward. But, how to do that? Will his plan really allow the rich to get more and more tax loopholes? Will they spend all their profits on themselves or make more jobs for the poor. Or start more charities? If we depend on “volunteers” to give their wealth we have seen it given in various forms but it is not enough. So, as Martin Luther King JR. said, “Where do we Go from here? Chaos or Community?” where do we go from here Erica? Sincerely, Liz Levesque, MA/ Fuller Theological Seminary/ Class of 2003

      • Eric says:

        Thanks for your thorough reply, Erika. I appreciate your desire to communicate your position clearly and convincingly. I completely agree that it is a sign of moral corruption (and very un-Christian) when those in power subvert the law to benefit themselves at the expense of the poor.

        Also, to be clear, I am NOT anti-government, anti-taxes or anything like that. But at the same time, I don’t believe that government can solve all the problems that plague society, since it deals with outward actions and not changing hearts. It seems to me like you do believe fully in our government, since you insist that there is little difference between taxation and charity. So, we disagree fundamentally about where to place our hope (and money) for a better and more just future.

        Returning to the point of my original post, I don’t think Jesus ever indicated that we should put our faith in government, either. This is why I take issue with your assertion that Jesus would want us to embrace a high level of taxation, rather than simply stating that Jesus declared wealth often leads to corruption (which he did). Hope that makes sense.

      • Dear ERica: From a theological standpoint there is no Christian directive that exempts “the rich Christian” from not paying taxes. In fact, historically, it has been rich Christians who gave all to build hospitals, schools, cathedrals and many European royalty of old gave all their fortunes to the work of the poor, sick, destitute and went about poor and destitute themselves because they believed the fundamental directive of the New TEstament which is :shared self sacrifice (Acts 2:42). In America, LOVE has been so romanticized and sexualized that we are no longer taught , “and Jesus loved us so much he held out his arms wide and was nailed to a cross for our sins.” We cannot look at this act of sacrificial love. We reject the cross over and over in our culture, our “feel good” culture and we do not want to embrace any pain and suffering of Christ nor others. Yet, we see suffering everywhere and what do we do to heal it? Do we give all? At some point in my Catholic growing up I recognized that “My mission” was to help the poor and one papal encyclical after another speaks on this. Pope Benedict said in “CAritas Veritas” Truth from the HEart that “the poor have a God given inheritance to their share of the earth and the resources on it” but how are we allowing that to happen in the US? This system is wack! Not a theological term but where is the Year of Jubilee where every 50 years the debts are forgiven and poor family fortunes repaired? How many AFrican Americans as freed slaves lost their lands to Southern corruption after Emancipation? And in 50 years if we had implemented Jubilee it would have been restored. However, it wasn’t. So, this payment of 40 ACres and a mule did not turn into generational wealth and that is what ABraham LIncoln wanted. Frederick Douglass, a freed slave, called him the “best President there was.” We have to solve poverty from Black Chattel Slavery. We have to solve MINORITY poverty. If Ryan’s bill doesn’t do it then whose bill will? How can the Church help? How can we cooperate and work together to solve the problems of the poor? We do need fair and appropriate taxation and we need an END to wanton uncontrolled greed and covetousness. I am not rich and I do not envy those who are. But, if you are rich and Christian I have something to say to you: “Give your wealth away in jobs or charity to the poor and in doing so fulfill Christ’s love on this earth. Do not live lavishly. Live modestly. Free up more money for the poor and good works.” If rich Christians, both Democrats and Republicans would BOTH live in frugality then maybe we could have a better witness for Christ and His kingdom on earth than we do. Right now it is just plain ugly out there. I applaud those who are rich who are living modestly and who give. But, we need to give more. Peace and Blessings.

  8. Jay Maybruck says:

    Yeah this is more on sublect for the next 80 days. There are very few Journalists Erika. Keep it up.

  9. geek49203 says:

    Amazing that you delete the comments from a MDiv scholar — you know, like the ones at Harvard Divinity School? The ones that call into question the academics of this article? I didn’t attack you, but called into question your work — and that it doesn’t remain is… troubling, in a Christian sort of way.

    • I receive literally hundreds of comments and try to publish a representative sample. I have no problem posting negative comments about me and /or my work, as you can see from any number of my posts. I even posted a comment from someone who called me a cunt. But people sometimes forget this is my personal blog – a repository for my reflections and opinions. I have no obligation to publish every comment (especially anonymous ones) whether or not they come from self-identified experts such as yourself. I’m just doing my best to practice the craft of writing and publish ideas that are important to me. I can’t and don’t want to post every single comment; my blog would become a comments section, and not a personal writing project. There is plenty of space for you to write anything you want about my work at TIME.com in the comments section. I publish there most Tuesdays.

  10. K T Cat says:

    So here’s the biggest problem with your article: It doesn’t have any point outside of politics. That is, it doesn’t address any social ills because the government isn’t addressing the primary source of social ills.

    The breakdown of the traditional family is the #1 source of social pathologies in the US. Nothing else is close. The data to back this up is enormous and statistically uncontestable. The government can spend half as much or twice as much and it makes no practical difference.

    The Christian injunction to help the poor has at it’s heart actual help. Spending more money doesn’t count if it doesn’t help. Spending more to no effect is the functional description of the vain snobs who made a big show of contributing money to the temple in the biblical stories.

    Tax the rich more, tax the rich less, do whatever you want, but don’t dress it up as a Christian act because it’s not since it doesn’t address the root causes of the majority of our problems.

  11. K T Cat says:

    One more thing. In the story of the Widow’s Mite. Jesus praises the poor widow who gives all she can to the temple treasury. If government is indeed a stand-in for God and taxes a path to salvation, then everyone needs to start paying taxes, not just half of us. You would want something like a flat tax as it would give all citizens the same responsibility for caring for the less fortunate. Rich or poor, it’s crucial that you tithe off the top.

    In doing so, however, you’re missing the biggest problem of all. Government as some kind of Tool for the Almighty is the surest way to destroy freedom. If we start conflating Barack Obama and the Federal bureaucracy with the Lord Jesus Christ, then where do we draw the line at what they can and can’t do? You might as well draw a line under 2012 and rename the country, the People’s Republic of North America. Instead of rights being granted to the government by the people, the people would petition God’s emissaries in Washington, DC for their ever-dwindling freedoms.

    The government is just another entity, It’s not morally superior, it’s just the stuff we want done collectively. Taxes are the way we fund it when we’re not behaving like idiots and borrowing to pay for ordinary operating expenses. Working for the government is not some kind of noble sacrifice, it’s a job and you get paid for it. Dressing the government up in theology is a fool’s errand and one doomed to end in tyranny.

  12. Dear Cat: Read Romans 13:1-8

    ” Let every soul be subject unto the higher powers. For there is no power but of God: the powers that be are ordained of God.

    2 Whosoever therefore resisteth the power, resisteth the ordinance of God: and they that resist shall receive to themselves damnation.

    3 For rulers are not a terror to good works, but to the evil. Wilt thou then not be afraid of the power? do that which is good, and thou shalt have praise of the same:

    4 For he is the minister of God to thee for good. But if thou do that which is evil, be afraid; for he beareth not the sword in vain: for he is the minister of God, a revenger to execute wrath upon him that doeth evil.

    5 Wherefore ye must needs be subject, not only for wrath, but also for conscience sake.

    6 For for this cause pay ye tribute also: for they are God’s ministers, attending continually upon this very thing.

    7 Render therefore to all their dues: tribute to whom tribute is due; custom to whom custom; fear to whom fear; honour to whom honour.

    8 Owe no man any thing, but to love one another: for he that loveth another hath fulfilled the law.

    Sorry about thees and thous. Government has a role to play in God’s kingdom. Jesus said when shown the head of a Roman coin, “render to Caesar what is Caesars.” And, “to God what is God’s.’ Effectively showing two kingdoms and two cooperations for us. The Church has always taught two realms: King and Pope. Eternal and Temporal. Both need paying attention to. We don’t get out of our work in either realm. Not the work of paying taxes, working for the common good, or working for our eternal reward. It’s not an either/or proposition. It is a both/and deal. Because we are both temporal and eternal beings. We have to manage both realms equitably and justly. Peace. Liz+

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