People of faith have an important perspective on the “fiscal cliff” budget negotiations going on in Congress — and an important stake in the outcome.
From many spiritual angles, the faith community has reason to support a balanced approach to deficit reduction, one that incorporates fairer taxes on our society’s most fortunate citizens while seeking to avoid undue hardship for the most vulnerable among us.
Anti-tax rhetoric in recent years has become extreme. No one enjoys paying taxes (and even though churches themselves are tax-exempt, their lay and clerical employees are taxpayers), but taxation is the foundation of a strong society. It binds us together as stakeholders in our community and pays for goods and services vital to us all.
It’s remarkable that in a democratic republic such as ours, in which it is our elected representatives who set tax rules and rates, taxation is somehow painted as an illegitimate extraction by an alien power. This exaggerated antipathy toward taxes and spending is corrosive of a healthy polity.
In addition to raising funds for the common good, taxation — when equitable and progressive — also helps to close unhealthy gaps in wealth and income. Worldly success, combined with a spiritual appreciation of higher rewards, is to be applauded; much good work around the globe is done by wealthy individuals.
But the startling concentration in recent decades of wealth (and by extension, power) into fewer and fewer hands in this country cannot be consistent with a just, peaceful and prosperous society. By asking a greater contribution to common purposes from our wealthier neighbors, we help even out the distribution of bounty among us, creating a more harmonious whole.
Of course, the taxes raised must be used for the right purposes. These include the practical work of the community, such as paving roads and staffing libraries, performing medical research and offering police and fire protection.
Those purposes also must include attending to the needs of our sisters and brothers in distress, as the tenets of all the world’s religions command us to do. We must house the homeless, feed the hungry, clothe the naked; we must not allow our fellow creatures to perish for want of care.
Houses of worship obviously perform these humanitarian tasks every day, but government has scope and resources far beyond any religion and must continue to do its duty by its citizens.
For all these reasons, talk of solving our nation’s debt crisis through spending cuts alone is profoundly troubling. Little better are vague plans to somehow raise enough revenue through closing loopholes. In many instances, these so-called “loopholes” include tax deductions and credits used by families to secure their place in the middle class, such as the mortgage interest deduction.
In any case, objective analysts have determined it’s impossible to raise the revenue needed in this indirect way.
Much simpler and more straightforward would be to allow Bush-era tax cuts to expire for the 2 percent of American households with annual income above $250,000. (In recognition of our still-weak economy, cuts passed at the same time for the other 98 percent should be extended.)
A reversion to the slightly higher rates of the Clinton administration for those earning more than a quarter-million dollars per year would bring in more than a trillion dollars in revenue during the next decade, allowing us to address our debt crisis while still honoring our collective responsibilities.
For all their facts and figures, public budgets are ultimately moral documents. Our government officials must approach them as such, weighing the human cost of every decision. If they contrast the unpleasant inconvenience for the very wealthy of somewhat higher tax rates with the very real suffering of those who would lose public services such as nursing home care and supplemental nutritional aid to budget cuts, the proper course should be clear.
I trust Maine’s admirable senatorial duo, Susan Collins and Olympia Snowe, will see their way to the right path.
The Rev. Frank Morin is administrator of St. Michael Parish, Augusta.