Neil Macdonald: God and taxes, how America is governed

The religous right dominated the recent debate over America's debt and spending priorities. But they are not the only Christian voice being raised.

I've never quite figured out how evangelical Protestantism and extreme fiscal conservatism are entangled. But they are, at least here in the U.S.

Apparently, the God worshipped by the most fundamentalist of born-again Christians prefers small government. He does not approve of raising taxes, even on the rich. (Some might say especially on the rich.)

I had all this explained to me years ago, shortly after arriving in the States, by a prominent leader of the Southern Baptist Convention, one of the most powerful evangelical denominations in the country.

This preacher was more intent on explaining why abortion is murder and homosexual behaviour should be criminalized. But he took the time to explain how God's plan applied to government finances, too.

The fact that wealthy Americans pay much lower taxes than wealthy people in any other developed country is, apparently, God's wish.

True believers would never force America's most pampered citizens to pay a greater share in order to help the less fortunate or reduce the nation's indebtedness. That sort of talk is just "class warfare."

'Where's the chapel?'

The born-again prohibition against raising taxes, or, in the current instance, even letting temporary tax cuts expire, is apparently so strict that if the alternative involves gutting services to the nation's poor — services such as unemployment benefits in a time of severe joblessness, basic medical care, food stamps, or shelter for the homeless — well, so be it.

Republican House Speaker John Boehner striding through Congress on Aug. 1, 2011, after trying to corral his votes. Most of the new Tea Party contingent didn't join the mainstream. (Scott Applewhite/Associated Press)

"Where's the chapel?" asked Republican Congressman Tim Scott last week, seeking guidance as he emerged from a session in which his party's leadership had been pressing its freshman Tea Partiers to back the official Republican plan.

This was last Thursday, a week ago. By then, President Barack Obama and the Democrats had already caved on trying to tax the rich.

At that point, the Republican counter-plan would not only have slashed government spending by trillions of dollars, it would have sought a constitutional amendment requiring a balanced budget.

If applied today, a balanced budget amendment would mean cutting government by about 40 per cent. And since government spending accounts for more than 25 per cent of American GDP, that would mean pulling a staggering amount of money out of the national economy.

Beyond the debt vote

Still, even that wasn't enough for Scott, and most of the other newly-elected Republican zealots.

Hard-core Tea Partiers were, and remain, dead set against raising the national debt limit so that the government could borrow enough new money to avoid defaulting on its obligations (and to prevent the catastrophic economic disruption that would provoke).

So Scott and some fellow lawmakers did pray together for divine guidance after the meeting with party brass and God apparently instructed them to continue voting no.

In the end, 66 Republicans voted against the stopgap bill driven by their own party and which President Obama has now signed into law. (So did 95 Democrats in the House, for an entirely different reason: they argued it was cutting debt on the backs of the poor.)

But, absent any tax increase, some other things will happen, if the Tea Party gets what it wants. And make no mistake: The Tea Party did get what it wanted this week, just not absolutely everything it wanted.

The next step is castrating the government's regulatory agencies, the ones tasked with ensuring an uncontaminated food supply, clean air and water, vehicle and aircraft safety, and a competitive marketplace.

Business interests here loathe what they regard as socialist nanny-state interference, and the fundamentalists in Congress are onside.

Michele Bachmann, the Republican Congresswoman and presidential hopeful from Minnesota (who once said God directs wives to be submissive to their husbands) wants to repeal the recent law, passed when the Democrats were in charge of Congress, designed to supervise Wall Street and prevent the financial sector from nearly destroying the economy again.

Her party leaders, who take a more nuanced approach, have opted instead to gradually eviscerate the law before it takes force. (The financial sector has helped, spending $100 million so far to thwart it).

Already, the Federal Aviation Administration, the agency tasked to keep the country's airways safe, has had its funding cut off until lawmakers return from their summer break.

The FAA is asking its safety inspectors to work without pay until at least September, and to pay for their hotel bills and expenses with their own credit cards.

Very comforting. This, somehow, is for the ultimate good of the American people.

'What would Jesus cut?'

Now, not all all religious Americans are anti-government, anti-tax, anti-regulation Tea Partiers. Not by a long shot.

A group of religious leader pray in the Capitol Rotunda in July 2011, trying to remind U.S. lawmakers of the nation's most vulnerable. (Joshua Roberts / Reuters)

And perhaps that is what Obama is counting on. Polling suggests most Americans supported his plan to cut spending while raising taxes on the rich. Polling also suggests the Republicans came out of this fight looking obdurate and controlled by a clique of rigid ideologues.

Knowing a tough re-election fight is coming, Obama may now think he looks pretty good to the millions of independent voters who crave compromise rather than showdowns.

Many of them are religious, too. During the recent debt showdown, a group calling itself the Circle of Protection occasionally surfaced in some of the more peripheral reporting on the day-to-day dramas and crises.

This group has the support of dozens of old-school Catholic and Protestant denominations, and more than a few congregations calling themselves evangelical as well.

Its organizers met with government leaders and spoke out against cutting development and humanitarian programs that support the poor, here and abroad.

The group's website asks: "Who will speak for the least of these?" And "What would Jesus cut? How do we share sacrifice?"

If I recall my Sunday school lessons of half a century ago, that would seem to be a quintessentially Christian message.

But not a fundamentalist one. And the freshman Republicans propelled to Washington last year by the Tea Party phenomenon seem more interested in asking themselves how we protect the richest of these, and what Rush Limbaugh, or Sarah Palin, would cut.


Neil Macdonald is a former foreign correspondent and columnist for CBC News who has also worked in newspapers. He speaks English and French fluently, as well as some Arabic.