From America’s Catholic bishops to prominent Christian pastor Jim Wallis, congressional Republicans’ push for an overhaul of the tax code has been called nothing less than ungodly.
The debate about tax rates and income numbers has taken on pointedly religious overtones, with House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, California Democrat, citing Pope Benedict and St. Augustine in attacking the bill and saying it would signify Armageddon.
Mr. Wallis led a protest against the tax plan at the Hart Senate Office Building, reading Bible verses before he was escorted away by Capitol Police. The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops released a lengthy attack on the tax bill, adopting most of Democrats’ predictions and criticisms of the Republicans’ plans to cut tax rates on most Americans.
“Raising taxes on the working poor is not going to help our country — certainly help the poor — in the long run,” said Bishop Frank J. Dewane of Venice, Florida, the chairman of the bishops’ Committee on Domestic Justice and Human Development. “Even in the short run, it’s not going to help.”
While the Catholic bishops and other religious leaders weigh in regularly on issues before Congress — with immigration a particularly fervent area of lobbying — the tax debate has drawn an unusual level of religious scrutiny.
A coalition of more than 2,400 religious leaders representing Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Sikh and Buddhist groups, among others, recently wrote to Senate leaders to say their bill “violates our moral principles of equality, justice, and fairness.”
Mr. Wallis and his fellow clerics, during their Capitol Hill protest, said the Bible condemns unjust laws.
“I don’t think most Americans or even most Christians even know — there are 2,000 verses on the poor in the Bible, about how God wants to treat the poor,” said Mr. Wallis, a longtime backer of liberal causes. “Sometimes where you read the Bible is important.
“This kind of callous assault on the poor — which is what this bill objectively is — is going to be a faith issue for a lot of people around the country, and even people who don’t always vote the same way,” he said. “This is deeper. Don’t go left, don’t go right — go deeper, I keep saying.”
Other leaders questioned the attacks.
“The teachings of Christ nowhere call on government to be used to transfer wealth or money from one group of people to another group of people,” said Gary Bauer, president of the conservative educational group American Values.
“Christ was not a fan of big government; big government was not good to him,” Mr. Bauer said.
He said his reading of the tax legislation shows those at all income levels, including the poor, can benefit.
“The Christian message of helping the poor is a personal [call] to share your blessings, to feed the hungry and so forth,” he said. “I don’t make a biblical-based argument for it, but I support the legislation because I believe it will generate economic growth.”
The Republican tax plans, which House and Senate negotiators are finalizing, provide an immediate tax cut, on average, to people across all income levels in the short run, according to independent analyses.
But depending on which version is used, as much as two-thirds of the benefits will go to companies, not individuals. Taxes could increase in the long run for some Americans under the Senate bill, which was loaded with gimmicks to comply with budget rules. Republican leaders insist they will work to prevent those tax increases in the future.
Several studies have said the wealthy will pay a larger share of the federal tax burden under the Republican legislation, but religious leaders rejected those findings.
Bishop Dewane delved deep into the guts of the tax bills to find faults.
In a letter in early November, he chastised House Republicans for eliminating the adoption tax credit and incentives for employers to provide child care, and predicted low-income families would end up worse off — despite multiple studies that said in general they would benefit.
Two weeks later, Bishop Dewane fired off a separate letter on the Senate Republicans‘ proposal, toning down the criticism but complaining that the biggest tax break for the poor — doubling the standard deduction — could mean fewer people donating to charity. That could hit the Catholic Church particularly hard.
“By and large, money given to charity helps those in need. The tax code should encourage voluntary association, mutual aid, and a culture of giving, helping rather than hurting groups that will be asked to do more for the poor in the days ahead,” he wrote.
Bishops have been explicit in applying Catholic social teachings to American politics for decades, said Kim Conger, who teaches political science at the University of Cincinnati.
“I would say in general that for many people, religious [beliefs] and political beliefs have sort of merged and it’s not particularly easy to separate the two,” she said.
Nowhere is that more evident than in the debate between Mrs. Pelosi and House Speaker Paul D. Ryan, Wisconsin Republican. Both of them are practicing Catholics.
“This is Armageddon,” Mrs. Pelosi said recently. “This is a very big deal.”
House Minority Whip Steny H. Hoyer, Maryland Democrat, quickly tried to clarify that Mrs. Pelosi didn’t mean the tax plan signifies the literal end of the world.
But Mrs. Pelosi undercut that clarification.
“The only reason it isn’t the end of the world is because America is a great country,” Mrs. Pelosi said. “And the greatness of America, and the fact that God is always with us, is what gives us hope.”
Mr. Ryan was challenged during a CNN town hall over the summer by a Catholic nun who challenged the tax-cutting budget Republicans had just passed.
“It seems to me that most of the Republicans in the Congress are not willing to stand with the poor and working class as evidenced in the recent debates about health care and the anticipated tax reform,” said Sister Erica Jordan, a Dominican nun.
Mr. Ryan didn’t back down. He said he agreed with the goal — but that relying on government programs to deliver it hasn’t solved the problem.
“The status quo isn’t working, Sister. And what I think we need to do is change our approach on fighting poverty,” he said. “Let’s measure success in poverty on outcomes. Is it working? Are people getting out of poverty?”
Patrick Purtill, director of legislative affairs for Ralph Reed’s Faith and Freedom Coalition, urged religious leaders looking at the tax bills to focus on items such as an expanded child tax credit, which he said will be a boon to low- and middle-income families.
“The bishops are well within their rights to state their opinions on public policy,” he said. “Speaking as a Catholic myself … when the bishops speak on taxes, it’s an opinion to be taken [account] of, but it’s not Catholic doctrine. It’s not dogma.”
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