The Theology of Paul (Ryan)

A friend asked me on Facebook the day Mitt Romney tabbed Paul Ryan to be his running mate in the presidential race what my “personal, theology-based thoughts” were on the pick.

So here goes.

As prologue, I recommend reading some of my posts on Amos from earlier this summer. Should you not have the time or inclination, I’ll sum them up this way: A reading of the prophets in a christocentric manner makes clear that God calls Christians living in society to above all care for others – and have particular care for the voiceless, marginalized, powerless and impoverished among us. That’s probably not terribly controversial. But the American system of government is set up in such a way that every Christian by virtue of the vote is a member of the powerful, and that we therefore are judged by God on how we exercise that power – either for or against the powerless.

This does not mean that we create a “Christian nation” that outlaws all the vices God doesn’t like. Doing so does nothing to help the powerless. It doesn’t mean that we legislate a so-called Christian morality and impose our chosen moral lifestyles on those who do not accept them; Jesus didn’t do that, and the prophets say next to nothing about personal morality. What it means is that we Christians, all of us members of the government and more so we Christians who seek and hold public office, have a duty to govern in the interests of the voiceless and powerless.

It should not be surprising, moreover, that governing in this way is a proven winner. America’s economy has grown most when inequality has been minimized (note I don’t say eliminated), and its growth has been tepid over the past decade, when inequality has skyrocketed. By “inequality,” I mean the gap between the economically powerful and powerless, which is now at alarmingly high levels.

All of that means that by voting or by holding office, Christians exert considerable pressure on the political system to mold our society in the ways we choose. We can mold that society in a way that is in line with the call of God for societies to be just, or we can do so in a way that enriches the powerful at the expense of the powerless – a condition against which Amos, Isaiah and Jesus, to name just a few, railed.

What kind of society does Paul Ryan envision?

Ezra Klein has done the best work summarizing the choices Ryan has made in the two budgets he’s proposed as chair of the House Budget Committee. Here’s a post from last August:

Here’s the basic outline of House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan’s 2013 budget in one sentence: Ryan’s budget funds trillions of dollars in tax cuts, defense spending and deficit reduction by cutting deeply into health-care programs and income supports for the poor.

So Ryan spends money in three ways:

  1. Tax cuts
  2. Defense spending
  3. Deficit reduction

The goal is to reduce the deficit, which is laudable. But cutting taxes and increasing defense spending both increase the deficit. So spending cuts must come from somewhere else. Ryan is often commended for making courageous choices, but Klein astutely points out:

Ryan prides himself on making tough choices. But where such choices need to be made for politically powerful constituencies — say, the tax breaks offered to the wealthy and the middle class, or the benefits offered to current seniors — Ryan punts. Changes for seniors don’t begin for a decade, the tax breaks Ryan will close to pay for his tax cuts go unnamed, and, of course, there are no tax increases at all. When such choices need to be made for programs that the poor depend on, however, Ryan is considerably more specific, and considerably more willing to inflict real budgetary pain on current beneficiaries.

In other words, Ryan envisions painful sacrifice to reduce the deficit, but inflicts the pain on the powerless while further enriching the powerful.

Here’s another post from Klein, from Wednesday, noting that while a lot of the conversation has focused on Ryan’s proposed cuts to Medicare – which, don’t get me wrong, would create great amounts of suffering for the elderly – Medicare is in fact not a major part of the proposed Romney-Ryan budget over the next 10 years, which is to say the time they’d actually be in office were they elected in November. His proposed cuts to Medicare wouldn’t happen until 2022. Why is that? Well, older Americans are politically powerful, so they’re exempted from being asked to make any of the sacrifices Ryan argues are needed to balance the budget.

Also exempted? The wealthiest Americans, who receive a large tax break under the notion (never proven and in fact contradicted by the history of American economic policy) that their increased wealth will “trickle down” to the lower classes. And who also happen to extremely powerful, as we have seen in this post-Citizens United world of campaign contributions.

An exemption from sacrifice also is proposed for the military, the most powerful constituency of them all in terms of brute force, but also quite powerful because of the American culture of weaponry, imperialism and idolatry of power. It’s also politically risky because cuts to defense lend themselves to demagoguery on the basis of weakening our ability to defend ourselves from attack. Also, the defense industry that surrounds our military funnels billions upon billions of dollars into the political system via lobbyists and campaign contributions, increasing its political power.

So the three most politically powerful constituencies – the elderly voters, the wealthy and the military – are exempted from sacrifice.

Who isn’t exempted? The politically powerless, which is to say: the poor.

Ryan says his budget cuts more than $5 trillion in the next decade. Less than a trillion of that is coming from Medicare. Romney says his budget cuts about $7 trillion from the budget over the next decade and not a dollar of that comes from Medicare. And neither Romney nor Ryan want to cut Social Security and both increase spending on defense.

If you’re not cutting Medicare or Social Security or defense you’ve already taken more than half of the federal budget off the table. And you know what’s mainly left, the big pot of money you can still cut?

Programs for poor people.

Estimates indicate Ryan’s budget would cost 45 million people their current health insurance or the insurance they’re slated to receive under the Affordable Care Act (which he would repeal, a move that actually increases the deficit, thus requiring more sacrifice). As many as 10 million people would lose access to food stamps.

Oh, but that’s not all.

It’s important to remember that Romney’s budget is much, much more aggressive than Ryan’s. It’s less specific, so it gets less attention. But it’s much more aggressive. Ryan’s got about $5.3 trillion in cuts. Romney’s looking for $7 trillion. And he’s not keeping Ryan and Obama’s Medicare savings. And he’s increasing spending on defense by much more than Ryan does. So to pay for that defense spending and make up the Medicare cuts, he needs about $1.5 trillion more in cuts from the non-Medicare, non-defense side of the budget than Ryan has.

To make Romney’s numbers add up, you have to assume that by the end of his presidency, Romney will have cut every federal program that’s not Medicare, Social Security or defense spending by 57 percent. …

[W]hen Romney gets kind of serious [about specific budget cuts in his proposal], the big categories he identifies for cuts — and I’m quoting from his speech in Detroit here — are Medicaid, food stamps, housing subsidies and job training. Programs for the poor, in other words.

This seems kind of extreme. Why would Romney and Ryan take so much support from the powerless and give it to the powerful? The question answers itself, doesn’t it?

We’re not talking about the budgets like this because both campaigns think it’s in their interest to turn the conversation to Medicare. After all, seniors vote. And they particularly vote in Florida. And so the Obama campaign has decided to focus on the Ryan and Romney’s long-term plan to voucherize Medicare, and the Romney campaign has decided to focus on the Affordable Care Act’s cuts to Medicare. There’s not much electoral upside in making a big issue out of cuts to programs for the poor.

That bolded sentence (emphasis mine) is as much a stinging indictment of this nation – where 80 percent of its citizens self-identify as followers of Jesus – as any other in the blog post.

In a sense, Paul Ryan is the distilled ethos of our country. A Christian who proposes to reward the powerful at the expense of the powerless, who cuts public education in favor of weapons and health care in favor of tax cuts.

But that ethos has long been and continues to be toxic for our faith, both collectively and individually.

I understand the realities of governing, that no Christian can run a country and “turn the other cheek,” as Jesus calls us to do, or radically redistribute wealth, as the earliest churches did. Some calls for personal action cannot – and should not – be followed completely on the corporate level because the results would be as unjust as the status quo. But the call to protect the powerless? To help the needy? That call can be and should be followed on the societal level. It’s the moral thing to do, and it’s been proven to be the economically correct thing to do.

But that is not a call heeded by Paul Ryan, Mitt Romney or their budgets. By proposing to lavish money on the rich and powerful while eviscerating the programs that protect the poor, they have asked Americans to support a deeply immoral, thoroughly unChristian vision of society. They propose to further “crush the head of the poor into the dust of the earth, and push the afflicted out of the way,” in the words of Amos.

That should be abhorrent to every Christian, and it should be deadly to their political prospects. That it is neither is a deep shame to the followers of Jesus living in the richest nation in the history of the world. At least, it should be.

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One comment on “The Theology of Paul (Ryan)

  1. I would like to be able to switch my vote between the two big parties from time to time, just to keep them honest. But in today’s world? In good conscience, as a Christian, I can’t vote for Republicans, because their main approach to everything is “find what will hurt the poor most, and do it.” No, the Democrats aren’t a bastion of virtue and wisdom; that’s why I wish there were two parties an honest person can consider supporting. But right now, there aren’t. I’ll have to keep holding my nose and voting for the pig that stinks less.

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