What am I talking about? I’m talking about universal moral truths that we tend to forget when our leaders deny them. I’m talking about a political situation where unalienable rights get lost in an atmosphere of domestic and global threats. I’m talking about political diatribe, animosity and arrogance so profound that the lives and destinies of individual human beings are wounded and sometimes destroyed. When the Pope demonstrated the power of human encounters and compassionate embrace of individuals, he vividly reminded us that there is a simple and yet profound truth in why we have government in the first place. So let us take another look at what Pope Francis indicated or implied about some of the fundamental tenets of our democracy.
The Purpose of Government is not simply to impose law and order (although that is an important function, as the Pope indicated). It is rather to “keep alive a sense of unity by means of just legislation.” He added: “Legislative activity is always based on care for the people.” And more specifically: “to defend and preserve the dignity of your fellow citizens in the... demanding pursuit of the common good.”
His words (perhaps intentionally) return us to consideration of our own immortal and foundational words transcribed in both our Declaration of Independence and in our Constitution’s Preamble:
“We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. That to secure these Rights, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.”We have an obligation, as does the Congress, to evaluate and assess our current political situation through the lens of such truths. If fair and just legislation is so important, what must we do about all the legislation which supports the opposite? Does Congress have an obligation to the People to at least discuss and debate terms like ‘justice’, ‘equality’ and the ‘common good’? Let Congress present not just a fiscal year budget, but let them present a blueprint of what they would like to accomplish in terms of enhancing citizen’s lives during their terms in office. Let them tell us about their guiding moral principals. Let us hear what outcomes they believe would relate to their stated values. We desperately need this kind of “dialogue”-- which the Pope encouraged -- because right now, it is not clear at all how most legislation (and the lack thereof) fits into a moral framework
“We the People of the United States, in order to form a more perfect Union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of Liberty to ourselves and to our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.”
that emphasizes the enhancement of human life not just the battle against sin or sinfulness.
I am not advocating that our government endorse any particular religious belief. I am not advocating that government enshrine the Golden Rule into its very structure. I am not touting the Pope’s views as the only principles that can be seen as a moral framework for legislation. I am, however, looking at his admonitions as universal principles related to human existence. They are not what make us religious, but they are what make us human. Unity, care of people, and the common good are not religious in themselves, although they may be based on a moral framework that comes out of religious belief, but could have easily come from a humanistic philosophy as well.. There is a monumental difference between the dogma surrounding and informing the abortion debate, and the universality of the Golden Rule as a guide for human actions, not as a particular doctrine required as part of a total package of a religion.
So, I am not asking that a particular religious belief be imposed by our government. I am simply asserting that the moral principles demonstrated by this Pope are helpful in illuminating and re-asserting the kind of universal principles that underlay our founding as a nation. Along with other important universal truths, they should be tested and evaluated for efficacy. In the end, every representative of the people brings to the table a set of moral guides that he or she ostensibly lives out. It is that moral framework that we need to examine for guidance in protecting and insuring the unalienable rights and equal protection of our laws, and the well-being of our citizens. What determines the validity of our actions as a democracy is not what is religious but what is morally imperative. I believe the Pope spoke to that imperative by re-iterating the importance of the following three examples.
1) UNITY. Unity is not found in promoting ‘sacred cows’ or absurd criterion or discriminatory laws. Unity is found in promoting and engaging in common causes that enhance the lives of all our citizens.
Our Tax Code is a legislative monstrosity which has built-in such a complicated series of provisions designed to disrupt unity through favoritism, that it could rightly be called the most destructive of unity of all the codes or laws we have produced. It is a testament to inequality, injustice and ineptitude. So, if unity is a fundamental goal and mission of government, we need to start right here in fashioning an approach to taxation that promotes equality, unity and justice.
Instead, we hear from the Republican majority in Congress, and from that Party’s candidates for President, that one of their most important agenda items is the passage of legislation that will either substantially cut the income taxes of the richest 1% or will establish some sort of “flat tax” that will give that small group an advantage that outweighs anything that will accrue to the other 99%. This provokes the thought that the major purpose of most of the legislation that has produced the tax code, has been influenced by some special interest, and not so much by the general welfare or the common good. For instance, movie companies, professional sports teams, oil companies and hedge fund managers have all benefitted from particular provisions within the tax code.
That is not to say that there haven’t been some provisions for the broader spectrum of tax-paying citizens, and those too poor to pay any taxes. We do have certain deductions that were originally designed to aid the middle and working cohorts in the population – medical, state tax, mortgage interest deductions, etc. But again, those provisions are only really appropriate to a small percentage of filers, as it turns out that only 16 % of filers making between $25-30,000 actually take deductions; most just take the standard deduction. The Income Tax Credit for poorer families and the tax credits or “subsidies” for health coverage of some under the ACA are examples of attempts to help other than the very rich and the well-off.
But taken as a whole, the Tax Code is a tribute to all those who believe that the rich and the very rich are those who make society function and that they deserve all the breaks that can be given. A moral framework based on compassion for children, the poor and the vulnerable such as the orphan; based on a Golden Rule that calls for treatment of others just as you want to be treated do not play a large role in the Tax Code. In fact, most legislators act as though these principles do not exist. If the Republican majority are, as they claim, guided by religious and moral principle in regard to abortion and gay marriage, why are they not guided by moral principle when it comes to devising ways to help the poor, the disabled, the vulnerable, the children and the elderly cohorts of our society?
Another example of legislation that essentially promotes disunity is any legislation that restricts abortion or restricts marriage as “matters of conscience” for it is fraught with the danger of government support for one belief system over another. Such legislation immediately provokes controversy and division, rather than unity, and it perhaps always will do so because it is equivalent to the imposition of one belief system onto all others by law. Hobby Lobby, the clerk in Kentucky and the attack on Planned Parenthood are prime examples of what establishment of religion does to a country. It immediately produces, not the unity it attempts to impose, but the divisiveness that prevails between religious communities and their belief systems.
The Pope is in a bind here and I think he knows it. He represents both the largest denominational supporter of the anti-abortion position at the same time he preaches and encapsulates the unity of peoples. It is a difficult position, but I am grateful for his attempt to draw attention to the sanctity and the transcendence of all life as the overarching concept that must guide social legislation. It is an overriding concern and something many anti-abortionists and theologically-deprived politicians have shunted aside. In other words, we must find a way to eliminate religious doctrine from our legislation and to substitute instead the criteria of unity, justice and freedom. We cannot continue down the path of being dictated to by religious zealots who don’t care a fig for unity.
The Pope attempted to broaden this discussion to a concern for all life, and that is laudable, but does not resolve the abortion issue. In my estimation, we must start over to determine a whole new vocabulary. We cannot continue to load our debates with phrases like ‘partial birth abortion’ and ‘baby killers’ mainly as rhetorical weapons. The rhetoric on both sides is charged, loaded and negative. Above all, it is political and serves primarily to win or lose elections. Instead, we must ‘disarm’ the debate and try to find a more legitimate way to talk about life in utero and life beyond that point.
I believe we must begin our protection of life by enhancing life. And that means beginning with the mother and father –their lives need protection and enhancement or that of the child cannot be all it should be. This is where the purveyors’ of protection of the unborn go wrong. They put all their life eggs in one basket – protecting the unborn but ignoring the Pope’s (and the Judeo-Christian ethic) call to treat all life as precious. It is evident most glaringly in the contrast between the Pope’s urging of protection and care of families and the right-wing’s obstruction and destruction of programs and activity on behalf of families, such as world-class education, research on childhood diseases, Pell grants, jobs, universal day-care and pre-school, food stamps and enhanced nutrition programs in schools. Complete and utter opposition to women’s health issues, represented by attempts to destroy the ACA and to close Planned Parenthood centers throughout the nation, only adds to the falsity of ultra-conservative claims to care about protection of all life. Of course, we could take this further to ask where pre-natal care and early childhood enhancement programs stand in legislation they propose. How about nowhere.
The Right-wing-captured-Congress has chosen a quite different path. They have no intention of extending, protecting and enhancing, life beyond the womb. It costs too much they say, and those who receive handouts don’t deserve them anyway. Congress denies special benefits for the poor on the basis of lack of money and character flaws in the recipients, and seeks only to maintain a tattered ‘safety net’ that is inadequate to the task. So how can they, at the same time, justify the protection of unborn life when we have no idea how costly and worthy or unworthy that life may turn out to be? In other words, if cost and worthiness of recipients are the criteria for social protection and special help for the living, how can they not apply the same criteria to the unborn? Does that mean that all unborn fetuses are equal in potential and quality, but living persons are not? We cannot continue such absurdities. We have to find common ground for protection and enhancement of all life.
A third example is legislation that discriminates against a whole group of people whether it be about labor rights, gay marriage, about voting rights or immigration. The Republican Congress has made its “creds” with arch-conservative legislation attacking organized Labor by eliminating the ability to bargain effectively, encouraging stagnation of wages, rejecting a nation-wide minimum wage raise, promoting right-to-work laws and by reducing and eliminating pensions and giving employers almost total control of employee benefits.
And if that’s not enough, this Congress has systematically reduced the ability of certain people to register and vote with both planned restrictions like photo ID requirements and unusual restrictions like closing polling place bathrooms to the public. These voting restrictions have placed extra burdens on the poor and working poor, even on lower income middle class folks; they have discouraged already reluctant voters from even registering to vote. They have made an absolute right to cast a ballot into a game of maybe you can or maybe you can’t: it all depends on how much you want to go through all the hoops to cast your vote.
Plus, instead of fulfilling their legislative duty of preparing a Plan for people of other lands to become citizens of this country, the Right Wing Republicans have blocked a sensible plan, passed some time ago by the Senate. Instead, we hear talk of nothing but criminality, illegality and the need to build walls to keep “undesirables” out. Just how do so-called Christian legislators reconcile such vitriol and loathing with the Golden Rule or the compassion of Jesus for the ‘foreigner’. Jesus even used the Good Samaritan parable to say more about being a good neighbor than one might think: the parable is actually about a foreigner --a Samaritan-- rendering neighborly aid to someone outside the circle of his own people – most likely a Hebrew (probably despised by most Samaritans!).
b) Care for the People. Pope Francis made a special point about legislation being for the care of people. Does that mean that Congress should begin with a primary objective of caring for people? Does it translate those words in the Preamble to our Constitution into a general axiom that union, justice, domestic tranquility, the common defense, the general welfare and the blessings of liberty should all be seen in the light of caring for people? I suspect that is what he intended.
That principle puts a far different spin on legislating. If one were to look very closely at the underlying primary objectives of current legislation it might be difficult to find such caring. Instead, it appears that there are several other objectives at play. The first is the care of a certain portion of the people: the richest among us. Republicans are not shy about the place of the 1% of citizens – they are the elite who are the only ones worthy of leadership because they are the best educated, the most successful, the wealthiest, and the ones through which good things like success and jobs and material goods can flow to others if they will only follow the examples of the 1%. It is, of course, pure poppycock, as they used to say. No one has proven that such is the true order of things. The “trickle-down theory” in economics does not work and never has, simply because the 1% with most of the money do not like to have their money re-distributed to other people. They have told us so, they have demonstrated it over and over – they generally oppose laws that burden them with taxes or with restrictive regulations that prevent them from doing as they please with the money they have earned. The one thing they always forget is where their money came from in the first place-- from a public willing to buy or lease or support whatever useful product or service a company or individual offers.
Care for the people is also not very evident in that Tax Code we mentioned because it is here in the coffers of the IRS that the greatest scam ever perpetrated upon the People is played out. While you as ordinary citizen pay your full amount of taxes to the IRS with little to subsidize you except a few deductions (which most don’t take), there is this thing happening to your tax dollars before they ever get appropriated from the U.S. Treasury to support all the federal government programs and services that you find essential (schools, defense, social services, research, health, safety, etc.). There is this thing called “tax expenditures” or “extraction.”
Written in to that Tax Code monstrosity is the legal leverage for certain individuals and corporations to pull out of that pot of tax income certain rebates, subsidies, deductions and exclusions that never see the light of accountability or the strictures of oversight. Just think of it: in that 70,000+ pages of the U.S. Tax Code, because of the largesse of our representatives on both sides of the aisle, there have been hundreds of special provisions written in that essentially take from 98% of us and hand it to the likes of Shell Oil and GE and Koch Industries and major league sports team owners and hedge fund managers and many more, billions of those tax dollars that you have so loyally paid all these years (and what’s worse, you are never allowed to say a thing about it.) Is that called “robbery” anywhere else? At the very least, it is called “welfare for the rich.”
So in this atmosphere of caring for the elite, the rich, the privileged, is there any room for “caring for the people” as a primary motivator and incentive behind legislation? Apparently, there is, but it is limited to sporadic episodes of bi-partisanship, partnership, and concern. “Care for the People” “Feed the Hungry” “Support the Poor” “Black Lives Matter” “Save the Children” -- it’s not as though we don’t know what we need to do to legislate care for the people. We do know. Our state and national legislatures are simply filled right now with men and women motivated by other priorities and other values, and for some unknown reason, enough voters have bought into their rhetoric to put radical conservatives in charge even though they are dedicated to values that demean us all, such as gay bashing, destruction of health care reform, voter oppression, the diminution of women, hatred of foreign-born, and opposition to programs for the poor and middle class. They don’t want “care for the people” to interfere with their hegemony. They want total control so that they can dictate to unsuspecting docile voters all of the cultural and economic norms that are required to have a government responsive to an elite, not to a mob. That control will extend to privatization of many public services so that whatever is done for the people can also be made profitable!
c) Pursuit of the Common Good.
It is perhaps quite fair to ask: what is the “common good?” What for that matter is the “General Welfare?’' I like to start with what a dictionary has to say, because so often hidden in either current or more ancient definitions or usages is something ignored or forgotten. Something in common is generally something shared; more likely something belonging equally to several or many persons. Moreover, it can mean belonging or pertaining to the whole community; the “public.” It is therefore, something quite opposite from “exclusive’ or ‘aristocratic.’
There is a somewhat archaic word that was more often used to describe the common good and the public welfare; it was the word “commonweal,” from which “commonwealth” is derived: the whole body politic in which the supreme power is held by the people who are united by common interest and common cause. The general Welfare falls along the same lines except that it is concerned more specifically with the general well-being of the public which might include sign-posts like prosperity, success, happiness, and that archaic word again: ‘weal’ – faring well. Our government is meant to base itself on an equal share in well-being; having equal opportunity to share in prosperity, success, happiness or well-faring (see my recent Blog post for 6/15/2015 for more on this topic).
We can probably agree that we are close enough to acceptable definitions for ‘common’ and ‘general welfare”, but what defines that last word – ‘good?’ That is a question for the Ages if I ever heard one. Lacking time and space, we cannot explore all the philosophical definitions that have been advanced in answer to that question,. But we can return again to what Pope Francis was trying both to say and to demonstrate: that the “Good” is related first to a transcendental love expressed in countless ways toward others on this earth, under-girded by the Golden Rule – “Do Unto Others as You Would Have Them Do Unto You!” or “Love your neighbor (just) as (you love) yourself.” So what would the ‘Pursuit of the Common Good’ look like if we took the Pope’s vision of fundamental truths seriously?
Pope Francis has raised the issue of ‘community morality’ as the very essence of the Gospel and of life, and that is what is clearly lacking in those who act as though they are religious, but who miss the essence of living a moral life that equates with community caring rather than with an individual righteousness. The Pope put it very succinctly when he addressed the Congress and laid before them several gems of truth which he felt they must consider as representatives of the people. They include:
“Our response must instead be one of hope and healing, of peace and justice. Our efforts must aim at restoring hope, righting wrongs, maintaining commitments, and thus promoting the well-being of individuals and of peoples. We must move forward together as one, in a renewed spirit of fraternity and solidarity, cooperating generously for the common good.”
- “You are called to defend and preserve the dignity of your fellow citizens in the tireless and demanding pursuit of the common good, for this is the chief aim of politics. A political society endures when it seeks, as a vocation, to satisfy common needs by stimulating the growth of all its members, especially those in situations of greater vulnerability or risk. Legislative activity is always based on care for the people.”
- “Building a future of freedom requires love of the common good and cooperation in a spirit of ...solidarity.”
- “A delicate balance is required to combat violence perpetrated in the name of a religion, ideology or economic system, while also safeguarding religious freedom, intellectual freedom and individual freedoms.”
- "The contemporary world demands that we confront every form of polarization which would divide us into camps of good or evil. In the attempt to be freed of the enemy without, we can be tempted to feed the enemy within. To imitate the hatred and violence of tyrants and murderers is the best way to take their place.”
This last is perhaps the most inspiring and thought-provoking concept of the Pope’s expressed admonitions and universal principles. It is a platform on which our Congress might be able to build a Plan of Action for just legislation. Essentially, it brings us to a place that says: to have what is most desirable we must first seek ways to provide that same benefit or quality to others, without bias or unjust discrimination. Maybe we should put it this way: before voting for any legislation, Congress members should be required to ask: Would I approve this for myself and my family? Would this piece of legislation provide them security, an enhanced life, better opportunities? If they can’t answer with an honest yes, then they should reject the legislation. In order to make this standard effective, every piece of legislation for which they vote must not allow any exemption for Congress members, their families or their staff from any of its provisions. Let Congress give away to others what they desire for themselves and their families. It’s only fair and just.
- “All political activity must serve and promote the good of the human person and be based on respect for his or her dignity.” “It follows that politics cannot be a slave to the economy and finance.”
- Politics is...an expression of our compelling need to live as one, in order to build as one the greatest common good, that of a community which sacrifices particular interests in order to share, in justice and peace, its goods, its interests, its social life.”
- “We must resolve now to live as nobly and as justly as possible, as we educate new generations not to turn their back on our “neighbors” and everything around us... rejecting a mindset of hostility in order to adopt one of reciprocal subsidiarity (assistance; supplement).”
- The Golden Rule points us in a clear direction. “In a word, if we want security, let us give security; if we want life, let us give life; if we want opportunities, let us provide opportunities.”
Perhaps it is high time that we called for a thorough review of government-sponsored legislation and programs against such moral criteria – rather than the prevailing criteria of how much it costs, or the flaws in those targeted, or the effects upon special and monied interests. Could we move forward as a nation if we based our legislation on such criteria? I do not know, but isn’t it worth a try to undergird our democracy and legislation with something other than unjust, unfair, unworkable and unacceptable amoral criteria? I think it’s at least worth some discussion and debate.