Vail Daily columnist Jack R. Van Ens: What prompts passion for justice?
Vail, CO, Colorado
At Washington’s annual Prayer Breakfast on Feb. 8, President Obama justified proposed tax increases on the wealthy, using Jesus’ teachings to create a just society.
“In a time when many folks are struggling and a time when we have enormous deficits, it’s hard for me to ask seniors on fixed income or young people with student loans or middle-class families who can barely pay the bills to shoulder the burden alone,” he said. “And I think to myself, if I’m willing to give something up as somebody who’s been extraordinarily blessed and give up some tax breaks that I enjoy, I actually think that’s going to make economic sense.”
The president then revealed why it’s just to work for fair deals: “But for me as a Christian, it also coincides with Jesus’ teaching that, ‘from whom much is given, much shall be required'” (Luke 12:48). Let people who bask in the financial sun, taught Christ, help those who shiver in the fiscal shadows.
The Abrahamic faiths share this justice ethic. Jesus’ principle of the rich giving much to the poor, Obama reminds us, “mirrors the Islamic belief that those who’ve been blessed have an obligation to use these blessings to help others or the Jewish doctrine of moderation and consideration for others.”
Spreading social justice by asking rich Americans to contribute their fair share isn’t a new conviction for Obama. He spoke with NBC newscaster Tom Brokaw while both were overseas early in his presidency. Reviving American character with sturdy justice occupied his mind. “The biggest lesson we learned from World War II,” Obama replied in a Brokaw interview, “is America can do anything when it puts its mind to it, but we’ve got to exercise those muscles.”
The president then declared, “I think they’ve atrophied a bit. We’re soft in ways that are profoundly dangerous to our long-term prosperity and security.”
Then, pausing briefly before making a point, he exclaimed, “And, you know, we’ve got to start working those moral muscles and service muscles and sacrifice muscles a little more. That’s still in the American character, and I’m confident we’ll be seeing it in the years to come” (The Time of Our Lives: A Conversation about America, 2011, pp. 5-6). Obama views American society as a successful community of citizens who help one another succeed rather than factions competing for financial prizes. He takes to heart the African proverb: “If you want to walk fast, walk alone. If you want to walk far, walk together.”
This perspective echoes Ben Franklin’s insistence that the turkey should be our national bird instead of the eagle. Franklin admired turkeys because they gobbled together in a “rafter,” a rare word that describes their instincts for banding together. Others label turkeys aiding each other as the “gang” cooperating.
The eagle flies alone. It’s more solitary compared with a gang of turkeys. When critics of Obama and Franklin hype the American myth that we are loners who compete for the most financial prizes, they overlook what other Western folk heroes teach us. The Lone Ranger and Tonto together saved the day. Chester covered Matt Dillon’s back in the Western TV show “Gunsmoke.”
Conservative economist Thomas Sowell says the president’s quest for justice is rooted in social engineering and Marxist wealth redistribution. Sowell, in his Dec. 27 syndicated column, spun the following fiction: “What do you call it when someone steals someone else’s money secretly? Theft. What do you call it when someone takes someone else’s money openly by force? Robbery. What do you call it when a politician takes someone else’s money in taxes and gives it to someone who is more likely to vote for him? Social justice.”
Once a booster, economist Bruce Barlett does as much for Sowell as the Titanic did for ocean cruises. Bartlett served as senior policy analyst in the Reagan White House. During the George Bush presidency, he occupied a top analyst position at the Treasury Department.
Bartlett refutes Sowell’s anti-social justice rant. He points out that America’s top earners – the 1 percent – enjoyed an effective 33.1 percent federal tax rate in 1986. In 2008, these super rich paid an effective rate of only 23.3 percent. If this top 1 percent had kept paying at the 1986 effective rate, “the federal debt today would be $1.7 trillion lower.” Bartlett got axed from the Conservative National Center for Policy Analysis because he said President George W. Bush’s tax cuts hurt the poor, helped the rich and weakened our economy.
Obama’s prime mentor for social justice is Reinhold Niebuhr, who taught in the first half of the 20th century at Manhattan’s Union Theological Seminary. This Lutheran pastor served a parish in Detroit during Henry Ford’s heyday. Niebuhr wrote that Ford’s humanitarian streak ran thin. He made money by working to death those on assembly lines. Ford pressed his work force to produce more in less time. At 50 years old, most of these laborers were physical wrecks.
Niebuhr debunked Ford’s propaganda that he wanted to better workers’ livelihoods. He documented that in 1926, the actual wage was considerably lower for the average Ford worker than it had been in 1913.
Today, President Obama retools Niebuhrian social justice. He builds a new assembly line of rights, advancing justice for all citizens who are willing to work hard.
The Rev. Jack R. Van Ens is a Presbyterian minister who heads the nonprofit, tax-exempt Creative Growth (www.thelivinghistory.com), which enhances Christian worship through storytelling and dramatic presentations aimed to make God’s history come alive. Van Ens’ book, “How Jefferson Made the Best of Bad Messes,” is available in local bookstores for $7.95.