Religious belief and budget debates

May 30, 2012

Recently there has been a prominent public debate between Congressional Republicans and religious figures over the new federal budget authored by GOP Rep. Paul Ryan. In case you haven’t heard about this, or you’ve only given it slight attention, here’s a short rundown.

On March 20, Rep. Ryan proposed a budget that would drastically cut government spending by slashing social programs and lowering tax rates on corporations and the wealthy. Several faculty members at the Georgetown University soon condemned Ryan’s budget as immoral – inconsistent with Catholic teachings on ethics:>/p>

“We would be remiss in our duty to you and our students if we did not challenge your continuing misuse of Catholic teaching to defend a budget plan that decimates food programs for struggling families, radically weakens protections for the elderly and sick, and gives more tax breaks to the wealthiest few. … In short, your budget appears to reflect the values of your favorite philosopher, Ayn Rand, rather than the Gospel of Jesus Christ.”

The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops was also critical of Ryan’s budget, arguing that it conflicted with the tenets of his (Ryan is a Catholic) supposed religion.*

Ryan responded that, on the contrary, his plan would create the necessary economic growth to lift people out of poverty, as well as manage the government’s crippling debt:

“The Holy Father himself, Pope Benedict, has charged governments, communities and individuals running up high debt levels are ‘living at the expense of future generations, and living in untruth.’ … Our budget offers a better path consistent with the timeless principles of our nation’s founding and, frankly, consistent with how I understand my Catholic faith. … We put faith in people, not in government.”

Now that we’re up to date, let’s take a step back.

This is a familiar debate for anyone who pays attention to American politics. Politicians — along with other public officials and social figures — often use their religious beliefs to justify legislative action. Yet, once again, few people are stating the obvious: that it is completely inappropriate for a public policy debate to center on the religious reasons for or against a proposed law.

Before moving any further, let me state that I’m rather sick of hearing Jesus’ name mentioned in policy debates, if only because it is impossible to know what a person who lived several thousands years ago, and about whom very little is known, would have thought about specific political issues in the year 2012.

I fully admit here that the Catholic Church has, for once, taken a decent moral stance. But that’s not the point. While religiously based political efforts sometimes turn out well, and secular liberals ought to at least consider working with such groups on these issues, the religious method is susceptible to awful consequences (think: marriage equality, reproductive rights, stem cell research; the list goes on). The method is as important, if not more so, as the consequences.

Contrary to what many people think, secularism is not the atheistic position that religious belief has no place in society whatsoever. Secularism is the idea that you can believe what you would like, but your religious beliefs have no place in public policy debates. It asks that laws be based not on faith, which is private and accessible only to believers, but on reason and scientific evidence, which are public and accessible to all. This helps to ensure that our laws are as rational as possible and don’t harm people who practice a different faith, or no faith at all.

Some will counter here that religious views cannot be prevented from entering political discourse and lawmaking.** This is a point based on the simple observation that religious belief, as a matter of fact, is often used in policy debates. Yet that doesn’t mean we should encourage religious views in policy debates, or that we do not have any other option available to us.

I submit that it is also unnecessary to call on one’s religious view, as there are plenty of secular moral reasons for (e.g., Rand-style argumentation) and against Ryan’s budget proposal.

As you might recall, I have previously argued on this blog that economic debates should include a strong ethical component:

“Economic thinking cannot be divorced from morality because one’s values determine which economic structure he or she prefers. There are no such things as purely economic ends divorced from all other ends because economic decisions are made based on moral values. They also have a moral impact on other people.”

My views on how this works in method mirror those of Massimo Pigliucci at Rationally Speaking. First, we figure out our foundational assumptions. For instance, what is the nature of human behavior and desires? How do humans act and interact? What should we value? How should we influence our culture so that it fosters those values? What are — or should be — our shared moral goals?

Then we assess which economic ideas and systems to employ so that our assumptions can be taken into account and that our goals can be realized. Economics is not just about studying and applying knowledge of trends, numbers, math, and business practices. It is also about taking into account the reality of human behavior and our moral concerns before making economic decisions — and then considering the moral consequences of those decisions.

So, is there a good secular moral response to a specific situation such as Rep. Ryan’s budget?

As I’ve written before, I believe in a multi-faceted approach to morality. I believe we ought not harm other creatures capable of experience and agency. I believe people deserve certain rights and respect because of their existence, and that humans ought to help each other, where and when possible, to have a decent living situation. And I believe we ought to hold tight our duties, practice our obligations, and cultivate a virtuous moral character, and help others to do the same.

Unfortunately, Rep. Ryan's proposal severely slashes or essentially eliminates programs that help children, the poor, and the elderly. This is both ineffective and unethical. Ryan could have lifted tax breaks on corporations and the ultra-rich — both of which are making record profits — or cut the bloated defense budget. Instead, he is seeking to shrink governmental programs that have positive moral value and impact. If you want to solve our debt problems, do you really think it best to focus on privatizing and cutting health care and other social safety nets for the worst off in this country? Would it not be better to stop giving breaks to the wealthiest and most secure in order to improve programs that help many people lead a decent — and perhaps even more moral — life?

In short, that is why I think Ryan’s budget proposal is immoral. And my argument did not require reference to any religious figure or holy book.

One can reasonably argue that public policy ought not to be based on religious belief in any way, as it would necessarily favor religious views over non-religious views, or specific religious views over others. That clearly violates the Constitution and over sixty years of Supreme Court jurisprudence. But one can also reasonably argue that we need not consider religious beliefs because there are plenty of available secular arguments at hand to deploy for and against proposed policies.

Public policy should center on secualr reasons, not religious ones. And while that certainly won’t guarantee unfailingly rational government, it might bring us a little step closer to that lofty goal.

* On another note, this is an interesting intersection to ponder: when one’s religious or moral views conflict with one’s views on government, and vice versa. It’s an example of tension between conflicting values.

** Obviously many would argue that religious belief is a wonderful thing, and that Christianity is or should be the national religion, but I do not take up that argument here.

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