The recently revealed video of Governor Mitt Romney at a fundraising event last May is changing the election conversation. I hope it does, but at an even deeper level than the responses so far. There is certainly politics here, some necessary factual corrections, and some very deep ironies. But underneath it all is a fundamental question of what our spiritual obligations to one another and, for me, what Jesus' ethic of how to treat our neighbors means for the common good.
Many are speaking to the political implications of Romney's comments, his response, and what electoral implications all this might have. As a religious leader of a non-profit faith-based organization, I will leave election talk to others.
Others are trying to clarify the facts of Romney's video which spoke of 47 percent of the American people who don't pay income tax and are dependent on the government. Many have pointed out that the people singled out do indeed pay other taxes (payroll, sales, and more). According to the Tax Policy Center, of those who pay no income tax, half do not because the income from their work is below the taxable minimum. Three-quarters of the remaining people are senior citizens or low-income working families with children who receive specific tax credits, such as the child tax credit or earned income tax credit. Children from low-income families do indeed receive health care from Medicaid and nutritional support including, "free" breakfast and lunches at school. Many have also pointed out that those receiving some government assistance include not only the elderly on Medicare, but also veterans who get help after coming home from fighting our wars and college students who need loans to go to school.
There is also an irony which always attends these discussions of who gets government aid. Why don't we also talk about the billions of dollars of subsidies that go to oil and gas companies every year, the huge farm subsidies to agri-business, the billions of tax payer dollars that bailed out the nation's biggest banks after they help set our Great Recession into gear, or the corporations and banks who got public funds to build their sports stadiums and arenas? Or why don't we mention every American home owner who gets a very valuable mortgage income tax deduction every year when they file their tax returns? Are all of those bankers, corporate executives, and middle and upper-middle class home owners to be regarded as losers who depend on the government for their lives?
But at an even deeper level, there is the spiritual question of our obligations to one another. How do Jesus' instructions of the way to treat our neighbor, echoed in all of our faith traditions, relate to this conversation? All the focus has been on the Romney comments to a question, but what about the question itself, and the questioner, whoever that was. Is the person who asked the question a religious person? When the questioner asks, according to NBC News, when people will learn to "take care of themselves," does he know what his faith community says about our responsibilities to help take care of each other? Clearly, that is not merely a question for government, but for a whole society and its commitment to the common good. But the Bible does clearly specify government's role in promoting the common good--and for protecting the poor in particular. Read the Scriptural texts.
To believe that those in need are always "other people," as the questioner suggests, is both a statement of denial of the facts above, but a much more troubling expression of denying our fellow citizens the spiritual designation of our neighbors, and even our brothers and sisters. To the questions of whether we are our brothers and sisters keeper; the religious answer is an unmistakable Yes. That's what all of our faith traditions teach and it is absolutely central to a necessary recovery of the common good--which has seemingly been lost in our politics and in our society. How we best meet the needs of our fellow citizens and neighbors is a very important and creative conversation; but to suggest it isn't both our civic and spiritual responsibility to do so is very alarming.
Governor Romney spoke to these issues in another recently released video requested by the faith community's the Circle of Protection asking what he would do about the highest poverty rates in 50 years. He said:
President Obama also responded to the invitation of the church leaders with these remarks:
Both of those videos should be seen by everyone who has now watched the Romney donor video. And hopefully, this controversy could spark a national conversation about what we must do to respond to the painful numbers of Americans who are struggling so much no matter how hard they work. If this discussion could put the issue of poverty on the agenda of the national election and the debates which are soon to come; then this latest political incident might have some redemption for the common good.
Jim Wallis is the author of Rediscovering Values: A Guide for Economic and Moral Recovery, and CEO of Sojourners.Follow Jim on Twitter @JimWallis.