Not Our Cup of Tea: Catholics Fed on the Church's Social Teaching Won't like the Taste of What the Tea Party Is Serving

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Tea Party activists elbowed their way into the national media spotlight after the 2008 election with a "Don't Tread on Me" rallying cry that struck familiar themes rooted deep in the American experience. Crowds of flag-waving, self-styled "rugged individualists" told us that they were "Taxed Enough Already" and cast themselves as patriotic defenders of freedom in the revered tradition of George Washington, John Adams, and Thomas Paine.

Despite inflated claims of revolutionary lineage and an undercurrent of racial grievance that has at times blemished the Tea Party's image, many political leaders--including prominent Republicans such as Newt Gingrich, Mitt Romney, and Gov. Rick Perry of Texas--embraced this energized movement with the hope of riding a wave of anti-government backlash into the White House. Many Catholics have embraced the movement as well, as a Hart and Associates study found that 28 percent of Tea Partiers identify as Catholic.

Given the Tea Party's rise to prominence and its political success in pushing Republican leaders farther to the right, it's worth examining how the movement's core priorities--particularly on smaller government and fewer taxes--contrast sharply with Catholic values. How should Catholics groomed in a religious tradition that emphasizes the vital role of government and that views taxes as a moral responsibility respond to the Tea Party?

Catholics are encouraged to put moral principles before partisanship, and the U.S. bishops' document "Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship" has emphasized a broad range of issues for Catholics to consider when voting. The bishops warn against efforts "to reduce Catholic moral concerns to one or two matters, or to justify choices simply to advance partisan, ideological, or personal interests."

Catholic Democrats, Republicans, and Tea Partiers will all find aspects of church teaching that challenge their political views in discomforting ways. However, the Tea Party's anti-government rhetoric and emphasis on individualism chafes against Catholic notions of solidarity and the vision for economic justice that seeks to balance personal rights with social responsibilities.

The Tea Party Patriots, one of the largest factions in this decentralized movement, gets straight to the point in its mission statement: "The impetus for the Tea Party movement is excessive government spending and taxation."

While no one relishes paying taxes, the Bureau of Economic Analysis reports that federal, state, and local income taxes consumed 9.2 percent of all personal income in 2009, the lowest rate since 1950. Jesuit Father Fred Kammer, a former president of Catholic Charities U.S.A. and current president of the Jesuit Social Research Institute in New Orleans, writes that "some 30 years of anti-tax propaganda whose most vociferous current harbinger is the Tea Party" has given many Americans the false impression that they are overtaxed.

In an article for lust South Quarterly, a publication of the Jesuit Social Research Institute, Kammer noted that the United States is one of the lowest-taxed countries in the developed world. Many states also have regressive tax policies that fall hardest on the working poor.

Laws that cap property taxes and other sources of municipal revenue often erode the capacity to fund public schools, transportation, and social safety nets that protect the most vulnerable. These tax policies contribute to "a widening of the gap between rich and poor to its currently morally grotesque levels and the substantial deterioration of the U.S. infrastructure," Kammer writes.

The nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office released a widely covered report in October that found the top 1 percent of earners more than doubled their share of the nation's earnings over the last three decades. The report shows that over the last 30 years a greater tax burden has fallen on middle-and working-class Americans. …