How Religious Progressives Should Challenge the Anti-State State

Now that most of the shouting is over, I’ve been ruminating about Sarah Posner’s observation that religious progressives failed—big time—to make a dent in the budget ceiling debate.

After about a dozen religious leaders were arrested for praying in the Capitol Rotunda to save funding for the poor and vulnerable, Posner wrote:  “Nobody is watching.  Nobody is listening. Why? While a minister being led away in handcuffs might make for good press, it’s completely ineffectual as a political strategy” because, basically, cutting programs for the poor is old news in America.

Sad to say it, I think she’s right.

What the debt ceiling debate brought out in many Americans was not compassionate identification with the perennial victims of structural inequality, but a sense of frustration and a deep undercurrent of fear about the future especially among parents of school-aged and young children.  And powerful interests are taking advantage of the national undercurrent of insecurity to push an agenda that privatizes generations worth of public wealth and dismantles government.  It is, as political theorist Ruth Gilmore has described it, the emergence of the “anti-state state.”

Parents have seen this coming, because the budget issues now registering at the federal level hit the states a couple of years ago—and we’ve already seen their impact on the public schools we rely on every day. In California, a state that undertook what has been described as the largest prison-building initiative in the history of the modern world, we’ve seen our state legislature paralyzed by an anti-tax legislative minority, with severe impacts to public education from K-16, impacts felt by the children of conservatives and liberals alike.

Conservatives may describe their fears for their children in terms of a legacy of national indebtedness, while liberals tend to describe their fears in terms of the erosion of the middle class and the growing divide between rich or poor. But the feeling of worry and insecurity reaches across partisan divides. And it’s something no one—not even our faith leaders—seem to be addressing.

Progressive religious leaders miss an opportunity when they don’t engage that sense of worry and responsibility—call it a sacred obligation to do right by our children.  As a parent, I know I may not be able to give my kids everything, but I want the dignity of an honest conversation about how well children—the demographic most legitimately entitled to state protection—will be served by the emergence of the anti-state state, including the defunding of agencies created to protect public resources, the environment, education, and health. I want a clear-eyed survey of the financial interests that are profiting from the redistribution of public wealth into private hands. I want candid talk about national priorities and their consequences. I want all options on the table, including revenue increases. I want a sober, grown-up conversation, and I want progressives to realize what’s at stake when we fail to counter the drift towards an anti-state state without a robust case for the value of public institutions and government protections against depredations on common resources and the common good.

That’s not what we got last week. Instead, we saw a highly politicized and superficial process, with one party enthralled to the Constitution-waving brinksmanship of its own insurgent minority, and the other too enthralled by its obligation to monied interests to muster an effective case for revenue increases.  

Perhaps it’s time for progressive faith leaders to reassess the value of civil disobedience on behalf of the poor, as significant and historically resonant a rhetorical gesture as that might be. Perhaps progressive faith leaders might use their pulpits to remind the nation that it’s time to insist on greater sobriety, maturity, and forethought in economic and fiscal policy deliberations. There is a case to be made for good government and good stewardship. And that case aligns neatly with the rhetorical case to be made for protecting public institutions that constitute our national legacy to our children.