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Because the Bible Tells Me So: Why Bachmann and Tea Party Christians Opposed Raising the Debt Ceiling

Some of the worst brinksmanship in the debt ceiling fight was driven by the most far-right members of the GOP majority in the House of Representatives.
 
 
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It's a deal not even its parents could love, but if Congress manages to pass the plan to lift the debt ceiling arrived at last night by President Barack Obama and congressional leaders, the United States of America will manage to have avoided default on its debt -- for the price of deep cuts to public programs.

In a scheme designed to cut $2.4 trillion in spending, the plan devised by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, with buy-in from House Speaker John Boehner and Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, relies on a special bipartisan, bicameral committee of Congress to meet certain spending-cut targets, with the threat of automatic across-the-board cuts to everything from social programs* (including Medicare) to defense spending if Congress does not act. (You can see the PowerPoint presentation Boehner sent out to his caucus here [PDF]; note that the Washington Post's Ezra Klein says the speaker's wrong when he asserts the plan does not allow for the raising of revenue.) If Congress passes the plan, it should push the next action needed on the debt ceiling to after the 2012 presidential election.

Dubbed a "compromise" by the White House, the deal looks like more of a grand capitulation than a grand bargain, effectively handing the Republicans a reward for dangling the economy off a cliff with their refusal to raise the limit on the amount of debt the nation could assume. It's not "the deal that I would have preferred," the president said while making a brief statement in the White House press room. The brinksmanship was driven by the most far-right members of the GOP majority in the House of Representatives, who embarrassed Boehner earlier in the week with their refusal to support a deal that would have given them nearly everything they demanded. That required Boehner to come back with a bill that seemed designed to waste time and bring the U.S. that much closer to default: it contained a requirement for passage of a balanced budget amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which led to its predictable rejection by the Senate.

'A Sugar-Coated Satan Sandwich'

As last night's agreement was shaping up, Rep. Emanuel Cleaver, D-Mo., chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus described it "shady" -- a "sugar-coated Satan sandwich." He did not rule out, however, the possibility of the CBC supporting it -- apparently because the price for keeping the economy from crashing on all Americans just may be the devil's ransom.

It remains to be seen, however, whether the far-right members of the Republican caucus will go for a deal that could, theoretically, cut defense spending. And then there are those even further to the right, such as Rep. Michele Bachmann of Minnesota, the Republican presidential contender and chair of the House Tea Party Caucus, for whom the devil isn't simply in the details -- it's in the point of focus of the bill itself, its organizing principal, the thing that was used to create the hostage-taking crisis in the first place: the lifting of the debt ceiling.

Even some of the more right-wing members of the notoriously right-wing GOP House caucus began to get nervous last week, as the tick-tock of the doomsday default clock grew ever louder. The stock market had fallen every day, posting its worst week in more than a year, with the Dow dropping 4.2 percent for the week. Christine Lagarde, the newly appointed chief of the International Monetary Fund, warned, “A crisis in the US faith and credit has global implications.” By Thursday, Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., House Budget Committee chairman and author of the draconian budget named for him, fell in line behind Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, ready to back his plan to lift the debt. So did House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, Va., who had give the speaker a serious case of agita during the latter's negotiations with the White House, and Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy, Calif.

But not Bachmann. Never, she said, would she vote for raising the debt ceiling. America should borrow no more.

If Bachmann's oppostion -- and that of some of her fellow Tea Partiers -- to raising the debt ceiling seems fraught with a fervor best described as religious, perhaps that's because it is. For Bachmann and some of her right-wing evangelical compatriots, financial, fiscal and economic issues are not matters to be considered with the knowledge imparted by economists and policy experts, but rather through the economic policy of ancient Israel as described in the Holy Bible.

The Hooey Offensive

For inside-the-Beltway political consumption, Bachmann keeps her ruminations on the debt ceiling strictly secular. All that talk of default on the national debt, and how that could destroy the economy, here and abroad? A whole lot of hooey, Bachmann asserts.

“The president has been scaring senior citizens and military veterans into thinking that we might be defaulting,” Bachmann said to supporters gathered in Iowa via telephone from Washington, D.C., according to the Des Moines Register.

Even if the debt ceiling isn't lifted, she told a group of supporters on Saturday, the United States does not have to default on its debt. The nation can simply slash its way out of the mess, she contends. Last month, in fact, she co-authored a proposal with Iowa Congressman Steve King that would set priorities for just what the government would and wouldn't pay if the debt ceiling, currently set at $14.3 trillion, was not lifted. The Register described it this way:

The U.S. could pay creditors as well as the military and fund Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid without increasing the debt limit, King and Bachmann said. Their list, however, did not contain such items as homeland and border security, federal prisons, veterans’ benefits or unemployment insurance.

"Shame on President Obama for casting the American people aside as collateral damage, as he continues his political gamesmanship with the national debt crisis," Bachmann wrote in a statement issued last Tuesday, after the president's speech about the current crisis in the nation's borrowing authority.

For Bachmann, this position is likely borne from something other than secular economic conservatism: it seems more an article of faith, a product of what has come to be known as biblical economics. Its acceptance by Tea Partiers may indicate that the apparently upstart movement isn't nearly as secular as its proponents would have you believe. A Pew poll released earlier this year found that while only a sizable minority of Tea Partiers said they agreed with the religious right (42 percent), a mere 11 percent expressed opposition to the religious right. And many of those regarded as Tea Party movement leaders -- from Tim Phillips of Americans for Prosperity, to Rep. Mke Pence, R-Ind. to Bachmann herself, were part of the religious right before the Tea Party was a twinkle in David Koch's eye.

The question is whether Bachmann and those who join her in opposing a raising of the debt ceiling actually believe the U.S. can avoid default through spending cuts alone, or rather, as Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner asserted last week on "Fox News Sunday," they are actually "praying for default" -- a scenario that would bear out a religious philosophy known as Christian Reconstructionism.

The Invisible Hand of Christian Reconstructionism

As I wrote earlier this month, Bachmann's notions regarding gay rights appear to be shaped by the Christian Reconstructionist views that gave birth, as Sarah Posner of Religion Dispatches reported, to the law school at Oral Roberts University where she earned her degree. (The ORU law school has since been absorbed by the Rev. Pat Robertson's Regent University.) Likewise, Bachmann's position on the national debt, and her opposition to raising the debt ceiling or ending the Bush-era tax breaks for top income-earners, also finds commonalities with the interpretations of the Christian Reconstructionism founder, the late Rousas John Rushdoony, as well as several evangelical Christian writers who prescribe a "godly" approach to economic and even monetary policy.

Bachmann herself cites, as one inspiration, the religious-right philosopher, Francis Schaeffer, father of writer Frank Schaeffer, who authored the recently released book, God, Mom and Sex. (See Frank discuss Bachmann's ideology with Thom Hartmann, here.) While the elder Schaeffer was not a Reconstructionist per se, the urgency with which he held Christians must act in the secular sphere to oppose laws they deem to be unjust overlaps in some ways with Reconstructionism, which author Frederick Clarkson says influenced the elder Schaeffer.

In the Christian Reconstructionist's idea of a perfect state, the law of ancient Israel, with its death penalty for "homosexual" men and adulterers, would constitute the law of the land. Christian Reconstructionists assert there is no law but "God's law," by which they mean the law as laid out in the Bible. Any secular law that contradicts God's law is viewed as invalid by a hard-core Reconstructionist. That may account for why there are so few hard-core Reconstructionists; to live literally by its precepts would likely mean doing serious jail time for all that defiance of ungodly laws.

But Reconstructionist thought has had a profound influence on Christian evangelicals from a wide range of sects -- from austere Baptists to tongues-speaking charismatics. Bachmann, who says she was called to public office by God, would seem to be no exception. Indeed, many small-government Christians credit their poltiical views to the Old Testament story of Samuel, who advised the ancient Hebrews against installing a king, because, as Chad Hovind, author of the Godonomics blog on BeliefNet explains it, a king requires a government which, by its very nature, is essentially designed to steal from you.

Purveyors of biblical economics contend that most of the practices of modern government -- especially government assistance to the poor -- run contrary to biblical principles, and should therefore be halted. Alex McFarland, an evangelical author who appears regularly on "Fox & Friends," sent out a press release this week stating that the answer to "stop[ing] the bleeding" of government spending is to "Stop the addiction and return to biblical principles when handling the country’s finances." The government, the release says, is addicted to spending.

Hovind, on the other hand, doesn't bother with newfangled theories of addiction, and instead goes straight to the Old Testment story of King Solomon's son, Rehobaom:

There is no place in the Bible more “ripped from today’s headlines” than King Rehoboam’s cabinet meeting in 1 Kings chapter 12. His father, Solomon was a extremely successful leader who led the nation into incredible historic success.  His dad expanded government, over-committed the kingdom’s spending, and taxed the “little people” for many years.  His father was known for his building projects, national attention, and global influence; however dad had slowly eroded the liberty and love of the people through high taxation and high control. The people were ready for a new administration. There was buzz in the community about the high hopes for changes and renewal under the new king. All of Israel came out to cheer on their new leader.

Hovind goes on to explain how Rehoboam blew his chance to win the adoration of the people by liberating them, and instead vowed to visit scourges upon them where his father had oppressed them only with a heavy yoke. In the worldview of the Reconstructionist-influenced evangelical, Rehoboam makes a handy stand-in for Barack Obama, the man Michele Bachmann claims has "cast the American people aside as collateral damage." (The collateral damage reference comes from Obama's own assertion that in the wrangling over the debt, the American people were poised to become collateral damage of partisan political warfare.)

Hovind's invocation of the Rehoboam story in order to make a case for spending cuts -- as opposed to a raise in the debt ceiling -- comes straight from the pages of the Institutes of Biblical law, the Christian Reconstructionist text penned by Rushdoony. Reconstructionist theologian Gary North, Rushdoony's son-in-law, describes the story here.

Thou Shalt Not Tax

One can easily find, within the pages of Rushdoony's tome, the roots of opposition to ending the Bush-era tax cuts on the wealthiest Americans. In a section called "Robbing God" in a chapter on the Eighth Commandment ("Thall Shalt Not Steal"), Rushdoony writes in The Institutes of Biblical Law that the rich should not be required to pay more than those who are not rich. (Never mind that a tax plan such as Bachmann's would essentially remove 23,000 millionaires from the tax rolls altogether, according to ThinkProgress.) Rushdoony writes of the ancient Israelites: "The same tax was assessed on all men: 'The rich shall not give more, and the poor shall not give less.' (Ex. 30:15)"

"A tyrannical state," Rushdoony writes in another section of the same chapter, "always limits a man's use of his property, taxes it, or confiscates that property as an effective means of enslaving a man without necessarily touching his person." Remember that quote the next time you hear those ostensibly secular Tea Partiers go on about tyranny, enslavement and taxes.

Rusdoony also decries paper money not backed by precious resources, as well as inflation, as forms of theft, and declares reserve banking illegitimate. (Still think Ron and Rand Paul are secularists?)

Julie Ingersoll, a professor of religious studies at University of North Florida, agrees that Bachmann's position against raising the debt ceiling is rooted in a "theocratic reading of the Bible, arising out of the nexus between (Ron) Paul ... Howard Phillips and his Constitution Party, and Gary North and the Christian Reconstructionists." But she also puts forth a more sobering theory -- that Reconstructionists, and perhaps neo-Reconstructionists such as Bachmann, actually want the U.S. to default on its debt. They want this, Ingersoll wrote last year at Religion Dispatches, not in spite of the destruction in would wreak on both the U.S. and global economies, but because of it:

North’s overarching schema is that there is an impending social collapse which will provide the opportunity for biblically based Christians to exercise dominion by replacing existing humanistic institutions with biblical ones. In Honest Money, he wrote:

First, the bankers and the politicians will continue to try to make the present system work. This will make the present system worse. Second, there will be a collapse in stages: inflation, then mass inflation, then price controls, then tyranny, and finally a worldwide deflationary depression. At that point, there will be new demand from the voters for answers. Third—and this is my hope and my prayer—people will at last decide that they have had enough moral and legal compromise. They will at last decide to adopt a simple system of honest money, along with competitive free market principles throughout the economy.

The current system, North maintains, violates the Ten Commandments, in particular the prohibition against theft.

Many believe Michele Bachmann to be a fool, finding themselves confounded by her success so far in her presidential bid, as she leads the GOP in the all-important state of Iowa. When she first ran for Congress, Michele Bachmann described herself to a church audience as "a fool for Christ," whose will she believes she was doing by running for office. She may be a fool, but she's not just anybody's fool.

*CORRECTION: An earlier version of this piece incorrectly stated that automatic triggers in the debt-ceiling deal arrived at last night by the White House and congressional leaders included cuts to Social Security. It does not.

Adele M. Stan is AlterNet's Washington bureau chief. Follow her on Twitter: www.twitter.com/addiestan
 
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