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Can a Catholic be a member of today’s Tea Party? There are many versions of the Tea Party in the United States today but what they have in common is how they link taxation and tyranny. It may surprise some that the justification to rebel against taxation and tyranny is found in the writings of the 16th century Jesuit priest, Juan de Mariana (1536-1624). This first of the Catholic Tea Partyers, however, could teach the current movement a thing or two.
Mariana was considered a radical thinker for his times because he placed the rights of the people over those of the king. Where others had been cautious in asserting such rights, Mariana was bold. Not only was excessive taxation illegitimate, so also was government-inspired inflation. In his De Monetae Mutatione (On the Alteration of Money, 1609) Mariana called monetary devaluation “robbery” of ordinary citizens. These views would certainly please today’s Tea Party. However, Father Mariana’s most radical teaching was on the right to assassinate a tyrant in his De Rege (On Kingship, 1599). Trying to apply that theory to today’s reality should give pause to everyone in Catholic America.
Mariana wrote against the Divine Right of Kings, urging Catholics to violence against Protestant tyrants in Europe. Although censured for his radicalism, Mariana’s theory has since been applied to colonies where the rulers were not elected by the conquered peoples. The American War of Independence is perhaps the most important example, but we might also include the Irish revolt against English rule. Irish patriots cited Mariana’s theory in the Easter Rising in 1916 because the British Parliament ruled over Ireland through members elected by the English but not by the Irish themselves. The same theory applies to Puerto Rico that has ruled since 1898 by the U.S. Congress in which Puerto Rico’s citizens have no vote. In such cases, the “tyrant” is the alien, unelected government.
In contrast to these examples of long-gone kings and distant colonies, the U.S. government and President Obama today have been elected by majority vote. (In fact, Obama received the highest number of votes in U.S. history.) It should be noted, however, that some in the Tea Party spout reasons to deny legitimacy to the president’s election, including spurious doubts about where he was born. Different religion was also justification for revolt in Mariana’s theory. Here again, the Tea Party in its posters and blogs frequently claim that Mr. Obama is a Muslim – which suddenly becomes grounds of illegitimacy.
But while it is easy to dismiss the unfounded prattle of the Tea Party about Mr. Obama’s birth and religion, the more serious issue of violence remains. I do not think that the Tea Party in its various organizations and regional groupings advocates the murder of the President of the United States. However, it takes only one person and one bullet to assassinate. John Wilkes Booth, for instance, was a celebrity of the time who had dabbled in the politics of states’ rights, and shot Mr. Lincoln on the grounds that he was a tyrant. Booth is to be condemned.
The moral issue for Catholics in the Tea Party today is whether or not membership contributes to a culture of violence. Racist attitudes have been cause for violence throughout U.S. history and therefore there is a moral imperative for organizations like the Tea Party to censure and expel racists from its numbers. That responsibility, I add, is not addressed solely by a press release distancing the organization from a notorious leader. It is also important for each member to do the same, such as by tearing down racist signs at rallies.
Similarly, the issue of guns and violence to further political ends is immoral where the government is democratically elected. The Second Amendment “remedy” is un-American and against Catholic morality.
I would suggest Catholics think twice about attending a scheduled Tea Party rally in Washington to counter-pose the racially integrated United States of the “I Have a Dream” speech. The participation of the National Rifle Association at this rally organized by unelected celebrities is perplexing because it establishes a connection between armed violence and political ends.
Father Mariana would see that, but I’m not sure he would approve.