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Does Congress Suffer from Malignant Power?

Rep. Ernest Istook (R-Okla.) allegedly placed in a congressional spending bill that passed on Saturday a frightening provision allowing two committee chairmen and their staffs to look at any American citizen’s tax returns without any privacy safeguards.

Chairmen and their agents could yank an individual’s tax returns without just cause and use the information for unjust causes. Traditional privacy rights and criminal and civil protections would no longer apply.

Here’s the text of what Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) referred to as the “Istook” amendment:

“Hereinafter, notwithstanding any other provision of law governing the disclosure of income tax returns or return information, upon written request of the Chairman of the House or Senate Committee on Appropriations, the Commissioner of the Internal Revenue Service shall allow agents designated by such Chairman access to Internal Revenue Service facilities and any tax returns or return information contained in therein.”

Fortunately, Senate Democrats caught and fought the provision. Their opposition caused House and Senate Republican leadership to beat a hasty, red-faced retreat, criticizing the proposal and moving to ensure that it would not become law.

Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) said on “Meet the Press” that the process for inserting the provision showed how “the system is broken.”

For his part, Istook, a Baylor University graduate and Mormon, issued a statement on Monday in which he denied personal involvement.

“I didn’t write it; I didn’t approve it; I wasn’t even consulted,” said Istook, a noted leader of the religious right.

He blamed the Internal Revenue Service for drafting the provision’s language, although he admitted that it was drafted at congressional staff’s request.

An Istook spokeswoman told EthicsDaily.com that the congressman’s name was mistakenly identified with the provision by Frist. She expressed hope that Frist’s office would release a statement correcting the alleged misstatement.

Frist’s office did not return EthicsDaily.com’s call and had issued no press release correcting the senator’s statement by press time on Tuesday.

An IRS spokesman said on Monday that the IRS commissioner “was unaware of the provision until after it was already approved.”

What is befuddling is who signed off on the inclusion of the provision on the House and Senate sides? Why they thought the inclusion was a good idea? And whether any discipline action will be exercised against the faulty party?

McCain is right to note that the system is a problem. But the problem is more than just the system.

The problem is also the ethos that would cause Istook to think he was helping his case with the statement that, “Honest mistakes were made, but there’s no conspiracy.”

Given the religious right’s ethic, which holds that any means are justifiable to achieve any ends, better discernment is required. No one should think that giving partisan politicians access to tax records without privacy protection is an honest mistake. Neither should one readily accept the disclaimer of non-conspiracy, given the conspiratorial way things are slipped into mammoth spending bills.

A generation ago, Reinhold Niebuhr wrote that “there is little understanding of the depth to which human malevolence may sink and the heights to which malignant power may rise.”

Moderate and progressive Baptists would do well to keep’s Niebuhr’s keen statement close at hand, as we wade into the public square as a counterweight to religious extremism. We need to remind ourselves and others about the profundity of human sinfulness, especially when moral certitude mixes with political power.

Right now, the religious right suffers from an abundance of both. They believe that God has spoken. President Bush’s election is a validation of their agenda and a blessing for their faithfulness. The divine mandate negates any need for secular checks and balances.

Time will tell whether this provision is “a tempest in a teapot” or the temptation of unchecked power.

What is perceptible from the hill of discerning theology is that moderate and progressive Baptist voices, whether Republicans, Democrats or Independents, are needed as never before to counterbalance the human malevolence and malignant power that arise from moral certitude mixed with political power.

Robert Parham is executive director of the Baptist Center for Ethics.