We haven’t had a Theocrat Watch in a while, so I welcome the Washington Post asking the contributors to its “On Faith” column this question: “In a time of economic turmoil and record poverty levels, are tax cuts for the wealthy moral?”
Let’s start off with PCUSA minister Janet Edwards, who wants the government to implement through taxes what Jesus called for through repentence:
And by the measure of Jesus’ ministry, continuing the tax cuts for the wealthy among us is clearly immoral.
In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus says, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill (Matthew 5:17).”
Extending the tax cuts for the wealthy violates both the law and the prophets.
Given that the law and the prophets don’t specifically mention the moral distinction between a 35% and a 39.4% tax rate, how is this possible?
Let’s consider the prophets first. The prophet Micah reminds us that God expects simple but difficult things of us: “What does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God (Micah 6:8).”
This must be one of those numerology thingys. You know, you add up the numeric value of the letters of the verse, and it adds up to 39.4, thereby indicating how it directly applies to this issue.
Luke 19:1-10 tells the story of Jesus choosing to dine with the rich man, Zacchaeus, who promises to give half his goods to the poor and repay four times over all those he has defrauded.
Fair taxes for the American wealthy are the latter day form of the rich standing up like Zacchaeus to do justice, love kindness and walk humbly with God.
Of course, it wasn’t the Romans ordering Zacchaeus to take this action that makes it so striking. In fact, if the Romans were to do it, we’d think absolutely nothing of his obedience. It’s because it demonstrates a repentant spirit that Zacchaeus is well regarded by Christians.
Second consider the law. In Scripture, the heart of the law is the Ten Commandments.
The Eighth Commandment is “You shall not steal.”
That’s correct, Rev. Edwards, the Eighth Commandment is in fact, “You shall not steal.” Given that those in the top tax bracket aren’t stealing from anyone, but simply paying what the government requires them to pay, I suspect you citation is irrelevant. But you already knew that, didn’t you?
From a Christian perspective, ending these tax cuts is the moral thing to do. Not just shame is ours if we fail here, Divine judgment is ours as well.
So God is going to judge us if we don’t go from a 35% to a 39.4% tax rate in the top bracket? Reminds me of Gene Wilder’s character in Blazing Saddles, who quips when he sees Harvey Korman shoot someone for chewing gum in line, “Boy, is he strict!”
Next up, UCC pastor Susan Smith, who isn’t willing to go as far as Edwards, but still sees a problem:
I don’t know if I would say that tax cuts for the most wealthy Americans are immoral, but they certainly are not just or fair.
It is a fact that historically, the rich have become rich on the backs and at the expense of, the poor. Howard Zinn noted, in “A People’s History of the United States,” that even in the time of Columbus, this was the case; Spain’s population, he said, mostly peasants, worked for the nobility, who were 2 percent of the population and owned 95 percent of the land.” (p.2)
Bill Moyers noted in an essay he wrote earlier this year that the United States is becoming a plutocracy – that is, we are becoming a nation where the very wealthy are more and more in control of what happens in this country. If statistics I’ve read are correct, we are about in the same place as Spain was in the 1400s.
Well, they are correct, Susan, but thanks for playing. That’s what happens when you get your information from a political agitator masquerading as a historian. She concludes:
Extending the tax cuts to the most wealthy may not be immoral, but it is definitely out of line with the Christian commandment to “love thy neighbor as thyself,” and to be concerned with “the least of these.”
And why is this? We have no idea. Such a moral judgment is evidently so self-evident to Smith that she doesn’t bother to explain it.
Then there’s the overtly partisan Susan Brooks Thistlethwaite of the Center for American Progress, who takes her cue from the story of the rich young ruler:
All too true. It’s also easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than it is for a bill with the rich paying their fair share of taxes to get through Congress. Not gonna happen.
What is their “fair share”? Religious leftists love to use language like this, but it is full of nothing but fluff and hot air. Is 39.4% “fairer” than 35% How about 50%? Or 75% Or 90%? According to Michael Tanner of the Cato Institute, the wealthiest 5% of Americans make approximately one-third of all American yearly income, but they pay 59% of the income taxes. Is that fair? Why not?
But that’s the moral thing to do. Our tax policies in this country are a way to help our neighbors who are the “least of these,” as Jesus also notes. We “distribute the money” so that we can help those who are the most vulnerable like children, the sick, those with handicapping conditions, and the elderly. It’s a way to “distribute the money” to those of our citizens who want to work and can’t find it. We give unemployment benefits to people thrown out of work while they struggle in hard economic times to find another job. We pay taxes to educate our young, keep our bridges from falling down, and support our troops.
Yes, that is all true. We do all of those things. But the federal government isn’t about, or even primarily about, helping poor people. The feds have their paws in a hundred different things that have nothing to do with the poor, from maintaining the military to the National Endowment for the Arts to public broadcasting to Social Security for millions of people who don’t need it to funding idiotic research projects to funding local school districts to paying interest on the national debt. Talking about nothing but anti-poverty efforts in the context of tax rates is as close to a non sequitar as you can get without being totally irrelevant.
Politicians love to pontificate on how we need to restore “Christian values” in the public square, but that’s mostly limited to denying equal civil rights for gay Americans, or controlling women’s bodies. When it comes to what the bible says about wealth and poverty, however, you’ll never hear that touted as morality in the public square. No, no. That’s “private.”
Baloney. The bible is filled with references to the religious imperative to “remember the poor” (Galatians 2:10) and “the worker deserves his pay.” (Luke 10:7) When Jesus went to Jerusalem, he “sat down opposite the treasury, and watched the crowd putting money into the treasury.” (Mark 12:41) Jesus watched what people did with their money. He sees the money-changers in the temple charging pilgrims an exorbitant rate of exchange and he turns over the tables in anger, saying, “‘My house shall be called a house of prayer,’ but you have made it a den of thieves.” (Matthew 21:13)
The only baloney that’s being peddled here is the stuff in Thistlethwaite’s column. The Galatians reference is to the church, the Mark and Matthew references to the Temple. The Luke reference has to do with how the disciples’ should support themselves as they go from place to place preaching the gospel. It’s amazing to think that one could get to be a seminary president with some a pathetic grasp of Scripture.
Robert Parham of the Baptist Center for Ethics is sure that those who prefer a 35% to a 39.4% upper tax rate are just plain materialistic:
Protecting the poor is a biblical imperative. It’s a non-negotiable moral imperative for Christians in the public square.
But today too many Christians negotiate away the biblical imperative to protect the poor in favor of the harmful fable that our society must protect the rich – the very rich.
Most Republican and too many Democrat politicians of faith claim that we must extend the Bush tax cuts for the richest Americans because they will look after the rest of us. Those who adhere to this fable are following the materialistic imperative, not the biblical imperative.
The message is clear – too whom much is given much is required. The wealthiest citizens are expected to pay more in taxes. It is how a faithful society advances the common good.
Actually, those who defend the continuation of the present tax rates have noticed two facts: first, as noted above, a great deal is already being asked of the rich; and second and more importantly, what Parham disparagingly refers to as “look[ing] after the rest of us” is in fact the function of job creation, which is done by those with the means to pay others to do stuff for them. For example, the donors to the Baptist Center for Ethics have the extra income that allows them to give Robert Parham money to pontificate in public.That, by the way, is the thread that unites all of these folks crying “unfair” and “immoral”: none of them understand the role of wealth in job creation.
Retired religion professor Gene Davenport knows who God is going to be mad at for this travesty of justice–Republicans:
At various times, on one issue or another, I have been critical of one or the other of the two major political parties. More often than not, I have been critical of both Democrats and Republicans and of both liberals and conservatives. With regard to extending the tax reduction on those making more than $250K, however, the Republicans seem to be in a morally dubious position. The most common rationale for extending the reduction is that to eliminate it will enable the wealthy to help small businesses and create jobs for the unemployed. This theory was espoused during the Nixon Administration, and was nicknamed the “trickle down theory.”
Some opponents of extending the tax reduction for the wealthy claim that the recipients will simply use the money for their own luxuries or put it in the bank. I have no idea what they will do with it, but for almost half a century the trickle down theory has failed to do what its proponents claim. Had I not come the point that very few things surprise me anymore, support for this theory today would astonish me. But after a few decades, politicians of all stripes tend to reclaim old worn out ideas as though they were tried and true formulae.
I don’t know about the “trickle down theory” (except that it’s a slogan rather than an argument), but since Davenport seems to be convinced that small business and the wealthy don’t create jobs, I’d like to know who he thinks do. And I can certainly understand why he would have so much trouble with the economic policies of the last thirty years, which after all involved extraordinary growth and prosperity driven by the private sector rather than the state. That means it was immoral.
Jennifer Butler, formerly the PCUSA representative to the UN, and now director of Faith in Public Life, clearly spent way too much time at Turtle Bay:
Taxes are a moral issue because how we spend resources demonstrates our values and priorities. Whether we give massive tax cuts to millionaires and billionaires who don’t need the money while asking the most vulnerable to shoulder the burdens of deficit reduction is a moral choice.
Only in the mind of a true statist are tax rates a matter of “spending.” Oh, and this is as good a place as any to point out that no tax “cuts” are being proposed, except in the payroll tax; what’s proposed is to keep rates that have been at their present level for eight years the same for another two years. There is no rate level that is always optimal, so to continue to speak of “cuts” after such a long period is really to use an inappropriate nomenclature. Speaking of nomenclature, Butler indicates that so much of the sound and fury on the religious left is just spin:
Faith communities and religious leaders can offer a unique contribution to this contentious debate over taxes by re-framing it as a moral issue rather than simply a political one. This will require us to have some potentially uncomfortable conversations with our congregations, and it will require us to sharply rebuke politicians who cry “class warfare!” whenever anyone dares point out that they are emptying the public coffers into the pockets of millionaires while bemoaning Washington’s fiscal irresponsibility. It’s a dialogue and a public witness that our nation desperately needs.
“Re-framing.” That Washingtonese for, “let’s put our ideological agenda in moral terms so that the rubes will think this is a faith issue.” See, that’s where the real problem with all this is. There are prudential arguments, based in economics and public policy, both for and against the tax rate deal. The “moral” argument, however, is based on nothing more than using terms like “fairness” without providing any substance to them, and claiming that Christians can’t support the deal because it’s “immoral.” In other words, what Butler and her ideological allies want to do is impose their own religious vision of what tax rates should be. That’s what a theocrat does.