Mike Kueber's Blog

February 6, 2012

The Biblical view of taxes

Filed under: Issues,Politics,Religion — Mike Kueber @ 4:42 am
Tags: , , , ,

A conservative, Christian friend recently sent me a link to a blog-posting on the so-called Biblical view of taxes.    The posting discusses a variety of taxes and suggests whether they are consistent with Biblical policy.  In my mind, however, the posting raises an overarching issue of more significance – i.e., what role should religion play in establishing government policy in America? 

Before getting to the overarching issue, I will summarize what the blog-posting said about the Biblical view of taxes:

  1. Taxes are authorized – “Render to Caesar….”
  2. A flat tax is fairer than a progressive tax – tithing is 10% for everyone.
  3. Everyone should pay something – tithing, plus the census tax in Exodus.
  4. No taxes on estates – “The prince shall not take any of the inheritance of the people….”
  5. No taxes on corporations – such taxes increase poverty by reducing jobs.
  6. No taxes on capital gains – such taxes discourage investment, which increases poverty.

The first four points are reasonable, but the last two appear to be based more on economic theory than Biblical concepts.  Furthermore, once you assume that the Bible authorizes taxes to support necessary government functions, then it seems that government should have discretion to determine where in the economy to extract the tax – e.g., taxing sales, personal income, corporate income, capital gains, or estates.

Regarding the overarching issue concerning whether religious doctrines should affect public policy, it has been axiomatic since John Kennedy that presidents don’t take direction from religious leaders.  This axiom has been extended in recent years to allow Catholic Democratic politicians to diverge from the Catholic position against abortion.  But both of the probably presidential candidates – Romney and Obama – have declared that their religious beliefs inform their views on public policy. 

  • President Obama relied on a biblical phrase at the National Prayer Breakfast to justify raising taxes on the wealthy – “For me as a Christian, it also coincides with Jesus’s teaching that, for unto whom much is given, much shall be required.”  Verse 48 of chapter 12 in the Gospel of Luke. 
  • Mitt Romney declared in his 2007 “Faith in America” speech that “I will also offer perspectives on how my own faith would inform my Presidency, if I were elected.”  In his speech, he went on to repeat Kennedy’s promise, “I will put no doctrine of any church above the plain duties of the office and the sovereign authority of the law.”

The problem is how do you allow your religion to inform you presidency, yet not put any doctrine above your duties and authorities.  For an excellent discussion of this distinction, see an article titled, “The Enduring Cost of John F. Kennedy’s Compromise,” written by Colleen Carroll Campbell in the Catholic World Report.   According to Campbell, Kennedy’s 1960 speech posited “that religion should be relegated to the private realm and deprived of its meaning-making role in American democracy.”  In Kennedy’s own words:

  • “I believe in an America that is officially neither Catholic, Protestant nor Jewish – where no public official either requests or accepts instructions on public policy from the Pope, the National Council of Churches or any other ecclesiastical source – where no religious body seeks to impose its will directly or indirectly upon the general populace or the public acts of its officials – and where religious liberty is so indivisible that an act against one church is treated as an act against all.”
  • “I do not speak for my Church on public matters – and the Church does not speak for me.  Whatever issue may come before me as President – on birth control, divorce, censorship, gambling, or any other subject – I will make my decision in accordance with these views, in accordance with what my conscience tells me to be in the national interest, and without regard to outside religious pressures or dictates.  And no power or threat of punishment could cause me to decide otherwise.”

Incidentally, Campbell suggests that Kennedy’s personal religious beliefs were more Deist than Catholic.

To get a better understanding of what Romney and Obama mean by having their religion inform their public-policy positions, I decided to read their key speeches on the subject.  Mitt Romney’s delivered his “Faith in America” speech on December 6, 2007, at the George Herbert Walker Bush Presidential Library.  The speech was widely regarded as evoking that of Senator John F. Kennedy’s September 1960 pledge not to allow Catholic doctrine to inform policy because it used some of the same verbiage and phrasing:

  • I do not define my candidacy by my religion. A person should not be elected because of his faith nor should he be rejected because of his faith.  Let me assure you that no authorities of my church, or of any other church for that matter, will ever exert influence on presidential decisions. Their authority is theirs, within the province of church affairs, and it ends where the affairs of the nation begin.  As Governor, I tried to do the right as best I knew it, serving the law and answering to the Constitution. I did not confuse the particular teachings of my church with the obligations of the office and of the Constitution – and of course, I would not do so as President. I will put no doctrine of any church above the plain duties of the office and the sovereign authority of the law.”
  • “If I am fortunate enough to become your president, I will serve no one religion, no one group, no one cause, and no one interest….  A president must serve only the common cause of the people of the United States.”

Near the end of the speech, Romney listed some values that many religions espoused and noted that, “And these convictions will indeed inform my presidency.”

President Obama’s speech was given on February 2, 2012 at the National Prayer Breakfast.  During the speech, he noted that the limits of religion, “It’s absolutely true that meeting these challenges requires sound decision-making, requires smart policies. We know that part of living in a pluralistic society means that our personal religious beliefs alone can’t dictate our response to every challenge we face.”  But he went on to declare that the majority of great reformers in America – Frederick Douglass, Abraham Lincoln, Jane Addams, Martin Luther King, Jr., Dorothy Day, Abraham Heschel – “did their work not just because it was sound policy, or they had done good analysis, or understood how to exercise good politics, but because their faith and their values dictated it.” 

And then he listed areas of public policy that were informed by not only his Christianity, but also by other religions:

  • “And so when I talk about our financial institutions playing by the same rules as folks on Main Street, when I talk about making sure insurance companies aren’t discriminating against those who are already sick, or making sure that unscrupulous lenders aren’t taking advantage of the most vulnerable among us, I do so because I genuinely believe it will make the economy stronger for everybody. But I also do it because I know that far too many neighbors in our country have been hurt and treated unfairly over the last few years, and I believe in God’s command to ‘love thy neighbor as thyself.’ I know the version of that Golden Rule is found in every major religion and every set of beliefs -– from Hinduism to Islam to Judaism to the writings of Plato.”
  • And I think to myself, if I’m willing to give something up as somebody who’s been extraordinarily blessed, and give up some of the tax breaks that I enjoy, I actually think that’s going to make economic sense.  But for me as a Christian, it also coincides with Jesus’s teaching that ‘for unto whom much is given, much shall be required.’ It mirrors the Islamic belief that those who’ve been blessed have an obligation to use those blessings to help others, or the Jewish doctrine of moderation and consideration for others.”
  • “It means maybe that research lab on the cusp of a lifesaving discovery, or the company looking for skilled workers is going to do a little bit better, and we’ll all do better as a consequence. It makes economic sense. But part of that belief comes from my faith in the idea that I am my brother’s keeper and I am my sister’s keeper; that as a country, we rise and fall together. I’m not an island. I’m not alone in my success. I succeed because others succeed with me.”
  • “And when I decide to stand up for foreign aid, or prevent atrocities in places like Uganda, or take on issues like human trafficking, it’s not just about strengthening alliances, or promoting democratic values, or projecting American leadership around the world, although it does all those things and it will make us safer and more secure. It’s also about the biblical call to care for the least of these –- for the poor; for those at the margins of our society.”
  • “To answer the responsibility we’re given in Proverbs to ‘Speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves, for the rights of all who are destitute.” And for others, it may reflect the Jewish belief that the highest form of charity is to do our part to help others stand on their own.”
  • “Treating others as you want to be treated. Requiring much from those who have been given so much. Living by the principle that we are our brother’s keeper. Caring for the poor and those in need. These values are old. They can be found in many denominations and many faiths, among many believers and among many non-believers. And they are values that have always made this country great — when we live up to them; when we don’t just give lip service to them; when we don’t just talk about them one day a year. And they’re the ones that have defined my own faith journey.”

My impression is that, although President Obama and Mitt Romney talk about their religion informing their public policy, I suspect that neither one will be disposed to defend a position of public policy based on some quote from the Bible.  The Kennedy axiom remains in effect.


1 Comment »

  1. Thank you for sharing this wonderful fact and giving us additional information as to why, this problem still exists till now

    Comment by Brandy Clinton — February 6, 2012 @ 6:33 am | Reply

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