Some Americans believe that taxation is theft, and that taking care of the poor and vulnerable is the business of charity alone. Others call for a “flat tax” which they claim is more fair than progressive taxation, which imposes a higher rate of tax on those of higher incomes. Such ideas once represented a fringe of the political spectrum, but now they are expressed by serious candidates for the presidency. Since religious language is being used to support these ideas, a theological rationale is needed for progressive taxation and an adequate taxpayer-funded social safety net. To this end, here I present a “sound bite” and an “elevator speech”:
“We tax ourselves to do what God requires of us, because the sin of greed prevents our voluntary charity from adequately caring for our most vulnerable citizens.”
Elevator Speech: “Our nation’s founders held the Judeo-Christian belief that all human beings are sinners. So they created checks and balances in the Constitution to restrain our natural greed for power. Our sin of greed also renders our voluntary charity inadequate, so through our democratic process we collect taxes from ourselves to meet the needs of our most vulnerable citizens. Jesus said ‘Every one to whom much is given, of him will much be required’ (Luke 12:48). ‘Much’ means that this requirement should have an equalized impact on people’s lives, rather than being a flat percentage regardless of income. So those of higher incomes should be required to pay a higher rate of tax.”
Supporting facts demonstrating that charity is not adequate to meet human needs:
Habitat for Humanity (faith-based charity): total number of housing units built in the US since 1978: 30,000 units
US Department of Housing and Urban Development:
Sec. 8 housing vouchers for low income families (30% of income paid as rent, rest of rent subsidized): 1,400,000 housing units annually (millions more households are eligible for this subsidy but cannot access it due to the limited funds for the program.)
The total food aid provided to needy Americans by private charity amounts to 6% of all food aid provided by the US government. (Source: Bread for the World – a Christian charity)
I received many responses to my recent “musings” about the Blessing of Taxes (coming this Sunday, April 15
) and my Christian arguments for progressive taxation
, most of them critical. Some objected to the sin-focused theology of my argument that taxation is necessary because human greed prevents charity from being adequate in meeting the needs of the poor. Others were so frustrated with the amount of public funds spent on the military that they could not imagine praying a blessing on their taxes.
I learned two things from this feedback. First, my “sound bite” theological argument missed the mark. It did not reflect a truly progressive theology. Second, changing the discourse about taxation in this country is going to be even more challenging than I thought. People have a hard time blessing their taxes when they are deeply upset with how the money currently is being spent.
Everybody wants to “starve the beast”. To paraphrase Grover Norquist, the anti-tax crusader, conservatives want to shrink government social spending down to the point where they can drown it in the bathtub. Progressives feel pain writing checks to the IRS when they see how huge a percentage of the money is wasted on a bloated military-industrial complex. Conservatives take advantage of this widespread frustration so that they can continue to cut taxes on the wealthy, unravel the nation’s social safety net, cripple public education, and dumb-down the American people so that they will be even easier to manipulate.
A lot of people stopped trusting the government, or believing it could ever be trusted, during the Vietnam War. Nixon lied to us about the US bombing of Cambodia, among other breaches of public trust. Later came Ronald Reagan, who cleverly traded on the Vietnam generation’s oppositional attitude toward government. “Government is the enemy” was a rallying cry that attracted both conservatives and liberals. It led to a vicious cycle. Americans elected conservative politicians who governed badly. That just reinforced their message that government is evil. This deepening disillusionment led to millions of good-hearted people dropping out of political life altogether, and focusing their attention on charity that only addresses the downstream problems that resulted from upstream disasters. But only the public sector can have the needed resources to solve those upstream problems.
Many progressive-minded people have abandoned politics. In doing so they have handed the public sector over to people who are systematically crippling the government’s ability to serve the common good. To put it bluntly: if you don’t vote, you vote Republican.
The cycle must be broken if the American dream is to have any meaning for 99% of our people. Religion has a responsibility to change the attitudes of Americans about the role of government and the taxes that pay for it. Religion is being used cynically to dismantle America’s vital institutions today. Faithful people need to get to work to rebuild and reform them. And religious language matters in the process.
To that end, here’s a “sound bite” from a “musings” reader – I think it’s better than mine:
“If you claim to be a Christian, then you are by definition responsible for the dignity of your neighbor. Progressive taxation is the only economically viable way to make this responsibility come to life.” — Rev. Jason Hubbard, pastor, Bostwick Lake United Church of Christ, Rockford, Michigan.
I hope that congregations of all faiths will grapple with these matters in worship this coming weekend. Whether or not we feel able to pray a blessing on our taxes, at least we can preach and pray about what kind of government we want, what uses of our taxes we intend to prevail, and how we can put our faith into practice as citizen activists!