Thoughts on a Christian endorsement of progressive taxation

I don’t like to talk politics too often, especially with other Christians, because it’s way too easy to confuse one’s political persuasions with their religious commitment. Have you ever been in a conversation that ended with something like, “Well, I just don’t understand how a Christian could ever think that…”

Ugh, I have and far, far too often.

But, in spite of that, I’m going to take a stab at it today in hopes that it might generate some intelligent, generous, and inclusive conversation. Given that tax day has just passed us, the blogosphere is filled with posts about taxes and government and on and on.

And I just happened to read a provocative blog post today that got my wheels turning. It’s supposed to provide a Christian argument in favor of a progressive income tax, and in my reading is an endorsement of that public policy.

Let me start with a quote from this post, which pretty much sums up the argument:

Part of the new social ethic was the idea of a progressive income tax, whereby the richer members of society would pay a greater share to care for those of lesser means.  The progressive income tax was passed in 1913, but many Christians groused about it — a bit like today’s conservative Christians holding “tea parties.”

Thus, progressive theologians developed a Christian argument for taxation.  They believed that a progressive tax would increase the overall morality of society.  For example, Scudder pointed out that “the Church, like her Master, is in a way more concerned over the spiritual state of the prosperous than over that of the poor” because the rich “countenance unbrotherly things.”  In other words, the rich were not likely to practice Christian holiness.  “It may be good for the soul of Patrick to subsist on a starvation wage,” she says of a hypothetical worker, “but it is very bad for the soul of Henry the mill-owner to pay him that wage.”   Thus, the spiritual scales needed to somehow be equalized — by Henry surrendering some portion of his wealth in order to better the lot of his brothers and sisters.  “It is spiritual suicide for the possessors of privileges to rest,” Scudder argued, “until such privileges become the common lot. This truth is what the Church should hold relentlessly before men’s eyes; it is what makes indifference to social readjustments impossible to her shepherding love.”  A progressive tax was an expression of Christian love.

Let’s start with what I agree with. Christians are clearly called to be socially active, especially when it comes to being advocates for and caring for the poor — of our society and the world. I think we should be proactive with our money and our time — we should give as generously of both of these resources as we possibly can. And, I think it’s entirely appropriate to be involved as advocates for the poor when it comes to public policy, and I think there are hosts of government programs that exist for that reason.

That said, however, there are a few sticking points for me, and I wonder what you think about them.

First, I don’t have much confidence that our government is using the additional revenues from these taxes to do much for the poor. If the assumption is that the government is placing a heavier tax burden on the rich for the sake of increasing care for the poor, at least the concept is coherent and understandable. But do we have any real reason to believe that’s the case? I’m skeptical.

Second, this feels uncomfortably like the story  Robin Hood, except that the government is playing the unexpected, ironic role of the prince of thieves.  In other words, even if it is a legitimate Christian concern to care for the poor, does endorsing legislation make sense? One way of looking at it is that the government is taking justly-earned income from the rich by force and then redistributing it to the poor — all in the name of justice and equity. But, couldn’t that action be interpreted as a very ironic betrayal of justice itself? If justice is about equity, which I think it is, then how can taking more money from the rich — who have earned their money fairly — to give to the poor be understood as equitable and therefore just?

Third, I’m reminded of an argument that Martin Luther makes*. While giving advice to a “Christian prince” in his region, he explains the extent to which the government can compel good behavior from its citizens — I promise I’ll explain how I think that’s relevant.

He argues that the government does have the authority to compel its citizens to do good and to punish them when they do not (or do evil). However, he qualifies that statement by observing that the government only has the power to compel outward observance of the law.

That in itself is a good thing, because it can contribute to the common good and well-being of society — but the government cannot address the unregenerate heart of the person who does wish to do good by his neighbor.

Luther rightly points out that while the common good of society is the primary concern of the government, the concern of Jesus and his church is the redemption of all human beings — and the Holy Spirit, not the government, has the power to achieve that. Only God’s Spirit can regenerate a person’s heart and create the desire to love one’s neighbor and not only one’s self.

In other words, the government can force people to do good deeds, but it cannot redeem their motives. Moreover, because the redemption of all people is the ultimate goal of Jesus and the church and can only be accomplished by God’s Spirit, we are compelled to use caution when describing any action of the government as “Christian.”

And that’s ultimately my biggest beef with this post. Legislation such as this is ultimately one-sided, both socially and theologically. Socially, legislation that takes from the rich to give to the poor is inequitable and therefore unjust. Taking from one person to give to another (if that is even what’s happening with our tax dollars) sounds more like Robin Hood and Zacchaeus than Jesus, if you ask me.

And theologically, this legislation seems to be a comedy of errors. First of all, this legislation does not address the theological concern that redeeming and transforming the life of the rich is important. And the Christian endorsement of the legislation doesn’t even make an attempt to respond to the notion that laws only address externals. In other words, if this money is actually being used to serve the poor — which is a big question mark for me — then at its best, it’s entirely one-sided.

Second, when did Jesus command us to take money from the rich (or advocate for that through policy and legislation) and give it to the poor? Last time I read Jesus, he said something about us taking that burden of responsibility upon ourselves, not passing it on to others with greater resources.

Third, I think endorsing this policy as Christian confuses the Kingdom of God with the kingdom of this world by introducing an unnecessary middle man, viz a viz the government, between Jesus’ command to Christians on the one side and the poor on the other. The government is not the primary medium through which the church establishes the Kingdom of God on earth, and it can never be, because the government does not have the power to redeem — only God’s Spirit does.

So, two points to close. 1) I don’t like this legislation, because I don’t think it’s just. 2) It bothers me that it’s being endorsed as “Christian” because I think there’s as much Un-Christian about it as there is Christian — which is true about most things when it comes to politics.

What do you think?

*I think this is in Freedom of a Christian, but I’m not totally sure. It could also be in On Secular Authority)

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5 thoughts on “Thoughts on a Christian endorsement of progressive taxation

  1. I think that it’s always messy when you try to put the responsibilities of the church on the government. While I think a progressive tax rate could be argued in a civic sense (I’m not going to try to make that argument), I don’t think it needs to be argued in a Christian sense.

    Is the legislation just? I don’t know. In simple terms (asking the rich to give more than the poor, whether or not what they’re giving is given to the poor), it is at least unequal. In reality, it’s a bit less clear. Many rich people earn their money “fair and square.” Many earn their money exploiting those less fortunate. And then there’s the whole question of what is really equal in monetary terms, and a whole bag of other issues. But the taxatio policy may be better directed at commerical or corporate entities, rather than individuals.

    Does the “Christian” endoresement of the legislation bother me, too (if you were asking)? A bit, yes. Not necessarily because there are un-Christian elements to it, but moreso because, like your lead-in discusses, too many people confuse political positions with religious devotion.

    I just don’t see why people want to propose a moral argument for every single political policy. To me, there is more than one answer to almost all political problems. Some answers are better and some are worse. Many taxation policies could work…many more could not work. Ultimately, we just try things out, see how they go and hopefully improve the next time (not that we always follow through with that). But then again, I also feel the same way about most religion–that not everything has or requires a “right” answer.

    But, I guess what I’m ultimately saying is that we don’t need to turn political differences into a religious fight, and proposing a Christian argument in favor (or against) a progressive tax rate (or most other political policies) may end up doing just that.

    1. But, I guess what I’m ultimately saying is that we don’t need to turn political differences into a religious fight, and proposing a Christian argument in favor (or against) a progressive tax rate (or most other political policies) may end up doing just that.

      Very well said… and I wish more people thought this way. I spent 4 years in undergrad studying philosophy and religion and then 3 more in seminary studying the same.

      I couldn’t believe how many conversations began as serious, intelligent debates but then quickly degenerated into little more than, “How can you call yourself a Christian and believe that?”

  2. I agree with the blog owner on a number of points. I’ve written about this issue a bit in the novel I published (see: http://www.eloquentbooks.com/AnaMarkovic.html), and I’ll share my thoughts here:

    There’s a lot of people out there who believe that we should use social spending and programs to serve the poor, but who would otherwise, for example, refuse to make eye contact with an homeless person if they saw one on the street. The problem with poverty in this world, is not really some problem with the system, it’s a problem with all of us when we simply lack the compassion and love to take care of the poor. Love cannot be compelled or forced, otherwise it couldn’t be love, because love needs to be freely willed. It’s not the system that needs to be changed, it’s ourselves that we need to change, and when we can do that, then we will overcome poverty.

    To suggest that forcing a person to pay taxes saves their souls, is, I agree with the blog owner, simply not sensible. All sorts of people pay taxes which go to serve the poor and needy, but who nevertheless do not love the poor and needy. And furthermore, as the blog owner correctly suggests, in many cases your tax dollars are not going to benefit others but could very well, for example, be used to purchase weaponry and fund some war someplace, or be used for some other person than charity.

    God Bless,

    1. The problem with poverty in this world, is not really some problem with the system, it’s a problem with all of us when we simply lack the compassion and love to take care of the poor.

      Not to be cliche, but do you think it’s a bit of both?

      After writing a post about frustration with government policy, that might sound weird… but I certainly think there are some systemic issues.

      Perhaps it’s fair to say, however, that we won’t ever be able to ‘fix’ the systemic without addressing the core issues (that you highlight) in the individual?

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