Editor's Note: This column was co-authored by Jay W. Richards.
The debate over income inequality is a perennial one, but President Obama has made it the cause du jour with a renewed emphasis in his upcoming State of the Union speech. He has invoked Pope Francis in his renewed campaign to brand inequality as the “defining challenge of our time.” Even New York City mayor Bill de Blasio is getting in on the action.
These men are not lonely voices crying in the wilderness. A 2013 Pew Research Center poll reports almost half of Americans believe the wealth gap is a serious moral problem.
Poverty is unquestionably a serious concern, but even if poverty were eradicated there would remain an enormous income gap between the family living comfortably on $100,000 a year and people like Oprah Winfrey, Bono and Bill Gates. So what exactly is the problem with income inequality? Some think there is a theological problem. Jim Wallis has claimed—when calling for an increase in the minimum wage—“God hates inequality.”
The Judeo-Christian tradition teaches that everyone is created in the image of God, and so all people, whatever their social status, should be treated with dignity and as equals before the law. There’s a lot about greed in the Bible, but not a single passage of Scripture or traditional Judeo-Christian teaching suggests that income inequality, in itself, is a moral evil.
In the Old Testament, Job and Abraham were wealthy and held up as righteous. In the New Testament, Jesus tells His Apostles they will sit on twelve thrones in the kingdom of God. So far as we know, nobody else will get those thrones. Then, too, in the early church, wealthy members gave out of their wealth to help those in need, but the redistribution that occurred was not a forced leveling but a voluntary generosity. And income differences persisted since the early church met in the large homes of their wealthier members.
So why are so many Americans, including religious Americans, concerned about income inequality?
One reason is an economic misconception. Many assume that the economy is a zero-sum game, in which Peter’s wealth can only come from Paul’s poverty, thus they tend to view a wealth gap as evidence of theft.