“Jesus would back my tax-the-rich policy.”
What a cynical way to characterize President Obama’s address at the recent National Prayer Breakfast. Yet CNN Money – and a bunch of other media outlets – described the speech precisely this way, after the annual event last week.
Christian faith, the President noted, compels him "to give up some of the tax breaks that I enjoy."
Perhaps most interesting about the President’s speech is what people are NOT saying in its aftermath. For example, President Obama’s admission that his understanding of the Bible is his basis for his economic policies has not drawn any public concerns about the so-called “separation of church and state” (Barry W. Lynn – where are you?).
Likewise, there seems to be no apprehension about President Obama’s remarks from the ranks of religious leaders. Here was the 44th President of the United States claiming to have the support of Jesus of Nazareth on his proposed changes to the I.R.S. tax code, and the only raised eyebrows have come not from a Pastor, Priest or Rabbi, but from a lone U.S. Senator Orrin Hatch (R-Utah).
So in the absence of meaningful dialog on the matter, how about if we consider this question: was President Obama right? Is it true that Jesus Christ, were he physically among us today, would stand with President Obama and support the elevation of effective tax rates on high-earning Americans?
The subject at hand is deeper than what a single editorial piece can address. But let’s understand that viewing economics through religious lenses is not new, nor is it something that begins and ends with Barack Obama.
For centuries, philosophers, economists, and theologians have reflected on the intersection of morality and economics. Many theological works, including many of the teachings of Jesus Himself, take-on economic concerns and can serve to inform our view today of the world’s various economic systems.
It is also true that the world of the New Testament (the world as it was when Jesus walked the earth) and today’s globalized society are dramatically different. In the world of the Bible, for example, most people made their living exclusively from the land—in agriculture, or in some sort of a modest trade (we know that Jesus himself worked as a carpenter, and His disciples’ worked in the fishing business).
We also know that back then, it was usually difficult to get ahead financially. The idea of “upward mobility” in society was essentially non-existent, and most people remained in the socioeconomic category of life into which they were born.
On this point, Historian D.E. Oakman of Pacific Lutheran University in Washington insists that “for the majority of the population, after they had paid their taxes, there was barely enough to eat.” There were few “rags to riches” stories in the ancient world, Dr. Oakman has noted, and most of the rich became wealthy through inheritance, patronage, or corruption. Thus, if you were “rich” back in biblical times, people were automatically suspicious of you because you probably got that way by oppressing the more vulnerable.
This “rich versus poor” dynamic remained in place throughout the world for several centuries. Even for several hundred years of England’s history, society consisted of the rich land owners (the “Lords” who owned the territories) and the poor (the “serfs” who were essentially enslaved to the land owners). This didn’t change, until the ideas of giving every citizen the opportunity to own property, and to sell their skills on the open market, became a societal norm.
These ideas were central themes in philosopher Adam Smith’s work “The Wealth Of Nations,” which, interestingly, was published the year our nation was founded- 1776. Likewise these ideas of individual liberty are also at the epicenter of our United States Constitution. And after almost two hundred and fifty years of American history, we now know this: while neither “upward mobility” nor a “middle class” existed when Jesus walked the earth, today our American-styled economic system of capitalism has enabled both of these possibilities to become realities, and to flourish.
So would Jesus support Barack Obama’s “tax the rich” policy? He would likely call on all Americans to be more caring of the poor. He might also remind us that, the last time he was on earth, government tax collectors were a source of oppression (anybody remember the story of Zaccehus from Matthew Chapter 5?).
Charity is not the same as government wealth redistribution. And if Jesus were on earth today he might urge all of us – President Obama included – to stop repeating the same old mistakes.