[The following excerpt is from my book, “Rescuing Religion from Republican Reason.”]
Does a Secular Government Have the Right to force Wealth Redistribution?
Since we Christians tend to bury our heads in the New Testament and neglect the Old Testament, we ignore God’s design for the nation of Israel and build our entire poverty relief theology out of Paul’s statement to the Corinthian church in which he says, “Each of you must give as you have made up your mind, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver [II Corinthians 9:7 – NRSV].” Republican Christians use this Bible passage to oppose taxation even more than the one in 1 Samuel that I quoted earlier. Out of context, it appears to command that we are only to share our wealth with the less fortunate if we really want to; no one has the right to force us to share.
Like most of the New Testament, this statement addresses a specific church crisis and individual Christians, not a government. It’s not an anti-taxation statement. Rather, it encourages those who already pay taxes to give out of their take-home pay as they see fit (the Romans paid taxes, too, so their situation differs little from ours). This verse lacks political value since it addresses individual hearts rather than government laws. (By the way, if you read all of Corinthians 8 & 9, you’ll see that Paul placed a lot of pressure on the church to share its wealth. He was not sending the message that the church should have done whatever it felt like doing. He used tact by appealing to their generosity rather than commanding them. He wanted them to feel good about giving rather than give while resenting Paul for commanding them to do so.)
As many Bible believers will tell us, we must use the Bible to interpret the Bible. We cannot pull one verse out of context without looking at what the rest of the Bible has to say on an issue. Unlike the “cheerful giver” verse, Romans 13:5-7 actually does address taxation, saying, “Wherefore it is necessary to be in subjection, not only because of wrath, but also for conscience’ sake. For because of this you also pay taxes, for rulers are servants of God, devoting themselves to this very thing. Render to all what is do them; tax to whom tax is due; custom to whom custom; fear to whom fear; honor to whom honor.” The government has the right to tax its citizens, and we must pay taxes whether we like it or not. Our cheerfulness is not a prerequisite. Although I can’t help but think that God loves a cheerful taxpayer, too. If we’re fighting mad that we have to pay taxes, we probably love our wealth more than we love God and others.
Jesus also supported a secular government’s right to tax its people in a well-known quote from Matthew 22:15-21: “Then the Pharisees went and counseled together how they might trap Him in what He said. And they sent their disciples to Him, along with the Herodians, saying, ‘Teacher, we know that You are truthful and teach the way of God in truth, and defer to no one; for You are not partial to any. Tell us therefore, what do You think? Is it lawful to give a poll-tax to Caesar, or not?’ But Jesus perceived their malice, and said, ‘Why are you testing Me, you hypocrites? Show me the coin used for the poll-tax.” And they brought Him a denarius. And He said to them, ‘Whose likeness and inscription is this? They said to Him, ‘Caesar’s.’ Then He said to them, ‘Then render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s; and to God the things that are God’s.’”
Tax opponents will argue that this passage isn’t about taxation. But is that entirely true?
Here’s the context: The Pharisees expected Jesus to answer by saying it’s a sin to give a percentage of one’s income to anyone but God, and that to pay a tax to the emperor is to submit one’s life to him in an act of worship, making the emperor out to be a god. They brought government officials with them, so they could have Jesus arrested for opposing the government tax. Jesus didn’t just give them a fancy answer, though, as many Christians suppose. Rather, He revealed truth they did not expect – that paying taxes is not worship, and that the government has rights over the money it produces. Money is not one of the “things that are God’s.” It is a human invention. Without the government, we have no money. We might have some shiny rocks or bags of rice to barter with, but we wouldn’t have bills or coins. Such an economy would be very primitive and wealth accumulation would be difficult.
So the Ron Paul website statement, “An income tax…suggests that the government owns the lives and labor of the citizens it is supposed to represent,” is anti-biblical. The government that creates money for us has the right to tax it, but in no way does taxation imply that the government owns the taxpayers. Also contrary to Ron Paul’s libertarian claims, the Bible shows that taxing income percentage is the godliest method of taxation. God’s system employed no excise taxes or sales taxes (like the Fair Tax), probably because they burden the poor more than the rich. To say that taxing a percentage of income is evil is to say that God is evil. And to say that a sales or consumption tax is more righteous than income tax is to say that humans are more righteous than God. If there’s any tax we should fight against on a moral basis, it’s sales (consumption) tax, not income tax.
Not all Republican Christians will dispute what I’ve shared thus far. They’ll agree that taxation is necessary, and that having a system to meet people’s needs aligns with God’s will. But progressive taxation, in which wealthier people pay a higher percentage than poorer people, is where they draw the line. They label progressive taxation as “unfair” and, therefore, “stealing.” Some even call it a “punishment for success.” And they point to the very same Bible passages I’ve already shared as proof that everyone in ancient Israel paid the same percentage of their income. At first glance, this argument holds up well.
If our society were structured like that of ancient Israel, I would agree that a flat tax would be the way to go. But our society differs from theirs. And it’s these differences that I believe justify a progressive income tax. Here are the justifications:
1) The Bible actually did have a progressive system. But it only had two tiers. Those who inherited land paid; those who lacked land did not. As I stated before, our society is more complex. American citizens are scattered across a broad spectrum of income levels. Therefore, it makes sense to have a progressive marginal tax rate system. A two-tiered biblical system would be impossible to implement, because there’s no sole criteria by which we can draw a line between the haves and the have-nots.
2) Ancient Israel did not have a system of corporate liability protection that legally stole from society, through bankruptcy, to enrich the wealthy. It’s only right that we balance this injustice with a progressive income tax system that takes money back from the wealthy to share with society. If our system can amplify disparity of wealth, then our system can be modified to lessen that disparity. And if society can be forced to bear the debts of the wealthy, it’s only right that society be entitled to share in their gains.
3) Wealth was far more evenly distributed in ancient Israel. Approximately 95% of Israelites owned land on which they could grow food, build houses, run businesses, and raise their families. In America, prior to the establishment of the Federal Housing Administration (FHA) in 1934 and Fannie Mae in 1938, only about 40% of Americans owned land. With 95% of ancient Israel’s population having similar wealth, a progressive system among taxpayers would have made little difference.
4) America does not have a Year of Jubilee to minimize its disparity of wealth, like ancient Israel did. Thanks to the Year of Jubilee, no one could acquire a lot of land, because it had to go back to the family who originally inherited it within 50 years. With limited land in an agrarian society, one’s ability to produce a family fortune was also limited. When ancient Israel adhered to God’s system, it lacked the disparity of wealth that America has today. Once they moved away from the system, however, and were ruled by kings, some of them, like Solomon, amassed great wealth and disparity increased.
5) Many American corporations grow wealthy through deceiving customers and sneak-charging. Others encourage their sales reps and marketers to lie. Even those who don’t still benefit from deception, because nearly all sales departments contain some liars. Meanwhile, some businesses engage in the deception of what I call salary slavery. They hire prospective employees on a salary instead of an hourly wage while telling them they’ll work a 40-45 hour week, and then they work them 60-70 hours a week while paying them no additional money for the extra hours worked. All of this is stealing. The government cannot micro-manage businesses enough to eliminate all of this deception. But it can tax corporate owners who benefit from it at higher rates and give some of their ill-gotten gains back to society.
6) If business owners make millions, then it stands to reason that they either underpay their employees and/or overcharge their customers. In other words, they fail to share with those who made them successful. Who’s to say that paying employees the minimum necessary to fill the position is righteousness? Perhaps righteousness is to pay them according to their contribution to the company’s success. Or perhaps it’s to pay them enough to support their families.
7) America, in a time of military crisis, can draft the lives of low income Americans to keep America safe and stable enough for the rich to prosper. It’s only right, then, that America can draft the excess wealth of the rich when the American soldiers and families who made such sacrifices find themselves in financial crises. Every family that’s been here awhile has sacrificed sons, daughters, mothers, fathers, sisters and brothers to the protection of the common good. And they may be called to make similar sacrifices in the future. America is a group effort. Yet, when the wealthy are confronted with progressive tax rates, some of them cry, “I did it all myself. I owe them nothing.”
8) Last, but certainly not least, progressive taxes are merciful:
Republican economists have argued that the rich and the poor should pay the same income tax rate, because poor people don’t stay poor from year to year and the rich don’t stay rich. They’ll site statistics that show a large number of people moving out of the bottom income quintile (the bottom 20% of income earners) into higher quintiles (even though there’s little income difference between the bottom and middle quintiles – those in the middle quintile struggle, too). These stats look this way, because many young people start with minimum wage jobs while still dependent on their parents during their high school and college years, then get better entry level professional jobs after college, and then some move up the ladder in their fields and their pay increases. However, not all low income earners move up the ladder, and not all can depend on their parents. In fact, some have children depending on them, so they can’t afford to pay the same tax percentage as the rich. In fact, without welfare assistance, they may not live long enough to have a chance to move to a higher quintile.
My first year after graduating college, I had an entry level job that paid just a little above minimum wage. I struggled to afford my studio apartment in an impoverished part of Nashville. I had student loans, a car payment (because I needed to get to work), and I had no furniture. I remember having nothing but bread and butter for dinner, because it was all I had in the refrigerator until payday. I would walk for exercise, because I couldn’t afford a gym, and I walked for 4 months with holes in the bottom of my sneakers, feeling the pavement with every step, before I finally saved up enough money to buy new ones. I found myself poor, despite all of my hard work, education, and total avoidance of drugs, alcohol, and even cigarettes.
Having studied economics in college, I was aware of flat-tax proposals to establish a rate of approximately 20% federal withholding tax for all people. I had previously favored such a tax, because it was fair. My experience in poverty shattered that view. There’s no way I could have afforded 20%. I would have had to give up heat, food and electricity in order to afford a flat tax. I then realized that lower tax rates for the poor are acts of mercy, or as I call them, mercy rates.
Conservatives may argue that I eventually escaped poverty and moved out of the lowest tax bracket. In fact, ten years later I owned a ranch house on 3 acres of land and enjoyed nice vacations and Eagles season tickets. But could I then build a time machine and go back ten years to my former self to share my money with him? Obviously, not. When I was poor, the fact that I might someday earn more was of no consequence to my survival at the time. I needed a mercy tax rate, and fortunately, our progressive tax system gave me one, so I could live to see better days.
Republicans look at the progressive tax structure backward. They see the low rates as the standard rates and the high rates as penalties for the rich. The truth is that the rich pay the standard rates, and the poor get mercy rates, since they cannot afford the standard rates. If the nation is going to tax its wealth, it will have to tax the people who earn that wealth; so the standard rate is the one that taxes most of the wealth, not most of the people. According to the 2010 Summary of Federal Income Tax Data, the top 1% of income earners earn 18.9% of the nation’s wealth, the top 10 % earn 33.8%, the top 25% earn 67.6% , and the bottom 50% earn only 11.75%. So the bottom ½ of the population earns less than 1/8th of the money, but the top 25% earns 2/3 of the money. It’s this money and these people who should pay the standard rate. Although, to be fair, the poorest of the top 25% only earned $69,126 in 2010, which isn’t a whole lot of money when trying to raise a family, so they deserve a little mercy in their tax rates, too. And that’s exactly what we do. We have a progressive tax structure that extends different levels of mercy to different income brackets. The poorest receive the most mercy, and the wealthiest receive no mercy because they lack nothing. Of course, since such a large percentage of the population gets mercy rates, the wealthy have to be taxed even more to cover the poor’s share. If our disparity of wealth wasn’t so great, our tax rates wouldn’t have to be so progressive.