Cover Story

God,Caesar,& the Tax Code

Do conservatives have arguments other than sound economics and responsible fiscal policy to back their case for lower taxes? Advocates on the religious left wield Bible verses to support big government, but conservatives are showing that's not only bad economics, but bad exegesis.

Issue: "God, Caesar and taxes," April 17, 1999

in Washington - The pairing was a producer's dream: Jesse Jackson, the reverend of racial politics vs. Dick Armey, the apostle of the flat tax. In his role as CNN talk-show host, Mr. Jackson was firing questions at the recently born-again House majority leader. Questions about education. Questions about race relations. But mostly, questions about taxes. As time was running out, the host challenged his guest on the topic of increased federal spending for poor children with no health insurance. Mr. Armey replied that private insurers could provide greater coverage if the government would just stay out of it. Upon which, Mr. Jackson played his trump card: "Well, Jesus said you ..." "When people pick up their personal responsibilities ..." Mr. Armey began to reply, before Mr. Jackson could finish. Then he did something unthinkable for a national politician. He challenged the reverend on his own terms, leading to one of the oddest TV debates in memory. Armey: "Jesus says, and it's said in the Bible …" Jackson: "That we measure our character by how we treat the least of these, those least able to protect themselves." Armey: "That's right. And He also says pull your own weight before you pull the others and after you've pulled your weight, pull the others." Jackson: "That Scripture ..." Armey: "There's a lot of-that is, right now ..." Jackson: "I want to thank you ..." Armey: " ... From Ephesians. I read it this morning." Jackson: "I want to thank you for joining me and misinterpreting that Scripture." After a hurried thank-you to viewers, the microphones went dead and the show's closing titles began to roll. Secular audience members-still scratching their heads over the odd exchange-may have missed the significance of the moment. The second-in-command of the U.S. House of Representatives had just "dragged the Bible" into a nationally televised debate. Not a debate on abortion. Not a debate on homosexuality. A debate on taxes and fiscal policy. Ever since conservative Christians re-entered the political fray in the mid-1970s, liberals have criticized their efforts to "force their religion down other people's throats." On a wide range of social issues, evangelicals are rarely shy about marshaling biblical principles to defend traditional views of morality and family. But when it comes to taxes, the evangelists suddenly start to sound like economists-if they have anything to say at all. A search for "tax reform" on the Eagle Forum Web site turns up little that is distinctively Christian. For instance, a lengthy 1998 article on tax reform in The Phyllis Schlafly Report features arguments about dynamic analysis and income tests, but nothing about scriptural principles or even religious tradition. In the 1999 version, tax-cutting was relegated to just four short paragraphs-still with no discussion of religion or morality. Other family groups avoid the tax topic almost completely. The Family Research Council's homepage features links to categories like Education Facts, Culture Facts, Drug Facts, and Military Readiness, but no heading at all for taxes or fiscal policy. Likewise, Web surfers who type "tax reform" in Concerned Women for America's online search engine get a list of headlines like "Teen Suicide" or "Egypt Persecuting Christians," none of which has anything to do with tax reform. Why do Christians have so little to say about taxes? Larry Burkett of Christian Financial Concepts says it may be because the Bible seems to have little to say on the subject. "The specifics are difficult to come by," he acknowledges. "You can make an argument for taxes in general from a religious perspective. In the Old Testament, the government of Israel collected taxes. And in the New Testament the government of Rome collected taxes, and Jesus told his disciples to pay to Caesar what was due him." The debate, of course, centers on just how much is "due" Caesar. "As far as the percentage of taxes that's fair, it's a hard argument to make on religious grounds," Mr. Burkett says, though he notes that about 1 percent was considered normal at the time of Jesus' teaching. Nearly two millennia later, 1 percent was still the "normal" tax rate in 1914, the first year of the national income tax in America. Today, by contrast, the average American pays nearly 40 percent of his income in federal, state, and local taxes. That's a figure that galls many evangelical Christians, though they rarely quote chapter and verse in trying to defend their zeal for tax cutting. Liberals, on the other hand, are often eager to wrap their tax-and-spend ideology in the mantle of religion. Consider Jesse Jackson's recent California speech in which he called Jesus an "at-risk child" because of the circumstances surrounding His birth. "Mary was young, engaged; they had to walk unpaved roads. The innkeeper said, 'You can't come in here,' and she had to give birth in a barn with the smell of manure in her nose." The point of Mr. Jackson's biblical analogy? That government ought to be spending more on behalf of its youngest citizens. Jesse Jackson is not alone in employing religious terminology to justify higher taxes and more government spending. In 1996, the last time Congress had the nerve to cut a sizeable hole in President Clinton's government goodie bag, Ron Sider of Sojourners quoted from Proverbs, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and Matthew in condemning the Republicans' "blatant, sinful defiance of the God of the poor." "The poor matter-to God and to everyone who obeys God's word," Mr. Sider argued in his organization's magazine. "Do you think Jesus or Amos would simply slash programs for the poor rather than figure out better ways to empower them to become the whole persons the Creator intended?" In the face of such impassioned pleas, conservatives-even Christian conservatives-generally answer like bean-counters rather than believers. That's not necessarily a bad thing, says Dick Armey nearly a year after his biblical debate with Jesse Jackson. "Conservatives tend to be people who are compelled by a sense of policy responsibility," he explains. "They don't accept this humanistic theory of relativism. They believe there are eternal truths. They think facts matter. They conform their arguments to facts. "The liberals, on the other hand, are very emotive, and they're not at all bound by facts. Their purpose is to build bigger government that employs more of their own services. They're very beguiling in wrapping that greed in the language of love. It seems so much more compassionate. But true compassion lies in telling the truth and being honest with people." A few conservatives have recognized the truth of the connection between taxes and religious teachings. Rep. Asa Hutchinson (R-Ark.) points out that the typical family already pays more to the government than it spends on food, shelter, and clothing combined. And that, he says, has moral implications. "This forces families to have to have two income-earners just to make ends meet, meaning that time that used to be spent raising children and volunteering with charitable and church organizations is spent at the office. Resources that used to help provide clothing, food, and shelter to the neediest among us are being spent on inefficient government programs." Rabbi Daniel Lapin, president of Toward Tradition, argues in The Wall Street Journal that the Old Testament depicts high taxes as a national curse. When Israel clamored for a king instead of God's direct rule, the prophet Samuel warned that their king would tax them at the rate of 10 percent, claiming the same amount due to God. Likewise, when Solomon was succeeded by his son Rehoboam, one of the first signs of the new king's wickedness was the unjust tax rates he levied on his people. In The IRS v. The People, a new book published by the Heritage Foundation, Doug Bandow points out that a progressive tax system is based on envy: "The truly covetous are happy only if they are able to harm their neighbor by taking something from him or her. The easiest way to do so, other than to use a sword or gun to heist someone's wallet, is to use political power." Such arguments seem to be making headway. At a tax rally on Capitol Hill last month, Mr. Armey was surrounded not only by the usual suspects-representatives of groups like Citizens for a Sound Economy and Americans for Tax Reform-but by leaders of numerous family groups, as well. If those groups can help their members develop a biblical worldview on taxes and economics, many more Christians would learn to see the moral implications of taxes-and be prepared, like Dick Armey, to give an answer to Jesse Jackson.

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