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God and Caesar

Campaign 2008 | Joe Biden's recent comments on taxation, patriotism, and social doctrine should prompt both parties to present their best case for helping those in need

According to Sen. Joseph Biden, paying higher taxes is a matter of patriotism. The Democratic vice presidential candidate recently defended Sen. Barack Obama's plan to raise taxes on higher incomes, saying: "It's time to be patriotic … time to jump in, time to be part of the deal, time to get America out of the rut."

A few days later Biden offered a religious basis for his fiscal assertions. The senator told a group of union workers last week: "Catholic social doctrine as I was taught is: You take care of people who need help the most."

That's sound doctrine, but it produces a logical question: What's the best way to help? Many Catholics, evangelicals, and non-Christians alike dig deep into their own pockets to fund non-profit organizations doing effective work on local levels. Others look to the government to dole out help to people in need. Some embrace a mixture of both.

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Biden's personal tax records indicate the senator may rely heavily on government-based solutions: The recently released records show that Biden and his wife have reported contributing on average about $380 to charity annually over a 10 year period-about 0.2 percent of their income.

It's certainly possible that the Bidens haven't reported all of their charitable giving to the government. Plenty of people don't. (And it's worth noting that the national average for charitable giving wasn't terribly higher-somewhere around 2 percent of the average income.) But it's also possible that Biden's personal giving reflects a political conviction that the government is best at helping people who need it most.

Democrats have made inroads with some evangelicals this year by emphasizing the moral imperative to help people in need. That rightly resonates with evangelicals, and Republicans shouldn't dismiss a political discussion of that notion as socialism disguised.

Instead, both parties should make their best case: If government really does work best, Democrats should point to the evidence. If taxpayers should keep more of their own money to direct to organizations doing effective work, Republicans should highlight those organizations and explain what role government should play. So far, neither party has made a compelling case during this election cycle.

Obama has come closest to trying: The senator rolled out a robust plan for remaking the Office of Faith-Based Initiatives, but he also offered a problematic renovation: Religious groups that accept federal funds could no longer factor religious beliefs into some of their hiring decisions. That could cut out a whole swath of groups doing some of the best work by addressing the spiritual causes of social problems. Obama hasn't reconciled that problem.

Sen. John McCain has said even less: The Republican candidate says he would support faith-based initiatives at least on the same level as the Bush administration, but hasn't elaborated much. Earlier this summer, the McCain campaign didn't respond to WORLD's requests for comments about his plans.

The scope of helping the needy extends to more complicated issues as well, such as the soaring costs of healthcare, a deflated housing market, and a weakening economy. None of those questions may be solved with a simple party line, but both parties should be digging for serious ideas.

Meanwhile, evangelicals should keep digging, as well: Digging for biblical answers to these hard questions, and digging into their own pockets to help the needy while the debate continues. Non-profit organizations are already reporting growing deficits as the economy softens.

Ultimately, Christians know the government won't solve poverty: Jesus promised we'd always have the poor with us. But Christians also know something else: Jesus charged His followers with providing for the poor, just as He provides for the spiritual poverty of His followers.

That means Biden is right about at least one thing: If you're a Christian, you help people who need it the most. Even on the eve of a series of highly anticipated presidential debates, that much is not debatable.

Jamie Dean
Jamie Dean

Jamie lives and works in North Carolina, where she covers the national political beat and other topics as news editor for WORLD.

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