Theology and Taxes, Part One: How Republicans Got It Wrong
By Dan Horn
Aug 15, 2011 - 5:01
Perhaps it was Congress obstinately refusing to pass the meager tax hikes for the wealthy and for corporate entities that would have provided the revenue needed for the US to weather current economic turmoil. Maybe it was seeing naive protestors sandwiched between sign boards that read things like “God Hates Taxes.” It could have happened even farther back, when religious-pragmatists like Joel Osteen were spreading their oxymoronic filth under the guise of Christian self-help literature (How Jesus Wants You to Be Filthy Rich!). No, Texas Governor Rick Perry’s presidential candidacy speech was the final straw breaking this camel’s back.
Governor Rick Perry, an outspokenly devout Christian and Tea Party Republican prone to dressing like Walker Texas Ranger and to unwittingly reminding Americans with long term memories of another governor from that state—Perry’s predecessor in fact—announced his bid for United States presidency over the weekend. He opened by requesting a moment of silence for our recently fallen service members, the thirty SEALs, Navy and Air Force special operators, and soldiers that were killed in a chinook crash in Afghanistan over a week ago. Perry then proceeded to ramble through that moment of silence. He went on to talk about his thrifty upbringing on a middle-of-nowhere farm, meeting his wife when he was just a young boy, joining the Boy Scouts and then the Air Force—you know, good ol’ boy stuff. But when he finally climbed up onto that inevitable political platform, something he said raised a few flags in my mind:
“Spreadin’ the wealth punishes success, while setting America on course for greater dependency on government.”
Yes, he’s a governor of a state and he said “spreadin’” in his presidential candidacy address, but that’s not what got my proverbial goat. See, if Rick Perry’s conservative Christianity hadn’t become so permanently enmeshed in the fabric of his politics (his moral high-horse legislation throughout his gubernatorial tenure in Texas speaks for itself), I would have said, “OK, I disagree with this guy on taxation. It happens all the time.” But then I started thinking...
The danger here is something Emile Durkheim observed in organized religion and other societies one hundred years ago: the group mind. In “The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life,” Durkheim says basically that shared beliefs endear us to one another, habituating a communal relationship between one like-minded believer and another. Christians tend to empathize with other Christians, just as I would tend to empathize with other similarly predisposed individuals, and we form collectives around those mutual connections. Rick Perry is, in the case of the Christian collective mind, like an intensely radiant beacon, a political mooring with the possibility for an entire religious following to be tethered to it. It isn’t their many-faceted and nuanced ethics, however, that are represented by the politician; it’s the politician’s, and, like a hostage with Stockholm Syndrome, a political supporter’s captive belief system can quickly become swayed by the supportee’s one-size-fits-all values, in this instance a Christian set of principles becoming something not very Christ-like at all.
So, what am I rambling on about? Well, let’s talk about this political phenomenon—the anti-tax Christian, the deeply religious fiscal conservative, the tightwad evangelist—and hopefully you’ll see my point by the end of this narrative if not sooner.
As a disclaimer, I’m not a Christian. Time and experience have funny ways of turning some Christians into Agnostics and some Agnostics into Atheists. Soon I won’t even believe in myself. The point is that I once tirelessly studied the epic machinery of Christendom, at times because I was persuaded to and at others because I felt personally inclined to. I had once even put my faith in it. I’m now at an atheist juncture in my admittedly short years, but I don’t intend to attack Christianity whatsoever in these articles. My intentions are simply to clarify the difference between a Christian and a wolf in sheep’s wool. I actually really hope that maybe a believer or two will come away from this narrative with a slightly clearer political perspective, but I realize that is likely just a pipedream.
Render Therefore unto Caesar at Your Leisure
Never mind that the prophecy of Daniel seems to allude to a “raiser of taxes” who shall fall from power only to have a “vile” man rule in his stead. There’s another Biblical passage on levy charges that I want to take a look at.
I’m reminded of a story in the books of Matthew, Mark, and Luke in which Christ is approached and tested by Herodians and Pharisees that have been so far dumbfounded by their antagonist’s parables and retorts to their deceitful queries. They have a new question for him, one that involves taxes. The Pharisees knew that if Jesus renounced taxation, they’d have the leverage they desired to have him tried as a criminal, and they did in fact testify before Pilate during Christ’s trial that the prophet had castigated taxation. Denouncing tribute paid to Caesar was treason. So, they asked, if Christ is so heavenly minded, what does he think of earthly taxes.
Jesus sensed the ruse, and, after inspecting the superscription on a priest’s coin, he answered, “Render therefore unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s.”
It’s a humorous response if you think about it. Jesus had an interesting way of talking circles around his intellectual opponents. But what does the comment mean in regards to taxes? We could easily interpret this sly remark as a sarcastic slight against tariffs and the inherent societal restraints of governing bodies, seeing as how the quip was used by Christ’s accusers to prove that he was some sort of tax-dodging criminal. Yet, a more comprehensible explanation can be gleaned from the teachings of Jesus himself.
If you consider the body of Christ’s testimony as a whole, it becomes apparent that he wasn’t censuring the practice of taxation; he was simply saying that there were more important things to worry about, like contributing to charity, communal reciprocation of wealth, pacifism, and taking up one’s cross.
One enlightening passage from Matthew has Jesus saying this:
“And if any man will sue thee at law, and take away thy coat, let him have thy cloak also. And whosoever shall compel thee to go a mile, go with him twain. Give to him that asketh thee, and from him that would borrow of thee turn not thou away.”
That seems pretty self-explanatory to me, but I think one mistake often made about Christ’s relationship with tax collectors is that it was one of revilement and hatred, something that can be used as a rebuttal to all of Christ’s otherwise precise and didactic social commentary. The partisan American Spectator journalist George Neumayr made this selfsame mistake in an attack on the leftist “What Would Jesus Cut” movement, quoting a verse in which Jesus says that a man who is unrepentant should first be referred to the church, and, if he cannot reconcile with the church, he is to be treated as a “heathen man and a publican.”
Neumayr seems to think this passage implicates that Jesus
himself disparaged tax collectors, but I don’t think it would be any different
from me saying, “George Neumayr attempted to deflate Lawrence O’Donnell’s
vitriolic statements like a raft carrying illegal immigrants across the Gulf of
Mexico.” I don’t share the same spiteful immigration views of many right-wing
conservatives; I’m just using the immigrant reference as a simile George
Neumayr can comprehend.
In his criticism of “What Would Jesus Cut” Neumayr seems to conveniently omit one key piece of scripture: the story of Zacchaeus, the short tax collector who climbed a sycamore tree to see Jesus in a throng of followers. Jesus saw Zacchaeus and asked the publican to climb down so he could spend some time in the little man’s company. The others around Zacchaeus and Jesus were appalled that Christ would give a tax man an intimate forum. Sounds like Neumayr would be among those that felt betrayed by Christ.
It wasn’t the government, either, that ended up putting Christ on trial. It was the religious authorities of the day. Pilate himself found no problem with Jesus’ tax comments or his teachings, thus washing his hands of the prophet’s fate. It was the priests, the Pharisees, the Herodians that cried for Christ’s blood. I suppose that everyone has their own interpretation of who they think Christ is/was, and it seems that it's the most adamantly closed-minded of us all that are the most volatile. The religious group mind can be a precarious thing, one that should be watched closely even today.
Am I saying that Americans should just stand idly by and allow whatever may come? No. I personally am not bound by Christian principles to turn the other cheek, as it were. All I'm saying is that we need to be wary of what politicians say they are and what they actually are. We need to think for ourselves and make intelligent assessments based on our individual moral compasses. We need to also hold our "representatives" (I have to use that word lightly these days) accountable for not practicing what they preach. If a Christian political leader's understanding of Biblical precepts begins with homophobia and terminates at investing in gold and stockpiling canned goods for the coming apocalypse, chances are that person spent more time reading Revelation than reading the gospel of Christ. Christians who recognize that leader's backward ideologies need to step up and let America know that that person doesn't speak for you.
As for the point of modern taxes and tax cuts, I'll be covering that soon in the next installment of this narrative.
Join me next time as I take a closer look at hypocrisy and Tea Party politicians Rick Perry, Michele Bachman, Rand Paul, and Herman Cain in "To Whom Much Is Given, Much Is Acquired."
Theology and Taxes, Part Two: The Tea Party's Real Agenda
Theology and Taxes, Part One: How Republicans Got It Wrong