Those who have been paying attention to the president since last summer have noted a renewed emphasis on the need for the rich to pay their “fair share” to lift the economy out of its doldrums and begin closing our trillion-dollar budget deficits. In December, at an address in Kansas, Barack Obama stated: “Today, thanks to loopholes and shelters, a quarter of all millionaires now pay lower tax rates than millions of you, millions of middle-class families. Some billionaires have a tax rate as low as 1 percent. One percent.”
“That is the height of unfairness,” the president continued. “It is wrong. It's wrong that in the United States of America, a teacher or a nurse or a construction worker, maybe earns $50,000 a year, should pay a higher tax rate than somebody raking in $50 million. It's wrong for Warren Buffett's secretary to pay a higher tax rate than Warren Buffett. And by the way, Warren Buffett agrees with me. So do most Americans – Democrats, independents and Republicans.”
Also agreeing, apparently, is Jesus himself. So said President Obama at the most recent National Prayer Breakfast at the Washington Hilton.
“I think to myself, if I’m willing to give something up as somebody who’s been extraordinarily blessed, and give up some of the tax breaks that I enjoy, I actually think that’s going to make economic sense,” the president said. “But for me as a Christian, it also coincides with Jesus’s teaching that ‘for unto whom much is given, much shall be required.’”
Before we look at the two criteria by which the president says we may judge his plan to raise taxes on the rich — economics and scriptural hermeneutics — first, a word about his decision to advance a political agenda at the annual prayer breakfast. For all the wild talk about President George W. Bush supposedly wrongly combining his Christian faith with his politics, Mr. Obama’s predecessor never used his faith to advance a partisan agenda.
For example, at the prayer breakfast in 2007, Bush stated, “Many in our country know the power of prayer. Prayer changes hearts. Prayer changes lives. And prayer makes us a more compassionate and giving people. When we pray we surrender our will to the Almighty, and open ourselves up to His priorities and His touch. His call to love our neighbors as we would like to be loved ourselves is something that we hear when we pray. And we answer that call by reaching out to feed the hungry and clothe the poor and aid the widow and the orphan. By helping our brothers and sisters in need, we find our own faith strengthened, and we receive the grace to lead lives of dignity and purpose.”
Note here that Mr. Bush, while referring to a biblical principle — love your neighbor as yourself — follows it with a nonpartisan call to help those in need. By contrast, Mr. Obama links a scriptural teaching — for unto whom much is given, much shall be required — with a specific political prescription: Raise taxes on the rich so that the government can redistribute the money. The president, in so doing, has elevated his political goal to the level of settled ecclesiastical doctrine.
Yet raising taxes on the wealthy in the name of “shared responsibility,” as the president did at the prayer breakfast, doesn’t take into account the simple fact that those who have earned much are already required to pay much more than anyone else. According to the Heritage Foundation, “The top 1 percent of income earners paid 38 percent of all federal income taxes in 2008, while the bottom 50 percent paid only 3 percent. Forty-nine percent of U.S. households paid no federal income tax at all.”
Simple math belies Mr. Obama’s implication that raising taxes on the top 1 percent (1.4 million earners making $343,927 or more) will fix America’s economic problems. The truth is, if Uncle Sam confiscated all of this group’s income, the windfall would barely close this year’s $1.1 trillion budget deficit.
And of course Mr. Obama’s formulation assumes that the only way “those who have been given much” can help the rest of us is by paying higher federal taxes. He thus completely ignores job creation and charitable giving, two areas where the wealthy are absolutely vital for the nation’s success. Apparently these count for little in the Church of Obama.
Indeed, the president has made clear during his term that he doesn’t much care for charitable giving by rich people. Over the vociferous protests of the nonprofit community, several times he has proposed limiting the tax deductibility of their philanthropic acts, including last fall as part of his proposed jobs bill. It almost seems as if Mr. Obama is saying to the wealthy, “Render unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s, and don’t bother with rendering unto God that which is God’s, because it all belongs to Caesar anyway.”
Regarding the president’s use of Jesus’ words “for unto whom much is given, much shall be required” as a rubber stamp for higher taxes on the rich, it is worth noting that they come in the midst of the Lord’s teaching in Luke 12 about his disciples being prepared for the Second Coming. The immediate context seems to see the “much” that some have received not as money, but as knowledge of the Master’s will. In other words, we will be judged based on what we know, not on what we have.
As Jesus said, “that servant who knew his master's will but did not get ready or act according to his will, will receive a severe beating.” Doesn’t this explain Jesus’ application, “Everyone to whom much was given, of him much will be required, and from him to whom they entrusted much, they will demand the more,” so much better?
All Christians, of course, will agree with Mr. Obama that we have an awesome, God-given responsibility to help our neighbors. But narrowing that responsibility down to a partisan political agenda — however well-intended — is not only bad politics. It’s bad theology.
Stan Guthrie, a Christianity Today editor at large, is author of All That Jesus Asks: How His Questions Can Teach and Transform Us and coauthor of The Sacrament of Evangelism. Stan blogs at http://stanguthrie.com/blog.
Publication date: February 4, 2012