Roxie: God, that was beautiful.
Billy: Cut out God. Stay where you’re better acquainted.
—Roxie Hart and Billy Flynn in Chicago
Full disclosure: I am not a theologian. Truth be told, I’m not even a very good Catholic.
But I think I got this one.
Last week at the National Prayer Breakfast, President Obama invoked the Bible to support his recent calls for raising taxes on the wealthy in order to continue funding entitlement programs:
“For me as a Christian, it also coincides with Jesus' teaching that, for unto whom much is given, much shall be required . . . It's also about the biblical call to care for the least of these, for the poor, for those at the margins of our society . . . To answer the responsibility we're given in Proverbs to speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves, for the rights of all who are destitute.”
One wonders where the hue and cry is from the ACLU and the atheist zealots who sue kindergarteners for putting a Nativity scene on a school grounds at Christmas. After all, if what we’re going to do is base our tax policy on what the President believes are his instructions in the Bible, doesn’t that convert the government into a quasi-religious institution, and make taxes essentially a forced tithe?
How DARE the government intrude on the First Amendment’s freedom of religion clause! Why, next thing we know they're going to be making Catholic hospitals give out contraceptives!
Oh, yeah. Oops.
I hear it a lot: folks on the Left appealing to common Christian catch-phrases or to their own selective quotation/interpretation of the Bible in order to justify Big Government programs, as though they are somehow beating me down with the ultimate trump card. After all, if I’m a Christian conservative—not to leave out conservatives of other faiths, it’s just that this particular phenomenon appears to be reserved for Christians—how can I possibly object to an initiative that comes straight out of the Bible? I believe I am my brother’s keeper.
Yeah? Well keep him, then.
The problem when folks like Obama wax biblical in a transparent attempt to "demonstrate their faith"—note the opportunistic Obama only does this at occasions like the National Prayer Breakfast—they rarely take the text as a whole, and they frequently get it wrong. Take the President’s invocation of Jesus’ teaching about the burden upon those who have been blessed. He has lifted the reference to Luke 12:48 out of context, and ignored the distinction between the service we owe to God, and the service we owe to the government (see Catechism of the Catholic Church, § 2242). This distinction is itself biblical, as illustrated in, for example, Matthew 22:21, in which Jesus tells the Pharisees to “[g]ive to Caesar what is Caesar, and to God what is God’s.” Or Acts 5:29, where St. Peter and the Apostles answer charges from the Sanhedrin, “We must obey God rather than men.”
In discussing the expectations placed upon the blessed, Jesus wasn’t talking about a mandatory obligation to be extracted by the government. If we back up and start reading the lead-in at Luke 12:35, we see He was talking about the unknown time of His return, and the kind of self-sacrifice necessary to enter into the Kingdom of Heaven. This becomes more clear when you read Jesus’ teaching together with His instruction to the rich young man (Matthew 19:16-30; Mark 10:17-24; Luke 18:18-24) to give away everything he has and follow Him. That is what is expected, and that is why He told the Apostles it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than it is for a rich man to enter into the Kingdom of Heaven (Matthew 19:24; Luke 18:25). But in his zeal to give his tax policy the superficial air of a biblical grounding, Obama missed that.
The Left also confuses their personal conviction with the ability and propriety of forcing someone else to act on that conviction. They will claim they are their brother’s keeper, but they do so to justify a policy whereby it’s not them keeping their brother, but them forcing someone else to do it. The problem with trying to ground this sort of thinking in the Bible as though it’s derived from God’s directives is that what God asks of us is voluntary. God does not want us to love Him and follow His commandments because He makes us do it—He could have made us perfect sin-free followers had He so desired. He wants us to do it because we choose to do so. Abraham did not have to slay Isaac (yes, I know he ultimately doesn't, but God allows him to go all the way to the last second, and he does so voluntarily). Jesus did not have to die on the cross.
God gave us free will, and when we look at charitable contributions in a biblical context, it is the willingness to give that is the touchstone, not forcibly taking more from those who have more. In Matthew 10:8, Jesus instructs the Apostles, “Freely you have received, freely give.” In 2 Corinthians 8:12, St. Paul urged the Church at Corinth to be eager and willing givers:
“Last year you were the first not only to give but also to have the desire to do so. Now finish the work, so that your eager willingness to do it may be matched by your completion of it, according to your means. For if the willingness is there, the gift is acceptable according to what one has[.]”
President Obama is correct that Jesus taught that much will be expected of those to whom much has been given, but that expectation was of free and voluntary giving. He never spoke about forcibly extracting charity at the point of a Roman sword, yet that’s exactly what a tax policy aimed at increasing taxes on the wealthy in order to fund entitlement programs is.
If we’re going to have the Bible drive our tax policy, perhaps we should consider the entire document. For example, maybe we should be looking to, say, Mark 12:41-44:
"Jesus sat down opposite the place where the offerings were put and watched the crowd putting their money into the temple treasury. Many rich people threw in large amounts. But a poor widow came and put in two very small copper coins, worth only a fraction of a penny.
Calling his disciples to him, Jesus said, “I tell you the truth, this poor widow has put more into the treasury than all the others. They all gave out of their wealth; but she, out of her poverty, put in everything—all she had to live on.”
Combine that with Matthew 13:12:
“Whoever has will be given more, and he will have an abundance. Whoever does not have, even what he has will be taken from him.”
St. Mark tells us that although the rich were paying in much more than the poor—exactly our progressive tax system—rather than call for the rich to pay even more, Jesus is more interested in the poor widow contributing everything she had. St. Matthew recounts Jesus teaching that those who have more will get more, and those who have less will have it all taken away. Perhaps we should learn from this and adopt a purely regressive system where we tax the poor at 100%.
Obviously, that’s not what Jesus was getting at, but the absurdity of the extrapolation illustrates the danger in selectively lifting pieces of scripture out of context and using them to justify public policy. We can debate the relative economic merits of progressive taxation and entitlements. We can even debate whether they are the right thing to do.
But the President better leave God and the Bible out of it until he has a better handle on what he’s talking about.