On Monday, June 25th, a well known figure from the Christian Right, Pastor Rick Warren, tweeted about the debt and the budget. Writing from his personal account, Warren stated “HALF of America pays NO taxes. Zero. So they’re happy for tax rates to be raised on the other half that DOES pay taxes.”
With this tweet, Pastor Warren displays a stunning misconception about taxation in America and echos themes prevalent in the political right that differ sharply from those espoused in the Bible.
Factually, Pastor Warren’s tweet is manifestly wrong about taxation in America. While it is true that almost half of America does not pay federal income taxes, these individuals contribute to the government’s coffers in other ways. For example, those that are employed — the vast majority — contribute payroll deductions and withholdings. Many also pay state and local wage or income taxes, property taxes, and sales taxes. So it is simply dishonest to say that half the country pays "zero" taxes.
More broadly though, Pastor Warren ignores a salient question that ought to be of major concern to the Church in America today. Namely, what does it say about our society when nearly half of all American’s do not earn enough to pay federal income tax? Shouldn’t this fact spark a discussion about social justice and income inequality in America today? About why so many of us are just getting by, living paycheck to paycheck? About why so many American’s don’t earn enough to feed, clothe, and house their families? About why so many of us cannot afford health insurance? And about the proper role of government, if any, in addressing these concerns?
Sadly, the factually-challenged ideology that Pastor Warren echoes here is also one that begrudges government spending that benefits the poor, the elderly, and other vulnerable populations in our society. Lurking behind this worldview is a tendency to see the poor as somehow responsible for their misfortunes, as shirkers, as lazy, as leeches. They are an impediment to producers, to winners: winners like Pastor Warren. And clearly, the government should not be asking the wealthy to shoulder any more of the burden today! We might call this the “you’ll not get me gold!” mentality.
Of course, the worldview exemplified by Pastor Warren’s tweet bears little resemblance to the preaching of Jesus Christ as reflected in the New Testament. It is instead the product of a skewed theology emphasizing personal righteousness at the expense of the common good and concerns about justice. This is problematic, because justice is the beating heart of Christianity. Without it, the focus on personal righteousness quickly becomes conceit — a conceit that we are somehow special, or set apart in God’s eyes. A conceit that, in some way, we are better then our less fortunate brothers and sisters. A conceit that our own financial, professional, or economic success is attributable to God’s favor. The result of all this, from a public policy standpoint, is an emphasis on selfishness and a lack of concern for government’s roll in advancing the common good.
Sadly, in America today, we have erected two false idols before which far too many fall prostrate in worship. One idol is named “The Market;” the other idol is named “The Self.” Pastor Warren appears to be enthralled with both.
As the late Pope John Paul II taught, "[t]here are needs and common goods that cannot be satisfied by the market system. It is the task of the state and of all society to defend them. An idolatry of the market alone cannot do all that should be done." Providing a social safety net, and programs that benefit the poor and most vulnerable members of our society is one way in which the state “defends” and advances the common good. As the United States Council of Catholic Bishop’s noted in its pastoral letter Economic Justice for All in 1986: "The needs of the poor take priority over the desires of the rich; the rights of workers over the maximization of profits; the preservation of the environment over uncontrolled industrial expansion.” Christians should not begrudge programs or policies that attempt to effectuate this mandate, nor view them as burdens — instead, they ought to embrace them.
Pastor Warren is wrong to see the poor as pitted against the wealthy, or to frame a discussion of taxes in such a misleading manner. Instead, this is an opportunity for Christians to remind everyone that poverty does damage to the entire community- to all of us. We are all diminished when injustice prevails or when the poor are stigmatized, abandoned, or ignored.
In the end, government has critical moral and ethical functions — these are public matters, and not merely the province of markets or private action. And with so many families across our nation hurting, and crying out in desperation, the last thing any wealthy Christian should do is bemoan the fact that they may have to bear some share of the burden.
Michael Stafford is a 2003 graduate of Duke University School of Law, a former Republican Party officer from Delaware, and the founder of the Coffee Party 2.0 pilot project, Republicans for Responsible Reform. His writing has been featured on national and local blogs such as FrumForum, The Cagle Post, and TommyWonk. He is the author of An Upward Calling: Politics for the Common Good published by AVT Books.