|St. Louis Cathedral in New Orleans - DBE, 2009|
by Michael Stafford
July 28, 2011
On June 25 a well-known political figure, Pastor Rick Warren, tweeted and subsequently deleted, the following words: "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 echoes themes prevalent in the political right that differ sharply from those espoused in the Bible.
Factually, 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 pay state and local wage or income taxes, property and sales taxes. So it is dishonest to say that half the country pays "zero" taxes.
More broadly though, 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 spark a discussion about social justice and income inequality in America? 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? And about the proper role of government, if any, in addressing these concerns?
Sadly, the factually challenged ideology that Pastor Warren echoes 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 and winners like Warren. And clearly, the government should not be asking the wealthy to shoulder any more of the burden today!
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 we are better then our less fortunate brothers and sisters. A conceit that our own 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 role in advancing the common good.
Sadly, we have erected two false idols. One idol is named "The Market;" the other idol is named "The Self." 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 U.S. 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; 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 American families hurting, the last thing any wealthy Christians should do is bemoan that they may have to bear some share of the burden.
Michael Stafford is a former Republican Party official and author of "An Upward Calling." Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.