Today marks the 50th anniversary of Lyndon B. Johnson’s 1964 State of the Union address, in which he declared his famous “War on Poverty.” Fifty years later, President Obama has effectively declared a similar war on income inequality, which he believes “is the defining challenge of our time.” Expect more LBJ-like language about inequality when Obama delivers his own State of the Union address later this month.
One might easily think that these issues are two sides of the same coin: with greater income inequality comes more poverty, and vice versa. But this is simply untrue. They are vastly different issues. For example, though income inequality has grown in America over the last two generations, the overall standard of living for all Americans has improved dramatically.
That said, while LBJ’s War on Poverty was a noble cause that has had very questionable effect, Obama’s war on income inequality—that, I expect, will be similarly prone to failure—is hardly noble. It is unwise, impractical and will be fundamentally damaging to our way of life.
Why? Because it makes income level and economic status the central identity of every American. Biblically, and as Americans, we know this has never been the case and it shouldn’t become so. A war on income inequality will create strife where there need not be any, and would only further disintegrate the society that it seeks to make equal.
[pullquote] Rather than spewing divisive pedagogy, let’s focus on loving our fellow brothers, sisters and countrymen.[/pullquote]
Our country’s founders were wary of inequality, but not in an economic sense. Article I, Section 9, Clause 8 of the Constitution states, “No Title of Nobility shall be granted by the United States.” It doesn’t say, “No man shall be rich in the United States.” That wasn’t the concern. All Americans, wealthy and not-so-wealthy, were equals (with, of course, the tragic exception of women and minorities). They held the same rights. They shared the same culture. They overwhelmingly shared the same values. In short, they were all Americans; and that was their defining characteristic, not economic status. To change this fact would be to change America, and move it in a blatantly European-socialist—or even more so, Marxist—direction.
From a faith perspective, this shift is even more disconcerting. Father Zossima, a fictional monk in Fyodor Dostoevsky’s “The Brothers Karamozov,” wisely states, “Equality is to be found only in the spiritual dignity of man… If we were brothers, there would be fraternity. But man will never agree about the division of wealth…” (emphasis added)
This statement gets at two truths. First, equal division of wealth is impossible. In this world, man will never attain perfect economic equality—partly because self-interest, greed and selfishness are stubborn realities of the human soul. Second, such a focus on wealth misses the true source of our equality: our common dignity as beings created and loved by God. Ultimately, nothing else matters. Any other part of our identity is secondary.
This is why the apostle Paul speaks about servants and masters in such an unorthodox way. He tells Philemon to treat the former slave Onesimus “as a fellow man and…brother in the Lord.” In several instances, Paul even refers to himself as “a slave of Christ Jesus.” Regardless of economic and worldly status, we are all equal—in both our dignity and our finiteness—under God. And as such, we ought to treat every human being with fraternity and love.
President Obama seems intent on waging a war against income inequality, but as a Christian, he should think twice about it. Apart from legitimate concern for people suffering from impoverishment, a crusade against economic inequality will be counter-productive, as it jealously pits groups against each other.
Certainly there are policies—and more importantly social changes—that can improve economic mobility and opportunity for all Americans. But rather than spewing divisive pedagogy about inequality, let’s focus on loving our fellow brothers, sisters and countrymen indiscriminately. Doing so might just lead to greater equality than before, and in ways that actually endure.