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Obama’s WWJD Moment: Would Jesus Tax the Rich?

President Barack Obama spoke at this year’s National Prayer Breakfast in Washington D.C., this week and our Commander-in-Chief had some interesting things to say about what exactly a Judeo-Christian, biblical worldview of economics looks like. From Jake Tapper at ABC News:
At the annual prayer breakfast this morning, President Obama suggested that his proposed tax increases on the wealthy are in accordance with the teachings of Jesus Christ. [Obama:] “In a time when many folks are struggling and at a time when we have enormous deficits, it’s hard for me to ask seniors on a fixed income or young people with student loans or middle-class families who can barely pay the bills to shoulder the burden alone,” he said. “And 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 thinks that’s going to make economic sense.” The president continued: “But for me as a Christian, it also coincides with Jesus’ teaching that, from to whom much is given, much shall be required.”
And from Zeke Miller’s reporting at BuzzFeed.com:
And so when I talk about our financial institutions playing by the same rules as folks on Main Street, when I talk about making sure insurance companies aren’t discriminating against those who are already sick, or making sure that unscrupulous lenders aren’t taking advantage of the most vulnerable among us, I do so because I genuinely believe it will make the economy stronger for everybody. But I also do it because I know that far too many neighbors in our country have been hurt and treated unfairly over the last few years, and I believe in God’s command to ‘love thy neighbor as thyself.'”
Let me start my brief analysis by focusing it: I’m interested in the theologically charged rhetoric offered up by the 44th president. Some of what I say will bleed over into political ideology and policy-making, but only because I’m trying to keep up with President Obama who chose to move seamlessly between the two worlds—faith and politics—that religious conservatives are incessantly attacked for allegedly (and wrongly) mixing together. Let me also clearly state that much of what the president said sounds good—on the surface. No one is against fairness. No one wants people to get away with cheating the system. Although all politicians tend to employ platitude-rich rhetoric, few do it better than Barack Obama. If we simply took the man at his spoken word, he would be popular enough to become, well, president. But there has to be a deeper inquiry on the part of any religiously minded citizen who values his life, liberty and ability to pursue his own “happiness” than simply nodding along with the nation’s Chief Executive as he spouts Bible verses many of us learned in 3rd grade Sunday School. When it comes to trying to apply the teachings of Christ to socioeconomic issues afflicting a fallen world, typically, the devil is entirely in the details. And with that, let’s take a look at what the president actually said. In defending his plan to raise taxes on the “rich”—a plan that will have no meaningful impact on paying down our debt or reducing our deficits, and comes after three years of leadership that included no serious cuts to federal spending—President Obama claims that asking wealthier Americans to pay more is really just an appeal to the Christian concept “To whom much is given, much is required” found in New Testament texts such as Luke 12:48 and Matthew 25:29. Most of the verses that sound like the president’s reference have nothing to do with charity and speak to the need a true believer has to be utterly dependent and subservient to the Spirit and Word of God. Matthew 25:29, which reads, “For to everyone who has will more be given, and he will have an abundance,” is a call to Christians to use their God-given abilities and advantages wisely and productively. This is seen as a non-negotiable aspect of being a disciple of Christ. The reward for such behavior is additional opportunities to serve God “faithfully and fruitfully,” as one commentator puts it. And here is where “faith and politics” smash right up against one another. As I said before, nearly every American is on-board with the notion that people should pay their taxes. We all (correctly) praise those who give their time and money to those in need. We’re all for helping and fairness and puppy dogs. The problem, simply put, is this: If another self-proclaimed Christian is using scripture and doctrine to promote things that I know to be detrimental to an economy and society, I can’t support that Christian merely because he brings up “Christian stuff” in convoluted ways. I can pray for that Christian. I can be cordial and kind. If that Christian is willing, I can use the Matthew 18 model of coming to that “brother” in hopes of admonishing and correcting him. But if he persists, if entire swaths of our society persist, then I am duty-bound to oppose the ill-fated plans. Regardless of intentions—something only God can assess anyway—I must apply the advantages I’ve been gifted. In this instance, President Obama unfortunately learned at the feet of people who believe in economic policies that can’t work. Capitalism has its potential flaws: about 6 or 7 billion of them, last time I checked. Collectivism and the massive redistribution of wealth through a planned economy run by bureaucrats is a flaw itself. It is the manifestation of quasi-religious yearning for the establishment of “heaven on earth” brought about by just the right levels of education and legislation. It can’t help but fail, no matter how many verses one tacks on the end of a talking point in support of it. The second specific piece of scripture the president invoked can be found in Mark 12:30-31:
“Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’ The second is this: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no commandment greater than these”
What does true, meaningful love look like in scripture? What does responsible love look like in our daily lives? What does it mean to love someone like I love myself? C.S. Lewis offers this take on the verse President Obama mentioned in Mere Christianity:
“You are told to love your neighbor as yourself. How do you love yourself? When I look into my own mind, I find that I do not love myself by thinking myself a dear old chap or having affectionate feelings. I do not think that I love myself because I am particularly good, but just because I am myself and quite apart from my character. I might detest something which I have done. Nevertheless, I do not cease to love myself. In other words, that definite distinction that Christians make between hating sin and loving the sinner is one that you have been making in your own case since you were born. You dislike what you have done, but you don’t cease to love yourself. You may even think that you ought to be hanged. You may even think that you ought to go to the Police and own up and be hanged. Love is not affectionate feeling, but a steady wish for the loved person’s ultimate good as far as it can be obtained.”
Love does not equate with forced redistribution of wealth. No matter how many times you say it, no matter how badly you want it to be true, love is personal and difficult in a way that writing a bigger check come April 15th can never (and in my opinion, should never) be. The parent who loves their child does not coddle them; they set standards and then leave room for grace and forgiveness. The coach who actually wants to see his players grow and mature as individuals and as team does not punish the more talented ones for being better; he encourages the better players to lead by example and encourages the lagging players to follow their model. Or let’s get even more specific: If a parent is engaging in behavior that is hurting the development of the child—like, oh, I don’t know, say spending their family’s inheritance, all while demanding other relatives pick up the tab because “my kids need your help, and you don’t want to neglect needy kids, right?”—who would say that the responsible, “loving” thing to do is to keep giving more and more money to that parent? Just because compassion for the poor often involves the transfer of funds doesn’t mean that any transfer of funds is compassionate. Or as G.K. Chesterton once put it, “If a man shot his grandma from 500 yards I might call him a ‘good shot’ but never a ‘good man.’” The meaning of words, the implications that ride shotgun alongside them, matter more than the letters written or syllables spoken. You can recite scripture to me, but if your conclusions and applications are fundamentally flawed, don’t ask me to swing from the chandeliers with excitement because you referenced a book I love. At the prayer breakfast this week the president engaged in shoddy exegesis, grounded in a profoundly flawed “understanding” of economics. Hurray?