April 15, Tax Day, fell on a Sunday this year. American taxpayers get a two-day reprieve on the deadline this year thanks to Monday being a public holiday in the District of Columbia. But all the same, it was the perfect occasion for the Washington Post's On Faith feature to give readers a liberal homily on taxes.
Liberal theologian Susan Brooks Thistlethwaite had the honors. "There’s nothing more hypocritical today than the kind of political gamesmanship we have about paying taxes," the former Chicago Theological Seminary president groused, explaining:
Jesus’ famous line on paying taxes is “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” (Mark 12:17) What is less well remembered is the reason Jesus called out both the political and the religious leaders who asked him about whether you should pay your taxes: Jesus “knew their hypocrisy.” (Mark 12:15)
There’s nothing more hypocritical today than the kind of political gamesmanship we have about paying taxes. The most vivid example of this is, as Erza [sic] Klein so rightly says, the “dumb tax pledges that dominate Washington.” These dumb tax pledges, especially “Grover Norquist’s now-infamous pledge” that Republicans have taken never to raise taxes on anyone for any reason, effectively ended our capacity to have government function properly. Of course, now, as Klein points out, Democrats are being forced into tax pledges of their own, exempting those who earn less than $250,000 per year from having their taxes raised. Dumb and hypocritical.
But that's a debate not about paying taxes but about how much folks should pay and what constitutes sensible tax policy. Brooks Thistlethwaite, a senior fellow at the liberal Center for American Progress, anticipated that objection by taking a quote by a conservative activist out of context to paint him as an anarchist who doesn't believe in government, period:
[T]he attack on taxes from the political right is an attack on government and its right to even exist. Norquist has said, “I don’t want to abolish government. I simply want to reduce it to the size where I can drag it into the bathroom and drown it in the bathtub,” thus, of course, abolishing it.
In the next paragraph, Brooks Thistlethwaite then sought to defend not merely the existence of government but to define its existence as one steeped in liberal social welfare provision:
Government needs to exist and in fact be celebrated. It’s U.S., all of us, and the way we take care of each other. We have a moral responsibility to our fellow citizens, both from a civil and a moral perspective. We are one people. The problem is that some of us, in fact, many of us in this difficult economy are struggling, and we need to help those folks out. Government does that.
But as an ordained Christian minister and theologian, surely Brooks Thistlethwaite understands that the biblical conception of government is not centered on social welfare but on the execution of temporal justice. Here's how the Apostle Paul talked about how Christians in Rome should think about obeying civil authority and paying taxes (emphasis mine):
Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment. For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Would you have no fear of the one who is in authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive his approval, for he is God's servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain. For he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God's wrath on the wrongdoer. Therefore one must be in subjection, not only to avoid God's wrath but also for the sake of conscience. For because of this you also pay taxes, for the authorities are ministers of God, attending to this very thing. Pay to all what is owed to them: taxes to whom taxes are owed, revenue to whom revenue is owed, respect to whom respect is owed, honor to whom honor is owed. (Romans 13:1-7 ESV)
Likewise, the Apostle Peter had similar counsel for Christians (emphasis mine):
Be subject for the Lord's sake to every human institution, whether it be to the emperor as supreme, or to governors as sent by him to punish those who do evil and to praise those who do good. For this is the will of God, that by doing good you should put to silence the ignorance of foolish people. Live as people who are free, not using your freedom as a cover-up for evil, but living as servants of God. Honor everyone. Love the brotherhood. Fear God. Honor the emperor. (1 Peter 2:13-17 ESV)
Notably absent from these passages is how we should pay taxes because we have "a moral responsibility" to finance the government which "help[s] those folks out" who need financial aid in tough economic times. Obedience to the state is done out of obedience to God, but the paying of taxes and revenues is chiefly if not exclusively to finance the state's execution of temporal justice ("he does not bear the sword in vain"... "to punish those who do evil...").
Brooks Thistlethwaite seems to anticipate this when she writes that:
The “small government” or even “no government” folks want to say that the churches should pick up the slack on taking care of the poor instead of us paying taxes for a social safety net. Rev. Joel Hunter, a prominent evangelical pastor, has recently noted how unrealistic that view really is in a recent talk with the title, “Government is Not the Enemy.” Hunter’s church does a huge amount of humanitarian work, but, he says, they can’t do it all without the government
“Look at the math. It is ridiculous to even, just look at the SNAP – Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, the old Food Stamps program – it has been estimated by I think the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities that the average church in America would literally have to double its budget and just take that extra budget and give to hungry people. And that is just one government program. So let’s not fool ourselves.”
She failed to mention that Hunter served as an advisor on President Obama's Council on Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships and his official bio describes him as "a spiritual advisor to the President."
Now, obviously, Christians can and will disagree to what extent government should involve itself in social welfare. But Brooks Thistlethwaite seems to be conflating what is primarily the province of churches and charity with the mission of government and then saying that conservative reticence to pay more and more taxes is "hypocrisy" and disdain for helping the poor rather than a legitimate public policy disagreement.
"What is hypocrisy but 'fooling yourself'?" Brooks Thistlethwaite asks in her April 15 item.
Amen, Susan. I think we all see your hypocrisy now.