NATCHITOCHES, La., February 3, 2012—President Obama, at the National Prayer Breakfast on Thursday, answered the question, “What would Jesus do?”
Obama’s answer was, unsurprisingly, “raise taxes on the rich.” That answer is unsurprising, of course, because Jesus would do exactly what Barack Obama would do if only Jesus were as informed and wise as Barack.
Obama quoted Jesus in Luke 12: 48, where he said, “For unto whom much is given, much shall be required.” He went on to say, “And I believe in God’s command to ‘love thy neighbor as thyself.’”
Obama might have been rebuking his vice president, Joe Biden, who averaged $369 per year over the last decade in charitable contributions, about 0.2% of his income. But Obama wasn’t channeling Jesus the teacher of personal responsibility for the poor, but rather Jesus the political operative. Thus this wasn’t viewed as a rebuke of his tight-fisted vice president, but of the generous Mitt Romney, whose already unfortunate wording of comments about helping Americans was further mangled out of context to suggest that he doesn’t care about the poor.
In fact, charitable giving by the Romneys averaged over 16% per year in 2010 and 2011, totalling about $7 million. In 2011, the Romneys paid out 42% of their income in taxes and charitable giving (from their tax return: Total tax (line 60) + foreign taxes (line 47) + state taxes and real-estate taxes + other taxes (Schedule A, line 9) + charitable contributions (Schedule A, line 19) divided by Adjusted Gross Income (1040 line 37)). Whatever his comments this week, Romney clearly doesn’t begrudge others a share of his wealth, and a very large share. Last year half of that total was given freely, not taken in taxes.
Taxes aren’t charity. They aren’t even a decent approximation of charity. Had Obama really wanted to talk about love of neighbor and charity, he might have chosen 1 Corinthians rather than Luke. “Charity suffereth long, and is kind; charity envieth not; charity vaunteth not itself, is not puffed up.” Or, as Romney might say, “Charity is the pure love of Christ.” If Robin Hood robs me at the point of a gun and gives my money to the poor, I’ve done no charity, nor has Robin. Compulsion and fear aren’t the basis of charitable giving, but rather of the U.S. tax code.
Taxes are necessary, and as a society we have a collective obligation to the poor. The Preamble to the Constitution reads in some ways like an insurance contract: “We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.” But nowhere do the framers make the laughable claim that this is “charity,” and even less that Jesus would commit charity from the end of a gun.
Conservatives have been misappropriating Jesus for their own political ends for decades, and it’s not surprising that liberals can do it too. A misappropriation this is, though. The Bible isn’t about marginal tax rates, and Jesus displayed no interest in the subject aside from his clever dodge from a Pharisaical trap, “render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s.” He ministered to tax collectors and prostitutes alike, not because they were doing God’s work, but because they needed it.
We should pay our taxes. They’re our duty to the state, the payment required to support a civil society. We should also give generously to the poor. That’s our duty to God and an expression of love to our fellow men and women. The rich give on average less than the poor, a bit over two percent of their incomes against the national average of over four percent. We shouldn’t confuse our taxes and our charity. We might as well confuse Caesar and God, or Barack Obama and Jesus.
What would Jesus do? Jesus would never run for president. He wouldn’t take exotic vacations while millions looked for work. He wouldn’t be a minion of the IRS, he wouldn’t wear a Rolex, and he wouldn’t mistake taxes for love. What would he do? He’d lead by example. One thing is certain, then: We needn’t worry that by rejecting the pieties of President Obama that we’re rejecting Jesus.
James Picht is the Senior Editor for Communities Politics and teaches economics at the Louisiana Scholars’ College in Natchitoches, La., where he went to take a break from working in Moscow and Washington. But he fell in love with the town and with the professor of Romance languages, so there he stayed. Now he teaches, annoys his children, and makes jalapeno lemonade. He doesn’t believe the Bible is an economics text. He tweets, hangs out on Facebook, and has a blog he totally neglects at pichtblog.blogspot.com.
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