Nearly 1 in 5 Americans is now officially classified as poor. This fact naturally raises a question: Where are the religious leaders whose scriptures tell them that caring for their 60 million impoverished neighbors is their central moral duty?
I posed this question at a tax conference in New York City this week to one of the leaders in the small Christian movement focused on the role taxes play in creating inequality. She shrugged.
“The church always leads from behind,” she said.
But this may be beginning to change. The awful realities of worsening poverty in America amid overwhelming abundance at the top are becoming harder to ignore, especially those tasked with following Jesus’ teachings.
For Catholics, poverty, inequality and government policies that take from the many to benefit the rich are under discussion because of Pope Francis, who last July said, “Poverty is at the center of the gospel.”
Asked by a British journalist whether he was preaching communism, the pope said that centuries before Marx, communal sharing was the Christian standard and that today, “the communists have stolen the flag. The flag of the poor is Christian.”
Now, after years of study and debate, the ninth-largest Protestant denomination, the Presbyterian Church USA, has come out with a detailed report that ties the religious duty of believers and government tax policy. (The report is free to download. Disclosure: I was among a dozen people who spoke about poverty and taxes before a 2013 ecumenical panel sponsored by the Presbyterian Church USA.)
Calling taxation “a fundamental part of a moral society’s answer to poverty and its close relatives — inequality, economic insecurity and social immobility,” the report says the church’s 2.7 million members should work to devise a just tax system.
“Just taxation is also a key tool for enabling communities to thrive, for advancing science and culture and for sustaining democratic institutions,” reads the report, adopted by the church’s General Assembly, adding that “each citizen has an affirmative duty to contribute to the common good by paying their fair share of taxes.”
The report goes on to say, “There is a growing consensus within our community that tax revenues are collected in a manner that harms those who have the least [and] the amount realized is insufficient to meet this country’s pressing social needs.”
To many major American religious organizations, poverty is a personal matter, not one requiring involvement with government policy. The largest protestant denomination, the 16-million-member Southern Baptist Convention, for example, issued a brief statement on poverty 28 years ago and various other statements over the years. A glossy 2013 brochure makes just one mention of poverty and the $1.1 million in food that Southern Baptists donated annually to poor Americans.
The Presbyterian report counters this, citing Romans 13, in which the Apostle Paul says government authority must be obeyed “for the sake of conscience” and that paying taxes is a moral duty: “Pay to all what is due them — taxes to whom taxes are due, revenue to whom revenue is due.”
This idea that in a representative democracy — a system in which we ultimately are the government — we have the obligation to levy taxes and spend to alleviate social problems is unlikely to go over well with libertarian-leaning politicians such as Rep. Paul Ryan, a Roman Catholic.
It’s also likely to alienate those who buy into the modern American prosperity gospel, which is going global. Proponents of the view that God wants you to get rich get it about half right, the theologian Harvey Cox told me last year after I spoke to his Harvard Divinity School class.
All classic religious texts speak favorably about abundance. “God wants you to prosper,” Cox said. The problem, according to him, is that too often the other side of the story — the core obligation to help the poor as well as avoiding vanity and oppression — is diminished or ignored.
James 2:2–7 is especially instructive on this in discussing the evil of favoring worshippers in fine clothes while discriminating against those in old rags. Then there is Mark 10:21–22, in which Jesus instructs the rich to sell everything and give the proceeds to the poor. The New Testament also warns that putting wealth first leads to death and damnation.
One need not be a believer to recognize that inequality is a threat to society. The Founding Fathers, many of whom were nonbelievers or at most deists, warned that extreme inequality would doom our democracy and cost us our freedoms.
President John Adams wrote, “The rich and the proud … will destroy all the equality and liberty, with the consent and acclamations of the people themselves.” President James Madison, the Constitution’s main author, described extreme inequality as evil, saying government should prevent “an immoderate, and especially unmerited, accumulation of riches.” Even Alexander Hamilton warned that the rich would abuse their power if unchecked by government rules.
But government rules today favor the wealthy at the expense of everyone else. So who can organize people to push for changes in government policy that will reduce poverty and extreme inequality?
The University of Chicago Divinity School’s Myriam Renaud provided an answer recently:
The only remaining, major, organized institutions in the U.S. with enough scope and moral authority to launch efforts to reverse this country’s growing income and wealth inequality are the religions. Other institutions have waned; today’s labor unions represent only 7 percent of private sector employees. Delays matter: As income inequality increases, more children are going to bed hungry.
Renaud notes that while acts of charity and advocacy for the poor are admirable, they fail to deal with the underlying causes of our worsening inequality, which, as I have been showing for two decades, are rooted in government policy. Thanks to lax rules about lobbying and campaign fundraising, the rich have an outsize influence, which can be checked only by a large, organized countermovement.
“Will churches, synagogues, temples and mosques build alliances and launch focused campaigns to level the playing field by ending the influence of money in politics?” Renaud asked. “To accomplish this, the religions’ middle-class and working-class members as well as supporters from the privileged class will have to join together to push forward an agenda to make it difficult, if not illegal, for lobbyists to give gifts or make large campaign contributions to legislators and to ban legislators from accepting such gifts and contributions.”