No topic is more avoided in pulpits than the moral good of taxation.
"I've never heard a sermon from the pulpit that's advocated for a good tax policy," said Tami Sober with the Virginia Education Association's Office of Teaching and Learning. (Photo: EthicsDaily.com)
Progressive preachers have a self-imposed ban on the topic. Mainstream ministers see it as a source of controversy, meaning it needs to be avoided. Fundamentalist reverends rant against taxes, exhibiting their demagogic skills and displaying their ignorance about all the public services for which tax dollars pay.
"During my lifetime I've never heard a sermon from the pulpit that's advocated for a good tax policy," said Tami Sober, who attended a Pentecostal church in her childhood before going to Baptist churches. She now belongs to a Presbyterian church.
"And I don't know why. I don't know if folks just fear that issue. We always talk about things you're not supposed to say are religion and politics, and so, pastors don't want to talk about it for fear of alienating somebody in the congregation. But when you just look at the teachings of the Bible, I think it just jumps out at you," she said.
An assistant director of the Virginia Education Association Office of Teaching and Learning, Sober said, "I've heard a lot of sermons on all the other topics – on gambling, on drinking, on homosexuality. And all those issues are out there. But I don't hear conversations about taxation in the church."
Sober's remarks paralleled other comments that EthicsDaily.com has gathered in a series of interviews about taxation.
"I think it would be uncommon to say that anyone has heard many sermons that are pro-tax," confessed Doug Smith, executive director of the Virginia Interfaith Center for Public Policy and an ordained minister with the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ).
"Quite frankly, if a pastor – and I'm not talking about a visiting pastor – but if a pastor really wants to shepherd and grow a congregation, they certainly don't lead with, 'We need to pay more taxes.' It takes a lot of theological and mental gymnastics around understanding how we need to care for the least of these among us to get to that point," said Smith in an April interview.
Smith said, "And quite frankly, most pastors never get there.... A lot of pastors aren't going to put themselves on the line for that. But I think they should."
Philip Blackwell, senior pastor of The Chicago Temple (First United Methodist Church), and Larry Greenfield, executive minister of American Baptist Churches of Metro Chicago, talked about taxation and the severe budget crisis in Illinois.
"It's a dereliction of duty not only of politicians, but preachers," said Greenfield. "That is, we've known that this was coming. We've been fighting this battle for over a decade. And basically, the religious community has been silent. Not completely. But it has been silent."
An Arkansas Baptist minister spoke candidly about the reluctance of faith leaders to speak about taxation from the perspective of the moral spirit of generosity.
"Let's just be honest, we have been very, very reluctant to challenge our congregants about the moral imperative to live as givers.... [W]e have a God, who is generous, and we have a universe that generously provides for us, and that is supposed to impel in us a spirit of generosity," said Wendell Griffen, pastor of New Millennium Church in Little Rock.
Griffen said, "Taxes should be appealing to our sense of generosity. But we somehow in the faith community have dropped the ball, and we let people characterize taxes as a taking when, from the faith perspective, it's really about giving."
The number of Baptist ethics professors who have written even occasionally about taxation from a moral framework is zilch.
Margaret Mitchell, the next dean of the University of Chicago Divinity School, told EthicsDaily.com in a discussion about taxes that it was an "understudied subject in theological education."
Why is that? Why is taxation as a moral issue understudied and a forbidden topic in churches?
Taxation is a connecting cord that runs through the Gospel According to Luke:
- The enrollment of Mary and Joseph was for the purposes of taxation.
- Tax collectors came to John the Baptist for baptism.
- Jesus said to a tax collector named Levi, "Follow me."
- In following Jesus, Levi had a banquet for Jesus attended by "a large company of tax collectors."
- Jesus was accused of associating with gluttons, winebibbers and tax collectors.
- Jesus told a story about the spiritual humility of a tax agent.
- Jesus led a chief tax collector into conversion – conversion that resulted in acts of social justice.
- Attempting to force Jesus to side against the Roman Empire, the religious leaders asked Jesus a trick question about tribute to Caesar.
- Before the crucifixion, religious leaders accused Jesus before Pilate of being a tax evader, an anti-tax advocate.
Not only does taxation weave through the New Testament, it is foundational to almost any social justice initiative.
According to George Lakoff, a professor of linguistics at the University of California, Berkley, the word taxes "has been hijacked by the right. By virtue of their communications system, they have changed the framing of the word to mean, according to radical conservative doctrine, 'money that individuals have earned without government help that is taken out of their pockets by the government and given to people who haven't earned it and don't deserve it.'"
If Lakoff is correct, then it's past midnight for the faith community to speak a word of truth about the moral good of taxation. We need to reframe taxes. We need to speak for a fair and just system of revenue upon which the common good is built.
Robert Parham is executive editor of EthicsDaily.com and executive director of its parent organization, the Baptist Center for Ethics.