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February 12, 2005

Jesus and the Tax Man

Michael Spencer posted this link about Jim Wallis over at the Boar's Head Tavern. I think it fits in nicely with my post concerning Christians and First Principles.

Let me make a caveat and then post a question for Rick and others who are open to the Democrats if they soften up on "moral issues."

I am the first to admit that the GOP is not strong on the environment. I've been listening to Rush Limbaugh for thirteen years now (I'm only twenty-three) and I still think he stereotypes and degrades the environmentalist movement. Sean Hannity does the same thing, though green types rarely help themselves. I think many, many Republicans and certainly many conseratives have too much faith in the free market and not enough visible concern for the poor. I'll even go so far as to suggest that race plays something of a factor here, as it becomes easy for white suburbanites to overlook folks of other races who live on the wrong side of town. Furthermore, I'm not a big fan of the Falwells and Dobsons. I would generally, though not absolutely, sympathize with Spencer's view of Dobson. I have far greater respect for Christian leaders like Richard Land and Al Mohler.

With that out of the way, let me get to my issue with Wallis and other social-justice Christians. I believe the Church can do a lot to alleviate suffering in this world, and I think we can be doing more. I don't mean to unnecessarily criticize and I know that not every church can run a soup kitchen. Wallis talks a lot about helping the poor, and I want to stand with him on that point. I just can't support a guy who believes that progressive taxation is some sort of Biblical mandate. Can anyone else? I see the Bible with a lot to say about caring for the less fortunate, but I never see Scripture advocating that we use the state as a means of doing so. If anyone can provide with clear Biblical teaching and some church history that suggests otherwise, I'm all ears, but I've yet to see it.

Additionally, look at the Sojourners website's list of Current Action Alerts. Compare it with what you read on Z-Mag or IndyMedia. See much of a difference? I don't. It's not moderate or in the middle. It's full-tilt liberalism that refuses to be labeled as such. And that's the rub. Wallis isn't just suggesting that the GOP be more "caring." He's softening up Christians to the idea of voting for the Democrats. Remember O'Sullivan's rule: All organizations that are not actually right-wing will over time become left-wing.Does anyone really believe that the Democrats are doing soul searching? As it relates to winning back the Senate, sure they are. But I don't think for a single moment that Harry Reid or Barbara Boxer cares a thing - in political terms - for religous, red state voters. On a private level, I make no speculation about their dealings with God. That's not for me to judge. But on a political level, I think Wallis is a tool for the Democrats, and he knows it.

Again, I'll concede that evangelicals could do far more to help the helpless. I know plenty of friends who made it through six years of youth group at conservative evangelical churches and were never involved in any project to help the hurting around them. That has to be turned around.

I return to my post about First Principles. I don't believe that the state is an effective means of curing poverty. It has never proven to be such a thing. For every greedy Republican, I truly believe that there are conservatives who believe in charity and the power of the market to help alleviate poverty. If Christians are going to vote in favor of tax cuts and a multitude of free market proposals, we must commit ourselves to working in our own communities and those around us - perhaps even those populated by folks of another race. I'm not out to point fingers but surely we can all agree that there is a problem. I just don't think that Wallis' Euro-socialism for Jesus is the answer. That's where I was going with my post on First Principles: What does Wallis believe about the State? the Church? What is the role of each? What does Scripture command? What has the Church historically believed? Was it wrong or right? Why? Is conservatism wrong? Is liberalism right? This is a hard fence to straddle. My guess is that he won't have much success, and it is dangerous to follow him to closely.

I touched on this last weekend. See here.

Posted by Matt at February 12, 2005 09:16 PM

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Matt, first my comment in response to your comment on my post:

When I say I'm a "Center-Left Conservative" I'm talking about most socio-economic policy issues including housing policy, land use, race relations, environmental protection, taxes and budget decisions, etc.

There are MANY MANY MANY things about Bush's latest budget that I do not agree with. I'd rather go more into debt or raise taxes slightly than make the draconian cuts he is proposing in regards to housing, community development, transportation (transit), etc funds.

I wish I was not so preoccupied with work now or I'd blog about Bush's budget. (Looming federal deadlines for Consolidated Plans - it's the tax season for planning consultants. I've been at the office from 7am to after midnight since Thursday, and I'm not leaving again tonight)

I agree with the life and family issues Bush advocates. I agree with the war whole-heartedly. I agree with the proposed changes to Social Security. I agreed with the tax cut, but I think better fiscal policy at the Fed and better oversight of the internet bubble and corporations by the SEC during the Clinton era of irrational exuberance would have been a better solution. I agree with drilling in ANWR *ONLY* if there were to be a tradeoff with requirements for better fuel economy or higher taxes on gasoline consumption... And I suppose there are more issues to raise here. So, I'd say I'm center-left on many issues, but still consider myself a "conservative."

After reading the First Principles, I have to say I have a hard time understanding how these principles directly translate to political party affiliation. It's the first time I've heard of them though, so I want to let it bounce around in my mind for a while before I comment further.

Oh... and your questions about Scripture? I don't have the time to dig through for verses, but I think I have the concepts accurate. Basically, my response is: Don't put God in a box. He can use government (and government's money) or man (and man's money) to accomplish his will. It's one and the same to him - he gives and he takes away.

I make no money so I don't pay much income tax (last year I paid $ZERO). When/if I do make money, I will do as commanded and will render unto Caesar. I tithe an amount at least equal to what Abraham tithed to Melchizedek and give cheerfully beyond that as I am able. However, others do not do this. If people would take care of their poor, sick and downtrodden, there would be less pressure for the government to take money from its people.

In fact, the record of Americans taking care of their poor (without Government) is abysmal. I deal with it every day in my job. Local communities zoning out transitional housing, SROs, emergency shelters, affordable housing, etc. "We don't want 'those' people in our neighborhood - what about our property values????" VERY TYPICAL RESPONSE and mostly typical in highly conservative communities. The only way for the zoning to change is for State law to force change (Lanterman Act, SB 520, etc). Then the City Councils can tell their whiny consituents that their hands are tied.

You don't think the poor and members of racial minorities can't see this? Take a single-mom school teacher whose husband left her for a gambling habit. They might have rented a nice house in a nice community with good schools. But now, she's on her own and her income can't support the rents in her community. She's forced into an area of concentrated poverty because that's the only place where apartments at high enough density are not opposed by local residents decrying impacts to their wallets and the oh so dreaded traffic that comes with density (answer: transit - duh).

Anyways - I despise what "conservatives" do in suburban City Halls. It makes me sick actually because I am the one who sits through Public Hearing after Public Hearing and hear these fat slobs (forgive me but I'm getting angry now) whine about their property values. What kind of witness is this? You can come to my home town and teach my kids, put out my fires, wipe my baby's rear and do my laundry - but NOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO you cannot live in my community unless you can pay the toll. These people may associate "Christian" with "Republican" and then decide they want nothing to do with Christ!

Matt, there is a lot of theory here (Buchanan's Club Theory, Madison #51 on Tyranny of the Majority, Tiebout's Hypothesis - and much much more.) I'm sure you can come up with a lot of theory why the markets and private property rights is better for society, but I'm telling you that I witness proof of my theory every day.

They argue for local control over policy and then use this control to exclude, marginalize, and exploit the poor. And these people are most often (in southern California) Republicans. That makes me sick.

More equitable housing and land use policy would solve many of our problems.

So...I see nothing wrong with a little higher taxes and more spending in certain areas (LIHTC, ADDI, Section 8 Vouchers, transit funding, geographic redistribution of school/parks/community facilities funding to correct income segregation.

I see nothing wrong with applying regulations to property (you still own it) to ensure that you don't destroy or impact shared resources. I see nothing wrong with the State or Feds forcing local tyrannical factions to change the way they do things to ensure an equal playing field (federalism on a different scale).

I'd really love it our tax dollars could supplement faith-based charities to help them accomplish their missions. That would be ideal...

Okay - that probably wasn't as well thought out and written as it could have been - but really - I'm under major deadlines here. . .

I hope your post kicks off an interesting discussion.

Posted by: Rick Brady at February 12, 2005 10:31 PM

I wrote: "More equitable housing and land use policy would solve many of our problems."

Well, maybe not "solve" (we will always have with us the poor) - but it would certainly go a long ways.

Posted by: Rick Brady at February 12, 2005 10:33 PM

Rick - I don't take too much issue with that. The problem is that when the sorts of policies you advocate are inacted, it is well nigh impossible to avoid a long, slow decline into Euro-style socialism. I agree that many, many suburban Republicans (I won't say conservatives) and sadly even Evangelicals exhibit classist and borderline racist thinking. I do not deny this for a second. It is our great sin.

I simply refuse to belive that it is Scriptural to promote a nanny welfare state. "Render to Ceasar" means pay your taxes. It does not that the state can do what it wants without our questioning it.

Posted by: Matt at February 12, 2005 11:20 PM

True true. Again, I go back to this simple point: If individuals would take better care of their own neighbors and communities, then government wouldn't need to step in. Our selfish decisions are pennywise and pound foolish. I prefer for all the poor to be served by good folks and not the government. But if they aren't provided for, God will provide for them through other means - even if it is less efficient than our pee brains would like.

BTW - you should really spend time with some European Christians. I think they would take issue with your Euro-style socialism comments. I had two roommates for about 4 months from England and they could not fathom why we did not provide universal health care and free college tuition for every kid.

Perhaps the biggest reason why Europe can afford to have their style of socialism is because we provide their defense and they cherry pick our medical inventions. I'm no fan of socialist medicine, but I think there are not enough protections in our current system.

Of course there is a moral hazard associated with Euro-style socialism. I'm not advocating Euro-style socialism at all. I simply think that there is a balance to be struck between taxes and spending. Truman and Eisenhower understood this balance well. I think we could use a bit of a history lesson from the Farmer and the General.

Posted by: Rick Brady at February 12, 2005 11:31 PM

Oh... Directly to your point:
"I simply refuse to belive that it is Scriptural to promote a nanny welfare state. "Render to Ceasar" means pay your taxes. It does not that the state can do what it wants without our questioning it."

When the government wants to take more of my money, I don't blame the government... I blame my fellow citizens for giving them a reason to take my money. If there was not a need - they could not justify the taking. Sadly, the need is MUCH greater than the current level of taking. So, I say - serves us right.

Posted by: Rick Brady at February 12, 2005 11:33 PM

But the problem is that the government is not your parent who docks your allowance for a few weeks. Public policy is a big deal, and if the gap between service and need supposedly necesitates government intervention (Great Society, New Deal, etc.), those policies will be difficult to reverse. Think of one - just one! - program or institution that has come about since the New Deal or Great Society that conservatives have eradicated. It doesn't exist. These things become permanent, and that is why I oppose. There are no temporary solutions in government.

Posted by: Matt at February 13, 2005 12:21 AM

"I'd really love it our tax dollars could supplement faith-based charities to help them accomplish their missions. That would be ideal..."

I totally agree.

Face it -- as much as individuals suck at taking care of the poor, the government sucks even more. Individuals and charities simply don't have the money they need to make a big enough difference (because not enough people give), while the government has the money but not the talent or compassion. But if the two could be fused -- if the government could work more directly with local charities staffed by people who care about those around them -- that would be far better than what we have now.

Part of what the government needs to do is to encourage individuals to give more. Give stronger incentives for things like charity work. Give people tax subtractions (not merely deductions) for certain charitable giving, including in-kind giving. As long as the government takes the view that the government will provide everything the poor need, what reason do individuals have to give? But as soon as the government admits we need to take responsibility *ourselves* (because the nanny-state can't do it all), and starts encouraging people to help the poor, there can be real change.

Posted by: LotharBot at February 13, 2005 01:12 AM

LotharBot, you've nailed part of it. But there is another part to the equation (see my comment to Matt's most recent post on this subject): Public Infrastrucuture (streets, sidewalks, sewers, water, drainage), Education (human resources and facilities upgrades), and Community Facilities (parks/rec, librarires, community centers). These factors all contribute to quality of life and the poor could better help themselves if given a better environment. The US Government created the inner cities, the US Government ought to fix them.

Posted by: Rick Brady at February 13, 2005 01:16 AM

er... yeah... see my response to your response in the most recent post on the subject ;)

Posted by: LotharBot at February 13, 2005 01:29 AM

Matt, I know public policy is a big deal. Just look at the HOLC, Title I, FHA, etc. These policies were CERTAINLY difficult to reverse. But... they did get reversed. Only well after the damage was done. We caused the damage, we should front the bill to fix it.

Look - I'm not advocating new programs. We have programs that work fine; they just need more money.

LIHTC - Low Income Housing Tax Credits. This is a program that allows big corporations to partner with non-profit mission-oriented companies to build affordable housing. Rather than send $5 million to Uncle Sam, Bank of America can partner with a company, say Bridge Housing, to build units. They get the name recognition as helping out the community and the non-profit gets to accomplish their mission. Oh - and the feds made it happen. The amount of money Bush is making available for this REAGAN plan is abysmal.

Section 8 Vouchers - again, so long as the market artificially increases rents by restricting supply, if the feds or state don't want to intervene and alter land use plans, then they should make rental subsidies more readily available. Bush slashed this program.

ADDI - American Dream Downpayment Initiative. This "W" program is a sham. It's a great idea, but giving the County of San Diego $1mil per year to administer it is worthless. The program is supposed to provide first-time homebuyer assistance to income qualified households.

CDBG - Bush slashed this TERRIBLY. Great program that could use some tightening. If I were the HUD Secretary, I could implement a few reforms of the auditing process to make sure local jurisdictions are spending the funds properly (consistent with the intent of the law). I write CAPERS (the audits) and know the loopholes. I'm sure they are aware of these too, but no one upstairs is making a fuss, but they should be. Basically though, CDBG funds make community revitalization more feasible and they can be used to supplement service providers (HIV/AIDS group homes/hospices, homeless services, domestic violence shelter operations, etc).

TAXES: Along the lines of LIHTC, we should be given the option to pay all of our owed taxes to the federal government or pay a portion to service organizations of our choosing. The slected organization must conform to certain service provision guidelines, similar to those used to determine who can receive LIHTC.

I could keep going, but I REALLY have to get to work. Federal government deadlines...

Posted by: Rick Brady at February 13, 2005 01:33 AM

Oh... one more thing... These programs wouldn't need so much funding if we formulated land use policy on a regional basis with the States establishing minimum equity thresholds for service provision, access to public amenities, and the construction of efficient and safe transit networks. Right now, it's the parochial decision making that is causing me to advocate more federal intervention. Solve the Tyranny of the Majority (Madison's factions) that occurs in town halls I'll bet you race and class relations improve. When race and class relations improve, America will improve.

Posted by: Rick Brady at February 13, 2005 01:37 AM

Rick and LotharBot both write: "I'd really love it our tax dollars could supplement faith-based charities to help them accomplish their missions. That would be ideal..."

The last thing we need is for government to be putting more money into faith-based initiatives. Seems like a good idea when a conservative Christian is in charge, but envision the unsavory impact on a ministry that becomes dependent on government monies when a atheist or secularist takes over.

Faith-based groups should have an even playing field for some grants that are available. But generally, ministry dependence on government is a dangerous idea.

Posted by: Jim Jewell at February 14, 2005 08:21 AM

My point wasn't directed specifically at faith-based charities, but rather, at local charities in general.

The government needs to do less *direct* working with the poor, and more *equipping people* to help the poor. This can be done, in some part, by adding federal funding local charities (faith-based or not) that meet certain, basic guidelines. But I think the main focus should be on allowing individuals to support those charities more easily.

Posted by: LotharBot at February 14, 2005 06:23 PM