Word has it (a.k.a. the New York Times) that Alabama’s governor is “pushing a tax reform plan through the Alabama Legislature that shifts a significant amount of the state’s tax burden from the poor to wealthy individuals and corporations. And he has framed the issue in starkly moral terms, arguing that the current Alabama tax system violates biblical teachings because Christians are prohibited from oppressing the poor.”
The Alabama case represents another attack in the long-standing government offensive to politicize charity, and, in the same breath, to marginalize the religions that once represented the origins of charitable endeavors in the West. Moreover, Alabama’s initiative perverts Christian doctrine and pretends to extract from Christian moral teaching an imprimatur for the confiscatory state.
The nature of charity — its very substance, its essence, its content, and its eternal worth — lies in its voluntary nature. No one said it better than Mother Teresa: “Our sisters are not social workers. They receive Christ every morning in the Blessed Sacrament, and then go out into Calcutta and find Him in the gutters.” No bureaucrats need apply.
The Christian nature of charity requires freedom and gratitude on both sides: the recipient says “thank you for your gift,” the giver says, “thank YOU for letting me help a brother in Christ.” If it’s mandatory, it isn’t charity. Period.
Compare that approach to this scenario, which I witnessed recently: a woman marches into the local social services office, goes up to the (bulletproof) window, and demands, “Where’s my check!!” The clerk on the other side of the window scowls at her, tells her to sit down and wait, and continues to bide her time at her desk, contemptuous of the object of government charity that has come knocking at her door. Meanwhile, I, and every other taxpayer, know that we would go to jail if we refused to “contribute” the funds that the woman is demanding and the clerk is disbursing. Plenty of contempt, commensurate with compulsion, to go around. Seething hatred, not overflowing love — unless you happen to love Big Brother.
The state strives to nationalize charity for many reasons. The concept itself, being a religious one, carries with it enormous goodwill, and politicians bask in its glow. Once the state takes over charity, its charm makes it easier to bamboozle and intimidate the citizenry, even while castigating Christians for trying to “impose their religious beliefs on others.” Senator Bombast can boast that the state has taken over charity and all the other useful and beneficial social tasks of religion. What is left is ignorance and prejudice in the name of backward religion, and we should indulge in that only in the privacy of our homes, and behind locked doors.
In expropriating charity from the religious sphere, the state also strives to eliminate churches as competitors for moral authority, persuasion, and power. Some churches have actually welcomed this transformation, as can be seen in the number of congregations that have welcomed the “Reverend” Jesse Jackson, huckster and shakedown artist, even as they have embraced the entire anti-Christian leftist agenda. But they are not alone.
There’s a new trend: nowadays members of churches that decide to turn against church teachings are much less likely to leave than they used to be. Now they’re inclined to stay in the pews as they become politicized, hoping to capture the entire institution and wield it for their own particular political agenda. This, in turn, gives them the opportunity to speak for “the church” when lauding the state while condemning the true church and its believing members. Even when they can’t take over the church in question, they can degrade the public view of the church by their antics (or perversions, as has been the sad case with many Catholic priests and bishops in recent years). Either way, they’ve achieved their immediate objectives.
The “Christian” approach that the New York Times welcomes in Alabama is also fundamentally flawed when it justifies its confiscatory crusade with the mantra that “Christians are prohibited from oppressing the poor.” In fact, Christians are prohibited from oppressing anybody, including each other, the poor, the rich, foreigners, or any other people their politicians don’t like. It is Marxist liberation theology that attempts to strike an alliance between the “exploited and oppressed,” on the one hand, and the church, on the other, always in favor of government power. Christ died to save all of us, even the rich young man.
Tyrannical governments use the vocabulary of religious morality in their power plays. When Jimmy Carter decided to impose “land reform” on El Salvador in 1980, to “stop the rich from oppressing the poor,” all he did was nationalize agriculture and the banking sector, making the poverty so extreme that many of the best workers in that country came to the U.S. as restaurant and construction workers, as (excellent) house painters, and as seasonal workers — while their wives and families stayed at home, thousands of miles away, and the children grew up without their fathers. The U.S. government lied to them, ruined their families, and gave them worthless pieces of paper — they even called them “titles” — to land they could not sell, rent, exchange, or borrow against. The forces of the state, which feed on envy, celebrated, but no one else did. Bureaucrats found entire careers in advocating and administering this monstrosity, all in the name of “free enterprise” and “private property.”
Christianity focuses on reality, not sentiment, and objective truth, not opinion. Goo-goo liberals have to confront the reality, taught by Christianity, that “the road to hell is paved with good intentions.” Power-hungry government will borrow or steal Christian vocabulary, Christian programs, Christian politicians, and Christian managers to validate its “charitable” programs, but the essence will constantly elude them. So naturally, they’ll grasp for more power to “solve” the problem they have created. They couldn’t possibly be wrong, could they?
Saint Paul spoke of “reform” (metanoia) as putting off the life of sin and putting on the garment of Jesus Christ. But modern governments take their cue from Michael Gorbachev. When he came to Washington in 1987, he told the Union of Concerned Scientists that he, too, believed in “reform.” “I have returned to Lenin,” he explained.
What a guy.
The final flaw in the Alabama effort lies in religion’s abdication to government of the authority to define, codify, and apply the rules of Christian charity. When it comes to taxes, Alabama’s “reform” embraces the revolutionary assumption that capitalism oppresses the poor, and the government should fix it. Why have Alabama’s “Christians” ignored the specific Biblical injunction — that God gets ten per cent, and the government shouldn’t get a penny more?
This is the general failure and flaw of the entire “faith-based” approach: first, Christians must embrace, if not worship, Caesar. They have to acknowledge Caesar’s right to steal private property from citizens and to redistribute it. Then they have to line up and cavil at the feet of bureaucrats, hopeful that they will be treated as “equals” to the professional bureaucrats who wallow in the government trough.
“Slaves, obey your masters,” said Saint Paul. The twenty-first century “religious” Alabamans are saying, “amen.”
Christopher Manion [send him mail] writes from the Shenandoah Valley in Virginia.