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A political theology of taxation

Government has a divine purpose, and it must have the resources to do its God-ordained job

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A political theology of taxation
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The Beatles opened their album Revolver with the song “Taxman.” Its lyrics paint an unflattering picture of the occupation. A tax collector tells the audience, “be thankful I don’t take it all,” lists out how he will tax unavoidable human behaviors such as sitting or walking, and warns, “Don’t ask me what I want it for.”

This song articulates a common perspective held by subjects and citizens, not just about taxmen, but about taxation. Some political observers have called all taxation “legal plunder” or declared that “taxation is theft.” Well, it can be. For Americans, the antagonism takes on fundamental status, since one of the slogans of our revolution was, “no taxation without representation.”

April 15 might be the worst day to articulate a positive political theology of taxation. Or it might be the best day—a message we need to hear at the very time we least wish to hear it.

First, God commands in Scripture that we pay taxes. In Romans 13:7 Paul declares, “Pay to all what is owed to them: taxes to whom taxes are owed, revenue to whom revenue is owed.” In Matthew 17, Jesus (miraculously) provides for Peter and himself to pay the Temple tax even while saying He, as the King of Kings, is not naturally subject to any human authority.

Yet do we have more responsibility as believers than the bare command to pay up what the IRS demands? We do. This fuller answer involves seeing the link between taxation and broader, deeper political truths. For taxation systems always point toward how a political community understands justice and the good.

First, these matters concern the validity of government itself. Simply put, we cannot disentangle the legitimacy of taxes from the legitimacy of the government that collects them. Taxation raises revenue for a state. Through that revenue, the state acts to achieve its intended purposes. Private persons may take from others, using coercive force if necessary, to pursue their own goals. Yet we understand those actions as stealing—a violation of the Decalogue.

Government is different. We know that God ordained government and did so for our good (Romans 13:1, 4). Christian political thought has developed these words through showing how laws and those officers enforcing them can protect our persons and property as well as direct us toward higher goods grounded in virtue and in mercy.

If we accept the legitimacy of government, then we must accept the legitimacy of taxation in some form and at some level. Logically, if one gives an institution a duty, then that duty vests powers adequate to achieve the task. Regarding government, if it is to fulfill its divine purpose, it must possess the reasonable means to do its job. Thus, our taxes comprise an essential means for government to achieve the good God ordained it to do.

Taxation often reveals the line between just and unjust states.

Second, taxation often reveals the line between just and unjust states. We must ask what particular purposes a particular government seeks. For one, governments must seek the good of the ruled, not the ruler. This distinction is implicit in Romans 13 and explicit in most works of classical political philosophy. Seventeenth century Scottish theologian Samuel Rutherford stated that governments should not collect taxes for the personal enrichment of the prince but to use for the good of the ruled.

For another, governments must use their revenue to seek justice. In Psalm 82, God condemns rulers who gave evil persons special favor and did not do justice to the weak and vulnerable. One need look no further than our government’s subsidy of Planned Parenthood for a violation of this basic principle. Governments instead should employ tax dollars to protect the health, safety, consciences, and souls of those entrusted to them by God.

Beyond the legitimacy of governments, general or particular, a taxation system speaks to justice regarding its structure, namely who is taxed and what is taxed.

Regarding persons, a fundamental principle of justice concerns whether humans are equal or to what extent. America’s Declaration of Independence builds much of its concept of justice on the claim that “all men are created equal.” We often can see the government’s view of this matter through its taxation system.

Some systems tax everyone basically the same, which, whether intentionally or not, focuses on the citizens’ common humanity. Other systems make significant distinctions between rich and poor. Sometimes these distinctions come from a commitment to creating greater economic equality where it does not exist in society, instituting progressive taxes or redistributing wealth in some other way.

Equal taxes between persons, then, might seem the only fair system. But that is too simple as it does not account for real differences between persons, especially the activities in which they engage. We see this in what gets taxed and how it, too, communicates a view of justice. Our governments impose “sin taxes” on alcohol and tobacco. They do so because we find their potential abuse immoral and harmful enough to disincentivize. On the opposite side, our government also provides exemptions from taxation for many organizations, including colleges and religious organizations and for actions like charitable giving or for raising young children.

We may not like paying taxes. We also can have serious objections to how they are collected and used. We can certainly have a good debate about the right level of taxation in an economy. But this April 15, we should remember not only our obligation to pay taxes. We also should thank God for the goods to which He has ordained they be used in this world.

Adam M. Carrington

Adam M. Carrington is an associate professor of politics at Hillsdale College, where he holds the William and Patricia LaMothe Chair in the U.S. Constitution. His book on the jurisprudence of Supreme Court Justice Stephen Field was published by Lexington Books in 2017. In addition to scholarly publications, his writing has appeared in The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Examiner, and National Review.

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