On the eve before the 2016 presidential election, America is simultaneously expectant and exhausted. This election cycle has felt longer than most because of the character of the front-runners, their dirty campaigns, and the myriad of questions their candidacies have sparked. I have already voted, but I’m not here to debate that; if you know me, you know where I stand on this issue. Instead, I want to pause and step back, and consider a more foundational issue for American Christians who want to be politically informed and engaged, but who are struggling to understand the relationship between their religious beliefs and their American citizenship.
How as Christians and Americans are we to think and act as active citizens and voters in our country? I find too many Christians have a simple-minded idea of what it means to be a voting Christian in America. Many reason like this: (1) What does the Bible teach? –> (2) Vote accordingly. But in my view this is wholly inadequate, as is misunderstands both biblical application and the American political project.
Instead, one must factor in American political history, civic life, and culture. The only reason we are voting in the first place is because of how our country was founded. No one voted in the Bible; the concept would have been foreign to Jesus, Paul, James, and John. Thus, in one sense, the Bible is silent on how we should vote. How, then, are we to allow our Christian beliefs to guide us in our civic engagement? The issue basically comes down to the discipline of cultural hermeneutics (for a good, and provocative, introduction to cultural hermeneutics, see William J. Webb’s Slaves, Women & Homosexuals: Exploring the Hermeneutics of Cultural Analysis [Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2001]). Here’s a test case.
Paying Taxes to Caesar
In Mt. 22:15-22 (Mk. 12:13-17; Lk. 20:19-26) Jesus is asked by the Pharisees and Herodians about whether it was lawful to pay taxes to Caesar. Jesus, recognizing it as a trap, sidesteps the pit and pithily (and famously) answers, “Give to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and to God the things that are God’s.” Most Christians have taken this verse to mean that Caesar has the right to tax, and citizens must render their due taxes without grumbling or complaint. Hence the idea that American Christians must willingly pay taxes to the U. S. government. Beside the fact that we should be wary about over-exegeting this passage since it involves a response to an attempt to trap Jesus (as oppose to sermonic, discursive, or purely didactic material, i.e., Jesus isn’t circling up his disciples to give them a treatise on the relationship between the church and state), and the fact that Jesus’ answer raised an implicit anti-imperial challenge to Caesar and Rome, there’s an obvious piece missing: Who represents Caesar in the U. S. today? The President? The federal government? Congress? The ancients had little to no experience with bicameral legislature, separation of powers, limited government, citizen voting, or an electoral college (although, they weren’t stupid: they understood the direct democracy of Athens and the Roman Republic had a People’s Assembly, the Senate, and Consuls). Therefore, how are we to transfer Jesus’ teaching in an imperial context where Caesar could have the first and last word on any administrative issue, to the American system which is vastly different? This is a necessary step we must take if we are to reason properly about our civic duties as American Christians.
I suggest that the appropriate parallel to Caesar today is the U. S. Constitution. In the same way that Caesar oversaw the administration and function of the Roman government (with the help of the Senate), so our Constitution is the framework that not only created our government, but guides and limits it. Thus, it would be inappropriate to reason that “paying taxes to Caesar” requires us to pay whatever taxes the President wants or Congress passes into law. The President and Congress only exist because of the Constitution, and their roles, duties, and boundaries are determined by the Constitution. This means we must first consult the text of the Constitution, and the body of constitutional jurisprudence and interpretation that has grown up around it, to determine legal tax law and thus our genuine tax-paying responsibilities. This allows us the people to hold the U. S. government in all its constituent parts accountable to a transcendent law under which everyone is equal.
Taxation According to the Constitution
And what does the U. S. Constitution say about taxation? First, in Article I, Section 8, Clause 1, the power of taxation is given to the Congress and no one else (even though the President is given the authority to execute tax laws, he cannot write, rewrite, or rescind them). Second, in the same section, it says that taxes, duties, imposts, and excises are for the purpose of common defense and the general welfare. Third, these revenue measures (duties, imposts, and excise taxes) were supposed to be “uniform throughout the United States.” This was included to prevent regional or geographic discrimination by taxing one state or industry to the benefit or detriment of others. A natural non-uniformity is permitted, of course, if for example all oil products are taxed across the country, those regions that produce more oil will bear more tax burdens; but the uniformity is in the same tax rate on oil, not a guarantee of paying the same total amount of taxes. This Uniformity Clause could also possibly be the basis upon which to challenge progressive income tax laws, for such laws do not tax incomes uniformly, but require those with greater incomes to pay more in annual taxes. However, the objection to this is that the Uniformity Clause only applies to duties, imposts, and excise taxes, which are examples of indirect taxes, not direct taxes per capita, on property or incomes (which are subject to apportionment; see Art. 2, Sec. 9, Clau. 4 below under fifth point).
Fourth, this same section of the Constitution then goes on to delimit seventeen different areas that Congress could use the revenue from these taxes on: such as borrow money, regulate commerce, coin money, establish a Post Office, declare war and raise an army, administer the government and more. Many Progressive constitutional scholars try to expand this limited scope of tax spending by Congress with appeal to the General Welfare Clause (Art. 2, Sec. 8), arguing that Congress can legally spend tax revenue on anything that aids the general welfare of the country. But this is incorrect, for not only does it conflict with the enumerated powers principle which animates the Constitution (i.e., no blank checks on government power, but power only to do what is explicitly stated), but in the Federalist Papers No. 41, James Madison addressed this very issue:
It has been urged and echoed, that the power “to lay and collect taxes, duties, imposts, and excises, to pay the debts, and provide for the common defense and general welfare of the United States,” amounts to an unlimited commission to exercise every power which may be alleged to be necessary for the common defense or general welfare. No stronger proof could be given of the distress under which these writers labor for objections, than their stooping to such a misconstruction…But what color can the objection have, when a specification of the objects alluded to by these general terms immediately follows, and is not even separated by a longer pause than a semicolon? If the different parts of the same instrument ought to be so expounded, as to give meaning to every part which will bear it, shall one part of the same sentence be excluded altogether from a share in the meaning; and shall the more doubtful and indefinite terms be retained in their full extent, and the clear and precise expressions be denied any signification whatsoever? For what purpose could the enumeration of particular powers be inserted, if these and all others were meant to be included in the preceding general power? Nothing is more natural nor common than first to use a general phrase, and then to explain and qualify it by a recital of particulars.
In other words, the very grammatical construction of Art. 2, Sec. 8 requires that the phrase “general welfare of the United States” be defined as the seventeen aspects consequently enumerated. Thus, Congress does not have the authority to spend tax revenue on whatever it wants, but only what the Constitution delineates.
Fifth and finally, in Art. 2, Sec. 9, Clau. 4 the framers of our government originally intended that per capita or other direct taxes on persons and their property be prohibited, except when subject to apportionment among the states on the basis of population. Why? The Framers initially designed the government to be funded by indirect taxes (duties, imposts, excises on articles of consumption), as these were safe taxes, because the people had direct control over what and how much they consumed. If Congress became greedy and drastically raised taxes on consumables, the people could respond by producing or consuming less in order to decrease federal revenue. This was a way to keep federation taxation in check. Direct taxes were expected to be used only in emergencies, which is why they were generally prohibited, and when they were imposed, they had to be apportioned.
However, the Sixteenth Amendment in 1913 changed all this, as it effectively repealed Art. 2, Sec. 9, Clau. 4. Before the income tax amendment was passed, the federal government of the early 20th century was primarily funded by up to a 40% impost tax on alcohol, which amounted to more than $200 million a year by 1910, or 71% of all internal revenue and more than 30% of federal revenue overall (see Daniel Okrent, Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition [New York: Scribner, 2010], 52). In other words, the U. S. government was being financed exactly how the framers of our Constitution designed it to be: indirect taxes on consumable items. If you wanted to protest government revenue and spending, you could simply stop drinking and you wouldn’t pay the impost (of course, Americans loved alcohol during this era and almost everyone drank, so this was unlikely). The prohibition movement was so potent politically because it threatened a huge government revenue stream; how would the government finance itself if alcohol was prohibited nationwide? To resolve this tension, teetotalers proposed a Constitutional amendment that would allow taxes to be levied on personal income, and thus the income tax was born (incomes taxes had been tried here and there before, but not nationally and in perpetuity). The income tax, in turn, has drastically increased overall government revenue as the income tax has become higher across the board and more and more progressive (originally, it imposed a 1% tax on incomes up to $20,000 for both individual and joint filers [but there were certain exemptions], and at the most a 7% tax on those making $500,000 or more. Consider today where most middle class Americans pay between 10-15%, while the highest income earners pay 35%+).
Of course, with increased revenue comes increased spending. But increased spending required the originalist interpretation of the General Welfare Clause be changed to make “general welfare” include any and all welfare spending the government so desired. Thus, the government outlays for FDR’s New Deal, the beginnings of Social Security and its later abuses (i.e., Congress now runs it as a Ponzi scheme), Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society, and the burgeoning modern welfare state were (and still are) all illegal uses of tax monies. There was a reason why the founders of our nation resisted direct per capita or income taxation, and why they specifically enumerated a definite list of what Congress could spend its tax revenue on.
(Full disclosure: for my interpretations of the Constitution in the section, I have relied upon the excellent resource The Heritage Guide to the Constitution [Revised Second Edition, 2014]).
Bridging Two Millennia
How, then, do we apply Mt. 22:15-22 to contemporary America and Constitutional tax policy? Jesus affirms that we should be willing to return to Caesar what he rightfully minted and circulated (i.e., pay taxes). However, this is not a blank theological check to be wielded to force Americans to pay whatever taxes the government contrives. Instead, realizing that the modern political equivalent to Caesar is the U. S. Constitution, we rightly interpret and apply Jesus’ teaching to mean that we should pay taxes as specified and outlined by the Constitution. The Constitution in turn puts checks and balances upon what federal government can tax and spend its revenue on, and empowers the people to hold the government accountable. Thus, Jesus’ teaching, when translated into its modern counterpart, can be used to argue for the reduction of current government tax levels. Ironically, this is exactly in keeping with the anti-imperial challenge that was part of Jesus’ original response.
The whole point of this case study is to illustrate the process by which we move from Scripture to modern political and civic engagement. We might outline it like this:
- Properly interpret Scripture within its original context using the tools of hermeneutics and exegesis. There are many good resources you can use to accomplish this, but an excellent introductory text is Introduction to Biblical Interpretation
- Exegete the modern world. This its the step most biblical scholars, theologians, and Christians miss. They assume that just because they live in the modern world, they understand it when in fact they don’t. (For an in-depth analysis of this topic, see this article).
- Discern the appropriate hermeneutical paradigm by which to move from the ancient world to the modern world (i.e., a fulfillment hermeneutic which funnels OT teaching through Jesus’ ministry à la Mt. 5:17-20; a cultural hermeneutic like Webb’s; and/or a principle/paradigmatic hermeneutic as employed by Walter Kaiser or Christopher Wright. For more on this topic, see Gary T. Meadors, ed., Four Views on Moving Beyond the Bible to Theology [Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2009]).
- Apply using the hermeneutic from (3) to find the right relationship between (1) and (2).
Arguably, such a process is messy and requires many judgments along the way that could lead to wildly different conclusions. I’m okay with this, as it is the nature of biblical interpretation and application. My purpose in writing is to help articulate and educate about such a process, not try to predetermine a particular outcome. I suspect that most American Christians who go to the polls have never heard of anything like this, nor have they attempted to work it out on specific issues. Instead, they simply vote along party lines or according to a quasi-Christian American civil religion, or they think that they must vote exactly what the Bible teaches — which, if everyone did this and held the same theology, would lead to a theocracy. Yet both of these approaches are shallow and simplistic, and we need to learn a better way. Hopefully this article contributes to such a cause