Think theologically on Tax Day, not financially, not economically, not politically.
Not easy to do, granted.
Thinking theologically about taxation is a stretch for many of us. Most houses of faith, most seminaries, most religious organizations are well-practiced at skirting the topic of the moral obligation to pay taxes.
Beyond the broad-stroke scriptural citation to give to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s, we generally avoid the specifics of what that might mean for a society.
That is – what do we give to Caesar (taxes) and how do we get Caesar to fashion the just society that God wants (and in which the tax system plays a part)?
Recognizing how rarely taxation was dealt with in seminary ethics classes, how seldom sermons fully explored the topic, and how uncomfortable the issue makes church members feel, we decided to produce a moral education resource that might help people of faith to think theologically, morally, about taxation.
After making a written proposal for a documentary on the theology of taxation, I flew to New York City in the fall of 2009. I met with a group of decision makers. I presented my proposal. The proposal was accepted.
Our proposed documentary was slotted to air as a religious program the next year on ABC-TV.
Media producer Cliff Vaughn and I traveled to Portland, Ore.; Chicago; Auburn, Ala., and Richmond, Va. We interviewed preachers, rabbis and imams. We interviewed a divinity school dean, a tax-and-budget expert and denominational leaders.
Our hunch was validated. We found that taxation was the forbidden topic in the houses of the Abrahamic-faith tradition.
At the end of March 2010, ABC gatekeepers objected to the word “taxes” in the title of the documentary.
Yes, a documentary about faith and taxes could not have the word “taxes” in the title. We were told that the word “taxes” was too controversial. We changed the title.
We consented to their request that we would not use (illustrative) footage of a Tea Party rally we had shot in Birmingham. We confirmed again that we would have no interviews with either officer holders or those running for political office. The documentary was after all about the theology of taxation, not partisan politics.
In September – four-weeks before the scheduled air date – ABC objected to a 10-minute portion of the documentary in which people of faith made the moral argument for a tax system that protects the poor.
ABC objected to commentary about the harmful nature of the sales tax on food.
ABC objected to faith statements about the lottery as being predatory, pointing out that some of its affiliate stations receive revenue from lottery ads. Our documentary might harm those revenue streams.
Imagine an EthicsDaily.com documentary that would threaten the lottery revenue to ABC-TV stations! Would that a faith-based entity had that kind of power.
In a moment of unexpected candor, ABC said it favored less controversial programming. It wanted religiously related programs, such as how the church decided who will be made a saint.
In other words, from ABC’s perspective, good religion was private religion – religion behind closed chapel doors. Moral relevance in the public square that did not conform to the politically correct values of the secular media was bad religion.
We refused to compromise our moral witness, despite intense pressure to do so, to cut the segments to which ABC objected.
We thought that faith in the public square was too vital to be watered down. Moral reflection without moral application wasn’t of much moral good.
“Sacred Texts, Social Duty” did not air on ABC-TV stations.
The theology of taxation was too controversial for a major network, one that prides itself on freedom of speech and all things righteous about the press.
That network apparently wanted a domesticated faith.
If religion is to be more than ritual, worship is to be more than withdrawal, and Christianity is to be more than ceremony, then we’ve got to find some ways for houses of faith and faith groups to think more about the theology of taxation.
Let’s not avoid, for yet another year, the questions of what do we give to Caesar (taxes) and how do we get Caesar to fashion the just society that God wants (and in which the tax system plays a part)?
Robert Parham is executive editor of EthicsDaily.com and executive director of its parent organization, the Baptist Center for Ethics. Follow him on Twitter at RobertParham1 and friend him on Facebook.