Conservative radio talk show host Rush Limbaugh and liberal MSNBC pundit Lawrence O’Donnell traded barbs recently over what Jesus’ policies would be on taxes.
The two waded into the issue as Christian leaders sought to impact congressional tax and budget policies.
The issue came to the forefront after weeks of public fasting by religious and political leaders opposed to proposed congressional budget cuts to programs that assist U.S. and global poor.
For the season of Lent, former Democratic Rep. Tony Hall, Bread for the World president David Beckmann, Sojourners president/CEO Jim Wallis, and Women Thrive Worldwide president Ritu Sharma announced the fast and urged others to join them from March 28 through April 24.
Several U.S. representatives eventually joined for part of the fast.
After an Easter morning news program on ABC mentioned the fast, Limbaugh took to the airwaves the next day to attack the effort.
“A favorite tactic of the left, you know, when it suits them they’ll talk about Jesus Christ,” Limbaugh said as he mocked the idea of invoking Jesus in the tax debate. “When they can convince or try to convince everybody Jesus Christ was the patron saint of liberalism, then they will herald Jesus Christ. That’s what he’s good for as far as the left is concerned.”
“He’s the first liberal, a great socialist, Jesus Christ,” Limbaugh continued. “He knew who to punish. Jesus Christ knew it was the rich that were the targets. Jesus Christ stood up for the downtrodden. Jesus Christ stood up for the slothful. Jesus Christ knew. That’s how they cite Jesus Christ.”
Limbaugh then accused liberals of trying “to co-opt Jesus Christ as simply another prop in your march toward the decline of America.” In particular, Limbaugh seemed upset by the ad during the fast that asked, “What would Jesus cut?”
“The question is not what would Jesus cut, the question is what would Jesus take?” Limbaugh said. “Well, what would Jesus take? That’s the question people need to ask to put this in perspective. Of course the answer is, nothing. You want to start equating yourselves and your policies to Jesus Christ, you better first start asking, what did Jesus take, from whom, and how did he go about it? What was his plan for redistribution? Who were his targets?”
After Limbaugh criticized liberals for invoking Jesus in the tax debate before then claiming Jesus would not tax at all, MSNBC’s O’Donnell devoted time on his evening program that same day to blast Limbaugh’s arguments.
Introducing Limbaugh’s comments, O’Donnell referred to Limbaugh as a “religiously uneducated radio entertainer” who showed “a wild display of biblical ignorance.”
“I, for one, believe that asking the question, What would Jesus do?, is the way into a more thoughtful discussion than Rush’s obsession with the question, What would Jesus take?,” O’Donnell stated. “But the New Testament does have an answer to Rush’s question, What would Jesus take? And it’s not one Rush is going to like. And since he obviously has no working command of the Bible, it will surely shock him, because he will be hearing it now for the first time.”
“To the question of, What would Jesus take?, the answer is, everything,” O’Donnell added. “Not 35 percent, not 39.6 percent. 100 percent.”
To support his argument, O’Donnell referred to the case of the rich young ruler whom Jesus told to sell everything and give it to the poor.
“Those are the words of Jesus Christ,” he added. “Give up everything. You can be a radio talk show host and you can make your 50 million dollars a year. But you cannot do that and be a disciple of Christ if you keep all of your 50 million dollars a year.”
The MSNBC host quickly added that he would not “use that line as Christ-based argument for a particular tax bracket” but that from the story “it seems very clear that Jesus would be cool with a 39.6 percent tax bracket for people making over 250,000 dollars.”
Invoking the story of the widow who gave her last two mites, O’Donnell added, “That is the clear Christian philosophical basis of a progressive income tax; 10 percent on low incomes, 35 percent on high incomes is the current structure.”
O’Donnell included in his remarks a challenge to Limbaugh to find biblical accounts refuting O’Donnell’s claims.
“Rush, I know you didn’t bother to do any Bible reading before your silly ‘what would Jesus take?’ outburst, and I now invite you and your staff to take as long as you want to try to find a passage anywhere of Jesus sympathizing with rich people for having paid too much taxes, or for having been too generous, or for having been forced by anyone, by the state, by Caesar, by anyone, forced to be too generous,” O’Donnell stated.
Limbaugh has not responded to O’Donnell’s remarks.
On the heels of the Limbaugh-O’Donnell programs, an interreligious coalition that spanned the political spectrum released a statement called “A Circle of Protection: A Statement on Why We Need to Protect Programs for the Poor.”
Those signing the statement “committed to resist budget cuts that undermine the lives, dignity, and rights of poor and vulnerable people” and to work to protect “programs that meet the essential needs of hungry and poor people at home and abroad.”
Original signatories to the document included some Baptist leaders: Carroll Baltimore Sr., president of the Progressive National Baptist Convention; Roy Medley, general secretary of American Baptist Churches, USA; Stephen Thurston, president of the National Baptist Convention of America; and Daniel Vestal, executive coordinator of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship.
Other original signatories included: Leith Anderson, president of the National Association of Evangelicals; Ken Hackett, president of Catholic Relief Services; Michael Kinnamon, general secretary of the National Council of Churches of Christ; Samuel Rodriguez, president of the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference; Katharine Jefferts Schori, presiding bishop of The Episcopal Church; Ron Sider, president of Evangelicals for Social Action; and Richard Stearns, president of World Vision United States.
EthicsDaily.com editorials have called for the principle of shared sacrifice in budget negotiations, warned about the impact of budget cuts on churches, and urged churches to put taxes on their agenda.
EthicsDaily.com released in October 2010 its documentary “Sacred Texts, Social Duty,” which considers the issue of taxes from religious perspectives.
Brian Kaylor is a contributing editor for EthicsDaily.com.