At a Tea Party Express rally in Birmingham, Ala., in November, I saw a woman with a handmade sign that said: “I’m right-wing, pro-life, pro-gun rights, anti-illegal immigration, a Christian, an Activist.” The word “Christian” caught my attention.
I asked if I could interview her. She agreed. I asked her about her faith. She said she was an independent Baptist.
When I asked where she went to church, she cut her eyes at me and asked if I was with the federal government.
After assuring her that I was not a federal agent and handing her my business card, she warmed up and shared that she was a member of Berea Baptist Church in Athens, Ala.
As a Christian, I asked her, what did Jesus mean when he said, “give to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what’s God’s.”
“Well, I don’t think that the Obama administration knows what’s Jesus, what belongs to Jesus and what belongs to them. That’s my big gripe. Apparently, he doesn’t know. But then, that’s because he’s not a Christian. He’s Muslim,” she answered in rapid fire.
“It’s a proven fact he’s Muslim,” she continued. “He wasn’t born in this country. He was born in Kenya. There are people who know it, people who know where the birth certificate is. It’s locked up and our government can’t get a hold of it. He’s a illegitimate president, in my estimation.”
So you think the teaching of Jesus doesn’t apply because Obama is a Muslim, I said.
“No. My problem with him is he wants more than what is due him. Because he looks at it as what belongs to him. Not what belongs to our country. He is not a patriot. That’s because he is not an American at heart,” she quickly replied.
Trying to separate her feelings about President Obama from Jesus’ teaching about Caesar, I asked what she would think Jesus meant if Obama was not president.
“Flat tax,” she said. “Maybe the government needs more than 10 percent. But I figure if God makes it on 10 percent why can’t the government make it on 10 percent?”
As we continued to talk, she recalled attending a rally in Huntsville where she saw an Obama supporter.
“One lady had a sign—what would Jesus do? And I yelled across to her, ‘Well, Jesus isn’t for one world government.’ That’s for sure,” she shared. “They like to take the Bible and use things on you. What they are doing is twisting it around to make it look like something else.”
Her anti-Obama and anti-tax feelings were tightly bound and widely shared that day in a downtown park that commemorates the civil-rights movement.
Other homemade signs read:
- “Stop Government Run Health Care. No Cap and Trade Tax.”
- “All our enemies have Muslim names. Take back America.”
- “Stop Obamunism.”
- “In God we trust. Not government.”
The Birmingham rally was boisterous, energetic and brimming with anger. Most participants were older; even the bikers were aged. The Tea Party supporters reflected a mix of economic libertarianism and theological fundamentalism united under the cultural religion of Americanism.
My question remains to the Baptist lady from Athens – and to other anti-tax Christians: What did Jesus mean about God and Caesar? What does belong to God? Is the psalmist right that the earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof? Or does only 10 percent belong to the Lord?
A similar set of questions could be put to progressive and country-club Christians.
To divinity school and seminary professors, especially ethics professors, I have a different, albeit directly related, set of questions: Why haven’t you developed a theology of taxation, a moral framework for taxes? Ethics professors write extensively about human sexuality, war and peace, the environment, racism and ethnocentrism, family, biomedical ethics and a host of other issues.
Except for a few Methodists – Stephen Copley and Susan Pace Hamill – and a few Baptists – Jim Evans and Wayne Flynt – most goodwill Christians have written, spoken and preached too little about taxes.
The Baptist Center for Ethics hasn’t done its share of heavy lifting, either. We did have Hamill speak on taxation at our 2008 luncheon at the general assembly meeting of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship and have posted a few articles about unjust tax policies.
Yet taxation is foundational for almost every social justice cause – reducing poverty, reforming health care, funding for public schools, looking after the elderly, training unskilled or unemployed citizens, protecting the environment, making sure the food supply is safe, researching diseases in search of cures, redressing systemic racial and ethnic injustice. The list is long. But goodwill people of faith have not tended to a theology of taxation, a moral definition of and framework for tax justice.
If taxation is foundational for social justice, taxation is one of the flash points for the conservative movement.
We need a lot more biblical, theological and moral reflection about taxes. And we need to get to work now. The public square is hot and heating up. The tax conflict is intensifying and the carnage will fly everywhere in 2010, including in churches. So, how do pro-active church leaders – committed to social justice – prepare for the culture war over taxes?
Robert Parham is executive editor of EthicsDaily.com and executive director of its parent organization, the Baptist Center for Ethics.