After work today I will be heading down to my church to help out with our annual stewardship campaign. For those of you not up to speed on church lingo, stewardship is the label we use to describe our annual call for pledges. You see, the church I belong to is a charity (as are all churches that I know about) – it operates solely based on the goodwill of its members, both current and past (we are lucky enough to have an endowment). I have been involved in various aspects of our annual giving campaign for five years or so. While no one is really all that comfortable talking about money (one of our rectors once said that it was the last taboo), I have found that the easiest way to get up and ask people to donate to a cause is to talk about why you donate to the same cause. What it does for you and what you hope your charity can bring about. Being asked to ask other people to give has actually allowed me to better understand why I give.
I bring this all up because I have seen a meme circulating in my Facebook feed that has been (erroneously perhaps?) attributed to Jimmy Carter which says:
If you don’t want your tax dollars to help the poor, then STOP saying that you want a country based on Christian Values, because you don’t!
I don’t want to get into an argument about separation of church and state or whether we are or should be a nation based on christian values. Rather, I want to address what this quote seems to me to be trying to do: convince those of you that DO think that we have (or should have) a nation based on Christian values that you should also be OK with the government taxing you to fund programs that purportedly help the poor (again, it’s a whole other topic whether they do or not, let’s just assume that they do for the rest of this post). This seems logically consistent at first, but it misses on really important difference between the act of charity and the act of taxation: force.
I do not claim to be any great theologian (and would welcome anyone that is to correct this part of my thinking), but one key aspect of Christianity is the fact we are granted the free will to be part of it or not. We can choose whether to be Christians or not – understanding that there may or may not be consequences to our choice, but even the Big One (who in theory could make us do whatever he/she wants) lets us make the choice. It may be true that I could help to raise far more money for my church in tonight’s stewardship campaign if I could threaten people with imprisonment or death if they didn’t participate, but I don’t think anyone (even an atheist, agnostic, etc) would call what I was doing based on Christian values. How can we think when the government does the same thing that they are acting in a Christian way?
If you think the imprisonment or death thing is hyperbole when , try not paying your taxes for a while. But don’t waste your one phone call to tell me how it tuned out – I can read about it in the papers. And also don’t tell me that the application of force by the government in their version of charity is a minor difference – that’s like saying the difference between consensual sex and rape is a small technicality. Even though the people that actually need to read this next statement have already stopped reading and are either firing up a flaming response, unfriending me or are setting up a DDOS attack on my blog right now please understand I am NOT at all equating the consequences and impact of rape with the consequences or impact of paying taxes. I would gladly agree to pay taxes for the rest of my life if we could guarantee that no one would ever be raped. I am trying to point out (poorly perhaps) that there is no small difference in intent or action when we are talking about the coercive use of force. Making someone do anything alters the entire act for everyone involved.
There may be logical arguments that support the idea of using force to collect taxes to help the poor (I said logical – not necessarily moral), but the idea that it’s the same as charitable giving is not only false, it sullies the name of Christianity.