NEW YORK, N.Y. – President Obama offered a new line of reasoning for hiking taxes on the rich on Thursday, saying at the National Prayer Breakfast that his policy proposals are shaped by his religious beliefs.
Obama said that as a person who has been “extraordinarily blessed,” he is willing to give up some of the tax breaks he enjoys because doing so makes economic, and religious sense.
“For me as a Christian, it also coincides with Jesus’s teaching that for unto whom much is given, much shall be required,” Obama said, quoting the Gospel of Luke.
Obama wants to allow the Bush tax cuts to expire for the richest Americans, and he has embraced the idea that wealthy Americans should not be paying a lower effective tax rate than those in the middle or lower classes.
He has argued that those policies offer Americans a “fair shot” and increased equality, while implying that the policies favored by Republicans do not.
But the overt connection between religious beliefs and political policies is new.
“I know that far too many neighbors in our country have been hurt and treated unfairly over the last few years,” Obama said. “And I believe in God’s command to love thy neighbor as thyself. I know a version of that golden rule is found in every major religion and every set of beliefs.”
An administration official speaking on background said that Obama viewed the speech as chance to explain his personal faith practices and to show “his desire to step in the gap for those who are vulnerable.”
So what does the Bible say about taxes?
Not too much. The Bible is silent on whether capital gains should be taxed at 15% or a higher rate. Ditto for other types of investment income. Payroll tax holidays are not mentioned.
“If you did a search on taxes in the Bible, you are not going to find a lot that’s helpful for this discussion,” said O. Wesley Allen, a Bible scholar at Lexington Theological Seminary.
Complicating matters, Allen said that one of the most commonly cited Bible passages about taxes is frequently misinterpreted.
In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus is asked whether it is lawful for Jews to pay taxes to Caesar, a Roman dictator.
Jesus tells his questioners to give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s.
“That passage is often quoted as saying Jesus said to pay taxes. That’s not what it is,” Allen said. “It’s important to remember that the people asking this question are trying to trick him. He gets out of the trap more than he answers the question.”
Perhaps a better parallel is gleaning — an Old Testament practice in which farmers are encouraged to leave the crops on the edges of their fields for orphans and widows.
“As a commandment, that functions as a tax on the rich for the sake of the poor,” Allen said.
Allen said there are many passages throughout the Bible that mandate the poor and widowed should be cared for. “But it doesn’t dictate the policies that should be pursued to accomplish that,” he said.
The speech comes at a tricky time for a White House fully engaged in efforts to reelect the president.
The administration was still doing damage control over a U.S. Department of Health and Human Services policy that forces religious schools and institutions that offer employee health insurance to cover FDA-approved contraceptives.
The move has angered many Catholics in particular, who oppose the use of contraceptives on religious grounds, and view the policy as an intrusion on their religious liberty.
Since he has been in Washington, Obama has not formally joined a church. For nearly 20 years he was a member of Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago.
The president and his staff have noted the logistical difficulties of a sitting president attending services, but he has visited several churches in Washington and worshiped privately with his family at Camp David.