A Lousy President and a Lousy Theologian

Scott wrote yesterday about President Obama’s attempt to enlist Jesus in his campaign for higher taxes: “But for me as a Christian, it also coincides with Jesus’s teaching that ‘for unto whom much is given, much shall be required.'” In drawing this equivalence, Obama implicitly substituted the government for God; in Jesus’s teaching it is God, not any earthly ruler, who gives us much and expects much from us in return.

Obama drew his quote from Luke 12, one of the most extraordinary books in the Bible. It wouldn’t be a bad idea to forget about current events for a while and read it. Luke 12 contains some of Jesus’s most beautiful and powerful words (“Consider the lilies, how they grow: they neither toil nor spin; and yet I say to you, even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these.”) as well as some of his most problematic (“Do you suppose that I came to give peace on earth? I tell you, not at all, but rather division.”). Luke 12 also includes this implicit rebuke to Obama: “Take heed and beware of covetousness….”

The quote that Obama cherry-picked comes from one of several parables that Jesus told about servants or stewards who are left in charge of an absent master’s property. The master, of course, is God, and at the end of the parable the master always returns and judges his servant’s stewardship. In another such parable in Matthew 13, Jesus said, “For whoever has, to him more will be given, and he will have abundance; but whoever does not have, even what he has will be taken away from him.” But this has nothing more to do with redistribution of wealth by government than the parable in Luke 12.

It wouldn’t be correct to say that Christianity has nothing to do with politics; Christians like Dietrich Bonhoeffer who believed that their faith commanded them to oppose the Nazis, for example, were certainly justified in so thinking. But it is a fact that Jesus never said a word about politics–his only pronouncement that touched on the subject, “Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s…,” was a response to questioners who tried to ensnare him in political controversy.

What is unfortunate is when partisans in both church and state try to enlist Christianity, or other religious faiths, not just on matters of life and death, but on one side or another of every petty partisan controversy. Barack Obama is not alone here: my own denomination, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, has issued position papers on everything from banking regulation to agriculture policy–every one of which, remarkably, coincided with the position then held by the most liberal wing of the Democratic Party. The Bible offers us guidance on many topics, but as to whether the top marginal income tax rate in 21st century America should be 35% or 39%, it is silent. Although, of course, it never hurts to keep those many injunctions against covetousness in mind.

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