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Should Christians Pay Taxes? Abortion-Funding Debate Meets Tea Party Populism

5 years ago
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The relationship between conservative Christians and Tea Party protesters would seem to be a natural one, with their shared anger at the current central government and their shared belief that taxes are oppressive, suffocating private enterprise and thwarting the virtue of individual initiative.

But many conservative Christian leaders are growing leery of the influence that their Tea Party counterparts are having on some believers, with their greatest worry focusing on the strong libertarian streak that runs through Tea Party populism -- a philosophy that embraces the freedom of the individual to such an extent that it even rejects government involvement in "bedroom issues," like gay marriage, and moral concerns, like abortion.

The passage of the health care overhaul was the last straw for many Christians who sympathize with the Tea Party agenda. They say that "Obamacare" is not only a liberal intrusion of government into the sacred realm of individual medical decisions, but that the new law will also promote taxpayer financing of abortions -- apparently a mistaken assumption, but one that persists nonetheless.

That righteous anger is apparently growing along with talk of tax revolts and a large Tax Day protest planned for Washington on April 15, the deadline for paying income taxes.

And with it is coming a push-back from prominent Christian conservatives who argue that Christians should be good citizens as well as strong believers, and that means paying your taxes, no matter how angry such levies make you or even how immoral they seem.

"So, should Christians defy the government and refuse to pay taxes if some involvement in abortion is almost certain?" R. Albert Mohler Jr., president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and a leading voice for Christian conservatism, wrote on his blog. "The answer to that question reaches far beyond the issue of abortion -- and far beyond the question of taxation. The answer to that question must be 'no.' "

Chuck Colson, another prominent voice on the religious right, agreed.

"The Tea Party movement may have a lot of traction in America today, but it makes no attempt to present a governing philosophy," Colson writes in the current issue of Christianity Today, the flagship evangelical periodical. "It simply seeks an outlet -- an understandable one -- for the brooding frustrations of many Americans. But anti-government attitudes are not the substitute for good government. We should be instructing people enraged at the excesses of Washington and the growing ethical malaise in the Capitol to focus their rage at fixing government, not throwing the baby out with the bath water."

Not everyone agrees. "I don't see the Tea Party movement as a threat at all -- I see it as additional allies and fellow travelers," Richard Land, the president of the Southern Baptist Convention's Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, told Politico.

The result of this tension is that the rise of the Tea Party Express has presented Christian conservatives with the kind of gut check they have not often faced -- an agonizing decision between secular politics and religious principles.

The religious right, even if it is not as hearty as it once was, is still a stalwart foe of almost everything President Obama and the Democrats stand for. And so is the Tea Party movement, which has become the rallying point for disaffected conservatives.

But Christian conservatives are also deeply -- need it be said? -- conservative, with a small "c." They encourage respect for institutions and duly endowed authorities, both in society and in the church, and they are loath to be associated with every passing call for revolution, or even for withholding taxes.

Indeed, in American history such tax revolts have generally been associated with peaceniks, like Joan Baez, or peace churches, like the Quakers and Mennonites, or liberals, like the former Catholic archbishop of Seattle, Raymond Hunthausen, who after Ronald Reagan's election and defense build-up refused to pay half his income tax to protest spending on nuclear weapons.

Yet conservative believers also argue that their position is not just a product of their temperament but is a doctrine that finds justification in the New Testament.

"Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar's, and to God the things that are God's," Jesus said.

And his followers amplified that saying at several points in their epistles. "Submit yourselves for the Lord's sake to every human institution, whether to a king as the one in authority, or to governors as sent by him for the punishment of evildoers and the praise of those who do right," St. Peter wrote.

Likewise, St. Paul wrote to the Christians in Rome: "Every person is to be in subjection to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those which exist are established by God."

St. Augustine made much the same argument in the fifth century, as did John Calvin in the 16th.

That has not stopped some Christians today from arguing that the situation has grown so dire under Obama that it demands radical action.

Earlier this year, a Catholic priest in North Dakota, Father Chad Gion, helped launch a Web site called "Conscience First," whose supporters pledged to refuse to pay "premiums or taxes or fines for any federal health care system" if it pays for abortions, as they said the Obama plan would.

Gion and other priests in the Diocese of Bismarck were quickly instructed to distance themselves from the campaign, and the Web site has since gone dark.

In the end, it seems likely that Thursday's tax protest in Washington will draw a number of Christians, but not necessarily their leaders.

"God recognizes that even a bad government is better than no government," Colson wrote in a trenchant phrase that is not likely to make any Tea Partier's bumper sticker. "No government leads to chaos and mob rule. When order breaks down, justice is inevitably undermined."

Of course, many could argue -- also referencing Scripture -- that the religious right is only reaping the whirlwind that it helped to sow, given its almost apocalyptic criticism of Barack Obama. But it is also to their credit that they are not yielding to the temptation to join a powerful, populist movement that shares many of their political goals.

Not that Christian conservatives are about to give Obama and the Democrats a pass. As Colson wrote, "While we have a high view of government, it isn't a blank check."

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