This morning, at the National Prayer Breakfast, Barack Obama cited Scripture as justification for his policy agenda — from reforming health care to ensuring that financial institutions play by fair rules to taxing the rich. BuzzFeed’s Zeke Miller reports:
The president said he often falls to his knees in prayer, and emphasized the role of his religious values in determining where to lead the country.
“I’d be remiss if I stopped there; if my values were limited to personal moments of prayer or private conversations with pastors or friends. So instead, I must try — imperfectly, but I must try — to make sure those values motivate me as one leader of this great nation.”
Obama maintained that his call for the wealthiest to give up their tax breaks, he’s doing so out of economic necessity, but also in line with biblical teachings.
“And I think to myself, if I’m willing to give something up as somebody who’s been extraordinarily blessed, and give up some of the tax breaks that I enjoy, I actually think that’s going to make economic sense. But 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, noting Jewish and Islamic teachings say much the same thing.
It surprises me to encounter the president using this tactic. In the first place, the specific example he cites above is misapplied. When the president establishes a policy direction — and Congress follows it — his decisions don’t just affect him. When he promotes increased taxation of “the rich,” he’s not merely giving up his own tax breaks as he implies — he’s also suggesting the government should be able to force others to pay more in taxes, as well. That’s just obvious — and to say otherwise actually makes the president look more confused than anything. Here, we seem to have an out-of-water Obama who wants very desperately to pander but doesn’t quite know how.
It’s always a bit tricky to apply Scripture to political problems. After all, Jesus made it very clear to his apostles, who expected the Messiah to win a worldly victory against their oppressors, that His kingdom is not of this world. When he directly addresses the issue of taxation, He says simply to give to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to give to God what is God’s. Yes, Jesus is acutely concerned with issues of authority and also with issues of wealth and poverty — but it all proceeds from the basic assumptions that authority comes from His Father and that the spiritual, in general, has primacy over the material. That is, Jesus’ injunctions to His followers to give everything they have to the poor proceed from the idea that whatever stands in the way of loving Him has got to go. It’s about His glory, not about the creation of some utopian society. Those who make Jesus’ teachings about the latter and not the former miss the major point His life, death and resurrection make.