Infamously corrupt congressman Rep. Charlie Rangel made a surprisingly religious appeal during our recent deficit-reduction negotiations:
Veteran Democratic Rep. Charlie Rangel made an impassioned plea to religious leaders Friday, calling on them to lobby members of Congress and the Obama administration to remember the "lesser of my brothers and sisters" during this weekend's debt negotiations. "What would Jesus do this weekend? Or Moses. Or Allah. Or anyone else," the New York congressman said at a press conference on Capitol Hill. "I don't want this book (debt negotiations) closed without the clergy having an opportunity to forcefully express themselves as well as I know they can do." ...
Rangel said he was stumped as to why Washington wouldn't be "besieged by spiritual leaders saying 'do what you have to do - but not to the homeless, the jobless and the helpless. Not to the sick. And certainly not to the aging that are sick or those depending on Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid.'"
"I have not heard from those people who have been called by God to protect the poor. I haven't heard them," he said. "The issues that are going to be discussed this weekend involve spiritual, moral issues."
And Rangel's plea to the poor and helpless? Call your religious leaders and ask, "what is Medicare all about? What is Medicaid all about? Why do we have taxes?'" [emphasis added]
It would be easy to dismiss this as the rantings of a clownish thief, but it turns out that Rep. Rangel's pontificating reflects the feelings of a great many Americans for whom the concept of ethics is not a joke. As the congressman implies, plenty of religious leaders do believe that helping the poor is a moral obligation. Indeed, they believe that a large portion of our taxes should be used to help the poor.
The argument is that people with money have a moral obligation to give much of it to people with less money. If they don't want to, the government has a moral obligation to take money from them by force for that purpose.
This is not the same thing as noting that wealth distribution is helpful for the economy, as Barack Obama tried to argue to Joe the Plumber:
My attitude is that if the economy’s good for folks from the bottom up, it’s gonna be good for everybody. If you’ve got a plumbing business, you’re gonna be better off if you’re gonna be better off if you’ve got a whole bunch of customers who can afford to hire you, and right now everybody’s so pinched that business is bad for everybody and I think when you spread the wealth around, it’s good for everybody. [emphasis added]
Obama actually has a point here: by definition, an economy occurs when wealth moves around. If all you have is one really rich guy who owns everything and a whole bunch of peons, you have no economy. That's obviously no good for anybody save the one absolute ruler.
The problem, of course, is that there's a difference between the wealth spreading around by individual free choices and wealth being spread around by government fiat. Decades of redistributive schemes from the Great Depression on down have conclusively proven that government simply cannot create wealth or help the economy by taking Peter's money and giving it to Paul.
What's worse, giving government money to Paul without his having to work for it destroys Paul as a human being. At least Mr. Obama's stated goal of making everybody better off was valid even if his way of accomplishing that goal is categorically flawed.
Not so with Rangel's argument. In his view, it doesn't matter whether the entire economy is growing or whether the poor are being helped to help themselves. The only relevant moral facts is that there are poor and there are people who are not poor. That's unacceptable to him.
If a conservative politician tried to invoke Biblical commands in any other context - abortion, say, or capital punishment - he'd be hooted off the stage. It's obvious that Rangel cares nothing for the Bible any more than he cares about tax laws or Congressional ethics rules; he thinks he can get away with a bogus appeal to morality in a purely partisan political context. But let's take him at his word for just a moment.
Jesus did, indeed, command us to "Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar's," and paid His taxes due. It's notable that of the amount He remitted, not a bit went to the relief of the poor - the Roman occupying government was not in the business of providing for the needy. Whatever Jesus paid to Caesar went straight into Caesar's pocket, not Little Orphan Annie's.
Christ and His disciples certainly cared about relieving the poor. The crucial point is that they used their own money, which wasn't much, and not even all of that.
On one occasion, a woman anointed Jesus with a fantastically expensive perfume, and Judas complained at the waste - the valuable commodity should have been sold and the money given to the poor.
Christ's response? "For the poor always ye have with you; but me ye have not always."
Jesus didn't have any problem enjoying life's little luxuries so long as they were justly obtained; He would not have sided with drunk liberal professor Susan Feinberg, who assaulted Congressman Paul Ryan for spending his own money on a bottle of fine wine while negotiating cuts to Medicare.
Did Jesus, then, not command that rich people had an obligation to help the poor? Sure He did, if they were related: He lambasted the Pharisees for not taking care of their elderly parents on the excuse that their money was dedicated to the service of God. The Apostle Paul made a similar point:
But if any provide not for his own, and specially for those of his own house, he hath denied the faith, and is worse than an infidel.
- 1 Timothy 5:8
Rep. Rangel's parents are deceased, though he's certainly making every effort to provide for his son - using your tax dollars of course. He's a big fan of making donations to charity - as long as it's his charity, The Charles B. Rangel Center for Public Service at the City University of New York, and someone else gives the money. Somehow we don't think that's what Jesus had in mind.
No, there's another Biblical passage that applies here, one that should be engraved over the doors of Congress and most particularly over the meeting room of Rep. Rangel's erstwhile Congressional committee, Ways and Means:
Thou shalt not covet thy neighbour's house, thou shalt not covet thy neighbour's wife, nor his manservant, nor his maidservant, nor his ox, nor his ass, nor any thing that is thy neighbour's.
- Exodus 20:17
If the clergy really thought Rangel gave a hoot about Scripture, that's what they ought to tell him. If there's one word that applies to forced charity via taxes, it's covetousness - for someone else's money by the recipients, and for power by the politicians. Nothing Christian, or even moral, about that.