Equality or Need

A Theological Look at the 2020 Democratic Presidential Candidates’ Tax Plans

(Part 3)

Allen Calhoun

—Part III— 

Parts I and II of this article surveyed the 2020 Democratic presidential candidates’ tax proposals, particularly those (like the wealth tax proposals) that seek to reduce economic inequality, and located those proposals in the history of tax philosophy. This Part III places that largely post-Enlightenment philosophy of taxation in dialogue with the longer history of reflection on redistributive taxation among Christian theologians.

Christian relativization of property

Many Christian thinkers throughout the centuries would have welcomed a wealth tax—not because they valued equality itself—but because they were convinced that my having more than I need while someone else has less than she needs is morally wrong. Theologians in the first four or five centuries of the Christian era reformulated property rights in line with their understanding of Christ’s teachings. They emphasized that all property originated as common property. The rich, Ambrose of Milan said, were those who took for themselves “what is common.” What was common was “what is given for everyone’s use.” 1Ambrose, “The Story of Naboth” 36, in From Irenaeus to Grotius: A Sourcebook in Christian Political Thought, 100-1625, ed. Oliver O’Donovan and Joan Lockwood O’Donovan (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1999), 77.

Thomas Aquinas encapsulated this line of thinking by describing communal property as a dictate of natural law but individual property as a creature of human law. The two did not conflict. According to Thomas, private property is good because people are more likely to take care of what is their own. But, Thomas continued, the common-property feature of natural law lurks just beneath the surface, so that those with more wealth than they need must be ready at a moment’s notice to part with their superabundance for the sake of those in need: “[W]hatever certain people have in superabundance is due, by natural law, to the purpose of succoring the poor.”2Thomas Aquinas, Summa theologiae (Latin-English Edition), trans. Fathers of the English-Dominican Province (NovAntiqua, 2013), II-II, Q. 66, Art. 7, resp.

Christian theologians, in fact, came to think of the rich person’s superabundant wealth as something that belongs in some sense to the needy. Aquinas quoted Ambrose with approval, writing, “‘It is the hungry man’s bread that you withhold, the naked man’s cloak that you store away, the money that you bury in the earth that is the price of the poor man’s ransom and freedom.’” In some circumstances, keeping what you possessed became theft while taking what another possessed became rightful. Martin Luther described stealing in the commandment ‘Thou shalt not steal’ as any act, even making a profit, that works “to the disadvantage of our neighbor.”3 Martin Luther, “The Seventh Commandment: Thou Shalt Not Steal,” in Large Catechism, Christian Classics Ethereal Library, available at http://www.ccel.org/ccel/luther/largecatechism.i_1.html. As Karl Barth wrote more than four hundred years later,

If [the commandment “Thou shalt not steal”] is directed to those who violate the property of others, it is directed no less to those who uphold their own property…. Here is the relative truth in the paradox that ‘property is theft.’… It does not abolish the commandment “Thou shalt not steal,” but turns it against the owner, not to call him a rogue—this would make no sense–but to ask him whether precisely in his security as an owner in which he can survive the struggle for existence, precisely in the security which he owes to the commandment, he is not himself a transgressor of the commandment, a spoiler and perhaps a slayer of the life of others.4Karl Barth, Ethics, ed. Dietrich Braun, trans. Geoffrey W. Bromiley (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 1981), 168.

“Triumph of St. Thomas Aquinas over Averroes” / Benozzo Gozzoli / Wikimedia

Like Ambrose, Thomas, and Luther, Barth embraces a nuanced understanding of property rights. “We say too much,” Barth claims, “if we claim that the commandment … protects and sanctifies property. To argue this is to forget that the concept of property presupposes the conflict of all against all, and that in its own way it also confirms and accepts this conflict. At the same time it sets certain limits for it…. Unlike the concept of property, it does not set up a limit within the conflict but sets up God’s right and claim in opposition to the conflict as such.”5Barth, Ethics, 168. In the conflict that produces private property, some people may come out too far ahead relative to others. When that happens, it is the job of the government to remind us that all property is ultimately held in common.

Luther labored to remove poor relief from the realm of individual, voluntary charity and place it instead in the hands of local government officials. He wrote a preface to the Leisnig Ordinance of a Common Chest (a statute itself inspired by Luther’s teachings on the poor), in which he commended the legislation’s provision for an ongoing tax to fund the town of Leisnig’s “common chest” and the provision that funds be distributed from the common chest according to needs of the recipients.6Martin Luther, “Fraternal Agreement on the Common Chest,” in vol. 45, Luther’s Works (American Edition), ed. Jaroslav Pelikan and Helmut T. Lehmann (Philadelphia: Muehlenberg Press and Fortress Press, and St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1955-86). Luther decried the readiness with which rulers used revenue for “guns, roads, bridges, dams, and countless similar items to ensure the temporal peace and prosperity of a city” instead of for education and for meeting the basic necessities of the poor. He longed for a day in which helping the poor would no longer depend on the self-righteous benevolence of the wealthy and would be accomplished instead through a universally applicable and regularly imposed annual tax and a revenue-spending program tailored to the exact needs of the community’s poor and disadvantaged. Redistributive taxation would represent, Luther wrote, a restoration of “the true freedom of the Christian spirit.”

No sharp division between benevolence and redistributive taxation can be found in much of Christian theology. Regarding Romans 13:7-8 (“Pay all of [the authorities] their dues, taxes to whom taxes are due, revenue to whom revenue is due, respect to whom respect is due, honor to whom honor is due. Owe no one anything, except to love one another, for he who loves his neighbor has fulfilled the law”), John Calvin wrote that Paul wished to refer his precept of obedience to governing authorities “to the law of charity.” It is as if Paul had said (in Calvin’s words) “’When I require that you obey the rulers, I am not requiring anything other than what all the faithful should do from the law of charity.’”7John Calvin, Commentarius in epistolam Pauli ad Romanos, vol. 49, Ioannis Calvini opera quae supersunt omnia, ed. Edouard Cunitz, et al. (Braunschweig: C. A. Schwetschke, 1882), 252 (my translation). The theologians teach that a society’s economic structure should be animated by charity, and many have preferred government-administered poor relief to voluntary giving because the latter runs a greater risk of fostering spiritual pride.

In any event, equality itself is not the goal. The need of another transforms my rightful possession into wrongful possession. It reverses theft; it says that the one in original possession of property and not the one taking it may be the thief. Equality is a red herring; need is not. Determining what is needful is, to be sure, a daunting task, but no more daunting than deciding what we mean by equality. Whether or not there is a blueprint for how—or whether—a Christian should vote, any tax plan that seems designed to meet the needs of the poor deserves serious consideration. Such a plan’s goals may not be aligned with God’s preferential concern for the poor, but its effects very well might be. 


Following a number of years practicing law and working in legal publishing, Allen Calhoun obtained a PhD in theological ethics and legal history from the University of Aberdeen. He is currently a McDonald Distinguished Fellow at Emory University’s Center for the Study of Law and Religion and an adjunct faculty member in the Religion and Philosophy Department at Averett University. You can follow him onTwitter @allen_calhoun1.