Tax Law, Religion, and Justice:
An Exploration of Theological Reflections on Taxation
An Introduction by Allen Calhoun
This is an Accepted Manuscript of a book chapter forthcoming from Routledge/CRC Press in Tax Law, Religion, and Justice: An Exploration of Theological Reflections on Taxation on March 8, 2021, available online here.
Why does the institution of taxation occupy a precarious place in our societies, seemingly suspended between its potential to redistribute resources and its status as a necessary evil? In other words, why is taxation held out as the means for achieving greater social equity while it is, at the same time, under constant pressure to limit itself for the sake of economic productivity? Why, to put the question succinctly, is tax policy driven by the competing principles of equity and efficiency? That is the question this book is designed to answer — but to answer in a particular way. The approach of this project is both historical and conceptual. It is an excavation of theological commitments throughout the history of Christianity in the West that have formed and shaped taxation as we know it and, thus, help to explain the ambiguous nature of our conceptions of taxation.
Thus, beneath the central question — why tax law is suspended between different guiding principles — lies a more specific question: why does taxation serve an adjunct role in legal systems, functioning as the means of achieving redistributive justice while other areas of law protect private property and foster the production of wealth? Christian theology has had much to say about property rights and wealth as moral categories. This work offers a contribution to what historian Jennifer Hole calls “economic ethics,” i.e., studies of the “moral evaluation” of contemporary economic practices.1Jennifer Hole, Economic Ethics in Late Medieval England, 1300-1550, Archival Insights into the Evolution of Economics, ed. Robert Leeson (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2016), 19. The subject matter of economic ethics, according to Hole, centers on the struggle in Christian thought over the category of wealth, and more specifically, the tension between acquiring wealth and the ideals of poverty exemplified by Jesus’ life.2Hole, Economic Ethics, 22.
This book, therefore, treats the categories of contemporary tax theory as inherited from earlier political, legal, and economic commitments that were infused with theological concepts. The categories remain even though evacuated of their original theological content.3Legal historian Chris Thornhill calls this phenomenon “theoretical secularization.” Any researcher exploring theoretical secularization, he writes, argues that the problems and concepts of political theory are often distilled from, or express responses to, points of theological or legal-theological debate, that legal and political principles evolve through a reshaping or a transformation of paradigms first pertaining to religion or religious conceptions of law, and that theological or legal-theological ideas retain impact in political debate even when the specifically religious content of these problems has begun to diminish in relevance. In this respect, the present project follows the example of theologian E. Clinton Gardner, who, quoting Harold J. Berman, writes:
The secular and increasingly global context of present-day law precludes the possibility of return to the legal systems of the past. Nevertheless, a study of the tradition is an essential preparation for the constructive task which lies ahead…. Such a study reveals the distinctive character of modern Western law…. Today, however, secular law, bereft of its original foundation, is left “suspended, so to speak, in mid-air.”4E. Clinton Gardner, Justice and Christian Ethics, New Studies in Christian Ethics 7 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996), 1–2.
Taxation, by its very nature, calls for “theological” input, as the economist Henry Simons noted.5Henry C. Simons, Personal Income Taxation: The Definition of Income as a Problem of Fiscal Policy (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1938), 13. Although Simons may have meant “theological” metaphorically, the term is suggestive; and this project accepts the invitation to excavate the theology or theologies that direct taxation toward a redistributive goal not readily explicable by most prevailing theories of tax equity.
The material that follows is necessarily presented historically, but its objective is not merely to increase the historical understanding of theological reflections on taxation. The following chapters draw on political, social, and economic developments, but the overall approach of the book is based in theological ethics.6Chapter One is an outlier, presenting the contemporary debate over theory on its own terms. The material refers at times to the influence that ideas had on economic legislation and the impact that law and politics had on theology, but it is chiefly concerned to examine the ideas of theologians.7The project follows in some respects the model provided by Carter Lindberg’s Beyond Charity: Reformation Initiatives for the Poor (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1993). Lindberg states early on in his book that he considers “the interpretations of some social historians to be unnecessarily reductionistic.” Lindberg, Beyond Charity, 13. He readily acknowledges that ideas and events influence each other, and that his “presentation of theories” must be “supplemented by accounts of … legislative and administrative praxis”; but he emphasizes that his approach is not that of a social historian. Lindberg, Beyond Charity, 4–6. In the final analysis, Lindberg insists, judgments about the relationship of values and ideologies to political and economic policies must rest “not only upon empirical observations but also upon nontestable assumptions” held by, among others, historians and theologians. Lindberg, Beyond Charity, 2. Its primary method is to examine texts in selected theological traditions.8For a similar statement of purpose, see Gardner, Justice and Christian Ethics, 6–9. It is, in other words, a theoretical study with socio-cultural features. The impact of theological and philosophical ideas on legislation and on attitudes of the people is hard to gauge. The chapters that follow, however, are informed by the belief that ideas are often criticisms of, and reactions to, social, economic, and political circumstances.9See Hole, Economic Ethics, for statements of a similar methodological position. Moreover, these criticisms and reactions can, and sometimes do, influence actions and decisions.10Historian Elizabeth A. R. Brown writes that “there is evidence that in some parts of western Europe,” the social, political, and economic teachings of medieval theologians “resulted in the performance of acts which, rather than promoting the immediate practical interests of the ruler and his realm, actually mitigated against them. In these instances the precepts of the theologians would appear to have fallen on fertile ground and to have prompted actions which would not otherwise have been performed.” Elizabeth A. R. Brown, “Taxation and Morality in the Thirteenth and Fourteenth Centuries: Conscience and Political Power and the Kings of France,” French Historical Studies 8, no. 1 (Spring 1973): 9, accessed August 15, 2020, http://www.jstor.org/stable/285956. At the very least, theologians throughout the history of the Christian church have liberated categories and vocabularies that made sense of, and allowed people to articulate, changing social and economic circumstances.11This is the claim that Carter Lindberg stakes in response to the debate over the influence of Luther’s ideas on changing economic and social conditions in the sixteenth century. Lindberg, Beyond Charity, 68–69.
Rather than telling policymakers exactly what they should do in Washington or London, this work offers three broad messages, each to a different audience.
To the historian, it offers an explanation of the ambivalent position in which tax theory currently finds itself.
To the church, this project extends an invitation. The church has often shown suspicion of government-administered poor relief, of various forms of social justice, and of certain types of equality. These chapters ask the Christian believer to consider re-imagining redistributive taxation as a means of taking on the burdens and needs of her neighbor. In the United States, conversations about economics and public finance were briefly open to ideas about equity after the financial crisis beginning in 2008 and briefly again the early days of the 2020 presidential campaign. Equity may have surfaced in those conversations only as an instrumental kind of equity, the consequence of a realization that inequality can destabilize the economy, but the opportunity to bring a more theological account of equity into public discourse was there. It was a missed opportunity; it should not be missed in the next crisis.
To policymakers, this project issues a warning. Tax theory and tax policy will necessarily remain incoherent if they are beholden to one and only one social goal, such as economic growth. Taxation must, by definition, take into account plural goods, and those goods must be commensurable. The meaning of this undoubtedly cryptic paragraph will, I hope, unfold throughout the course of this book.
At one level, this book addresses the tension between the realism demanded of policymakers and the relative ideological purity of calls for redistributive taxation. The theologians discussed herein never questioned a ruler’s prerogative to raise revenue for the common good, as long as the revenue raised was indeed used for the common good. What the theologians required was that the ruler’s objectives be infused with concern for the needs of society’s disadvantaged members. In other words, the needs of the poor should balance the needs of state and the interests of property owners and wage earners.
In form, the theologians’ call resembles the recessive voice of tax justice in the contemporary American discussion. The goal of liberal-egalitarian tax theories in particular is to inject explicitly redistributive considerations into tax policy.12See Chapter One.
In substance, however, the contemporary and historical calls for redistributive justice differ. Taxation as a tool for reducing economic inequality has recently received significant attention in the United States.13See, e.g., Zachary Karabell, “Why Taxing the Rich May Not Save Democracy,” Wired (January 29, 2019), accessed August 16, 2020, https://www.wired.com/story/why-taxing-the-rich-may-not-save-democracy/ (reviewing Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’ proposal to raise the marginal tax rate to seventy percent on income above $10 million and Senator Elizabeth Warren’s proposed “wealth tax” on assets over $50 million). Many view inequality as a strike against American democracy. Reasons for decrying the wealth gap range from a desire to see all of society’s members share in economic growth and prosperity (limited always by the overriding commitment not to hinder growth) to the pragmatic concern that too much inequality jeopardizes the rule of law and, thus, the conditions for growth.
As the following chapters will show, the reduction of inequality itself was not a particularly high priority for Augustine, Aquinas, Ockham, Luther, and Calvin. Instead, what is common to these theologians’ accounts of property (and tax) is simply this: the inescapable imperative that property (and tax revenue) be used to meet the needs of the poor.
As the Christian church grew during the history of the Roman Empire, it increasingly faced questions about the morality of wealth and poverty. Its representatives — not least Ambrose and Augustine — worked to delineate an appropriately Christian response to extreme wealth, poverty, and economic inequality in their society. Other Christians approached the problem differently. The “theology of redistributive taxation” herein begins there, with the early theological efforts to heal the wound between rich and poor.14See Chapter Two.
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Thomas Aquinas was the thinker who gave the concept of need its redistributive force. He offered a robust account of individual property rights as an affirmative good, but one that is nonetheless limited by the natural law of communal property.15See Chapter Three. Necessitas is a kind of triggering mechanism in Thomas’ political theology, in that the need of the poor person reactivates the natural law of common possession, suspends human laws on private property, and places the one with superabundance in the debt of the one lacking necessitas.
William of Ockham, who wrote about taxes quite directly, anticipated various modern tax theories. He also reinvigorated the recessive voice, represented in Chapter Two by the likes of Jerome and Pelagius, regarding wealth and the Christian. Tax was ultimately for Ockham a way of renouncing what was Caesar’s and thus living more consistently in the spiritual dominium.16See Chapter Four.
For Martin Luther, inequality was an unimportant concept. According to Luther, the assurance that the believer has received an abundance of all good things — spiritual and material — by virtue of having changed places with Christ frees her to focus exclusively on the needs of others without reservation or anxiety.17See Chapter Five.
Inequality does enter the theological narrative in the thinking of John Calvin,18See Chapter Six. but more as a catalyst for relieving others’ needs and binding people together in an arrangement of mutual dependence than as a central problem of its own.
In the end, Calvin’s vision was inverted by Enlightenment thinkers. His eschatological reserve was replaced by the confidence — if not hubris — of using taxation to reach an ideal state of affairs in society. The assumption that an optimal social condition is reachable answers the presenting question: why does taxation occupy ambiguous ground between moral and amoral considerations?19See Chapter Seven. ♦
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Karabell, Zachary. “Why Taxing the Rich May Not Save Democracy.” Wired (January 29, 2019). Accessed August 16, 2020.
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Ventry, Dennis J. “Equity versus Efficiency and the U.S. Tax System in Historical Perspective.” In Tax Justice: The Ongoing Debate, edited by Joseph J. Thorndike and Dennis J. Ventry, Jr., 25–70. Washington, DC: The Urban Institute Press, 2002.
Allen Calhoun’s career has followed parallel tracks, one in the law and legal publishing field and the other in academics and higher education. He has, among other degrees, a PhD in theological ethics and an LLM in taxation and is currently putting both to use as a McDonald Distinguished Fellow at Emory University’s Center for the Study of Law and Religion and an adjunct professor of ethics and philosophy at Averett University.
Calhoun, Allen. “Tax Law, Religion, and Justice: An Exploration of Theological Reflections on Taxation.” Canopy Forum, October 27, 2020. https://canopyforum.org/2020/10/27/tax-law-religion-and-justice-an-exploration-of-theological-reflections-on-taxation/