I understood what he was saying for a number of reasons but specifically because that quote from the Gospel of Luke has been on my mind recently. Last month I posted a video poem to YouTube with this description:
A short poetic expression addressing the need for introspection on poverty, wealth, and gratitude. In some ways this piece considers the spiritual saying that to whom much is given much will be required, and seems appropriate in this era of an increasing gap between the rich and the poor.You may watch the video below.
So, before I even read the CNN article reporting that President Barack Obama reasoned that Jesus would be okay with taxing the wealthy at a higher rate, I had guessed from the headline, "Obama: Jesus would back my tax-the-rich policy," that the president had probably quoted Luke's Gospel:
Obama said that as a person who has been "extraordinarily blessed," he is willing to give up some of the tax breaks he enjoys because doing so makes economic, and religious sense. [...] "For me as a Christian, it also coincides with Jesus' teaching that for unto whom much is given, much shall be required," Obama said, quoting the Gospel of Luke.Also, here is the quote straight from the transcript of the speech at WhiteHouse.gov:
And when I talk about shared responsibility, it’s because I genuinely believe that in a time when many folks are struggling, at a time when we have enormous deficits, it’s hard for me to ask seniors on a fixed income, or young people with student loans, or middle-class families who can barely pay the bills to shoulder the burden alone. 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.Undoubtedly someone will say that Obama quoted that verse out of context. In that section of Luke, Chapter 12, King James Version (If you would prefer today's English, try the New English Translation), Jesus is speaking of the punishment of those who call themselves believers and who know and understand his teaching but do not follow it. He is saying that people who do not do the right thing because they don't know any better won't receive a harsh punishment like those who knew better but did not do better.
But for me as a Christian, it also coincides with Jesus’s teaching that “for unto whom much is given, much shall be required.” It mirrors the Islamic belief that those who’ve been blessed have an obligation to use those blessings to help others, or the Jewish doctrine of moderation and consideration for others.
Can this concept of equitable consequences be applied to taxation? I think so. In essence, Jesus is saying people who have more of a good thing should do more and they will be expected to have done so—the privileged are held to a higher standard. Put another way, according to the Gospel of Luke, Jesus said God judges us and determines our consequences based on a sliding scale; have more, owe more. Given his comment at the prayer breakfast, President Obama seems to know that this concept applies to him as well. And we know people hold presidents to higher standards in everything than they do other Americans.
I could go on and talk about other passages in the New Testament that indicate Jesus and his apostles expected people to share and to help those who have less as well as parts in the Old Testament that indicate within Israel's theocracy helping the poor or extending one's material gain to the community was a requirement, but why go there? Bibles are easy to find in America. Most translations are free and online.
However, for those in the country who are not Christian or who do not come from a belief system that acknowledges the teachings of Jesus to have any significance or for those who don't believe in anything other than decency, perhaps, then the president will have to make a different logical appeal. From what I can see he has done that already; he's argued in the past for fairness.
On the matter of whether a president should mention religion at all in relation to policy, no way will there be agreement on that. Nevertheless, consider again that President Obama was speaking at a National Prayer Breakfast and not delivering the State of the Union address. Consequently, he located his ethos in that situation and identified with his audience as his life experience allowed (and possibly he let his words do the double duty of reminding some conservatives that he is not a Muslim).
Furthermore, consider that the president is not saying that he thinks the rich should pay more because the Bible says so. Such a position would mean a president was running the country based on his personal religious beliefs. No, he's saying that what he thinks Jesus said happens to line up with the concept that those who possess more wealth should pay more in taxes. In other words, that a policy happens to be in accordance with a religious saying is coincidental, and to make that clear, the president even used the verb coincides in his statement.
Here's an analogy. Jesus didn't believe it was right to stone women either. In America, we don't stone women. A president pointing out the coincidence that Jesus would agree with laws that prevent stoning is not the same as saying, "I am proposing anti-stoning laws because Jesus wants me to do so." Arguing that Jesus would agree with a certain proposal while speaking to folks at a prayer breakfast is simply an icing-on-the-cake argument delivered to an audience of non-atheists who are probably familiar with this common teaching in the Christian tradition.
So, the rhetorical stance the president is taking here is very different from the rhetorical stance of those who want to force people to follow the Bible or those who want to pass/enforce laws supposedly based on "Biblical principles" or any other religious book's principles even if the supposed principles violate the civil and human rights of citizens. Becoming POTUS does not mean one can never publicly acknowledge his/her belief in God or acknowledge that one sees a similarity between a governmental proposal and a religions teaching. A president is allowed to be religious, whether we like it or not. He or she just can't impose what s/he believes on the laws of the land if that belief conflicts with the Constitution.
So, what kind of taxation is equitable, what kind is fair under our Constitution? That's the question, and if the answer sounds similar to anything in any "holy" book, then that's something to ponder when you're feeling spiritual one day.