TaxProf Blog

Editor: Paul L. Caron, Dean
Pepperdine University School of Law

Monday, October 28, 2013

Tax Policy Isn't the Purview of Preachers

Wall Street Journal op-ed:  Tax Policy Isn't the Purview of Preachers, by Nicholas G. Hahn III (Editor,

When Congress ended the government shutdown last week and arranged to resume the debt-ceiling fight in February, no doubt many Americans prayed that next time around there would be less partisan behavior from lawmakers on both sides of the aisle. A similar request should be made of religious leaders, many of whom have lately sounded more like politicians than pastors.

When ... the government closed its doors, the conference of bishops issued an "action alert" urging Catholics to contact their representatives about supporting a plan to raise the debt ceiling and "replace sequestration with a balanced plan that includes revenues as well as responsible spending cuts," among other demands. ...

The bishops and other clergy in the Circle of Protection go well beyond their competencies when they make such policy prescriptions. Speaking about the moral issues of the day is certainly within their pastoral purview, but the bishops' calls to raise revenues (aka taxes), for instance, or eliminate "unnecessary" military spending are not. ...

The Bible offers some perspective on the intersection of politics and religion. In the Gospel of Mark, Jesus was asked by the Pharisees: "Is it lawful to pay the census tax to Caesar or not? Should we pay or should we not pay?" He responded, "Repay to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God."

In his answer, Jesus didn't simply endorse political authority, as is commonly supposed. Instead, he designated roles in public life. Politicians do politics. People pay taxes. And the faithful are to properly form and follow their consciences. Jesus didn't offer a specific amount that he thought would be right for the census tax or suggest how the government should spend it. Today's politicking preachers might want to consider that the next time someone proposes a Faithful Filibuster.

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The op-ed piece is right. As a serious practicing Catholic, I'm embarrassed by bishops weighing in on matters, as bishops, that they know no more about (actually less) than I do. As Americans they can speek freely to their hearts content, but claiming that their prudential preferences are somehow more Catholic than those of other Catholics is just naked arrogance.

Posted by: Mike Petrik | Oct 28, 2013 11:16:11 AM

Calls to muzzle the clergy are bad policy. Not to mention forbidden by the First Amendment. If a clergyman veers so far into politics as to call the 501(c)(3) exemption into question, let the chips fall where they may. But the notion that the clergy has no voice in the public square is contrary to centuries of history, and just plain silly.

Posted by: Jake | Oct 28, 2013 1:18:56 PM

Why is it that when the bishops speak out against abortion, the WSJ remains silent, but when they speak out against poverty, it pleads separation of church and state? Jesus spoke at length about poverty, suffering, and our obligations to address them. He never once mentioned abortion.

Posted by: Theodore Seto | Oct 28, 2013 3:52:12 PM

If religions aren't about public policy, what are they about?

Posted by: michael livingston | Oct 29, 2013 2:00:00 AM

It appears that Mr. Murdoch has no sense of irony. While criticising the Bishops for opining on tax policy and economics, the WSJ feels it is competent to venture into biblical interpretation. All things being equal, the bishops are probably more qualified to write about taxes and economics than the Journal is to write about the New Testament.

Posted by: Publius Novus | Oct 29, 2013 7:50:58 AM