By Pastor Tim Clark
Sin tax. In just two simple, three-letter words, one can combine the two subjects your mother told you never to talk about: religion and politics. (Hang on, Mom, you’re in for a bumpy ride!)
Religion and politics deal with the same subject – relationship. The former – man’s relationship to God; the latter – man’s relationship with society at large. The two subjects not only deal with the same subject matter, they are intimately connected. With this, our first president would agree:: “Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, religion and morality are indispensable supports” (George Washington’s farewell address).
“Sin tax” primarily refers to the practice of taxing commodities related to the pursuit of personal habits traditionally viewed as “sinful,” like smoking tobacco and drinking fermented or distilled spirits. The thinking behind the tax is two-fold – to discourage socially/religiously undesirable practices while at the same time pillaging the practitioners in order to supplement the coffers of government.
Interestingly, one rarely hears the phrase “sin tax” anymore. Probably because our amoral, pluralistic society has become progressively intolerant of labeling anything “sinful” – especially those practices with which they have become enamored. Although the phrase “sin tax” has fallen from common usage, the moral issues surrounding taxation have become the undefined debate of our time. Thinking the term “moral” to be too religious, we’ve substituted the less offensive word “fair” to fuel our arguments.
Politicians demagogue the issue by talking about the intrinsic unfairness of “giving” the “wealthy” tax breaks – implying that “the rich” don’t pay their “fair share.” For such individuals, “sin tax” means “the rich” are the “sinners” for somehow managing to escape their “fair” contribution to the maintenance of society.
But has anyone bothered to challenge the premise and check the facts? Here are the facts (according to IRS statistics for 2009): The top 1 percent of all taxpayers with an annual adjusted gross income of over $343,927 pay 36.73 percent of all income taxes collected. The top 5 percent of all taxpayers with an AGI of $154,643 pay 58.66 percent of all taxes collected. The top 10 percent (AGI, $112,124) pay 70.47 percent. The top 25 percent (AGI, $66,193) pay 87.30 percent. And the top 50 percent (AGI, $32,396) pay 97.75 percent.
Here’s the real shocker: the bottom 50 percent of taxpayers (those making less than $32,396 annually) pay a mere 2.25 percent of all income taxes collected.
The facts are simple and clear: half of our nation’s population are producers paying taxes, the other half are non-producers consuming them. A news report – CNNMoney, Feb. 7, 2012 – states that nearly half of American households receive a check from the federal government!
With the above adjustment in our understanding of the “facts,” there is needed another adjustment in our understanding of the phrase “sin tax.”
The real relationship of sin to our current system of taxation is to be found in the management of popular moral opinion. Those who hold the Marxist perspective that the “rich aren’t paying their fair share” (see the second enumerated principle of the “Communist Manifesto”) and yet claim a Christian profession of faith would do well to entertain the possibility that they themselves are guilty of sin in his matter of attitude toward taxation.
When one declares “the rich aren’t paying their fair share” (and this in spite of the facts), what they are really saying of their fellow citizens is this: “What’s yours is mine and I’m going to take it!”
God Himself has no compunction over weighing in on this subject of religion and politics: “You shall not covet your neighbor’s house. You shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or his manservant or maidservant, his ox or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor” (Exodus 20:17 NIV).
Taxes themselves are not inherently evil. The attitudes with which they are levied and the ends to which they may be applied are certainly open to moral judgment.
Christians ought to think twice before repeating the demagogic mantra of politicians. God has spoken. We need to listen.
Tim Clark is pastor of Emmanuel Christian Church, New Vernon Township.