Monday, December 27, 2004

Faith and Taxes

This time each year, my wife and I complete the only spreadsheet that ever gets used in this household—the annual accounting of our charitable giving. Line by line, year after year, we track the contributions made in categories such as Education, Women & Children, Environment, Poverty & Public Welfare, Medical Research, and Broadcasting, Reading & the Arts. Call it tithing for secular humanists. Bookkeeping for non-believers.

Nominally, it's kept for tax reasons, but we don't do the same with our investments. Measuring what we've given is a much more satisfying way to look at the riches we've received.

Now, imagine if every citizen saw an annual spreadsheet accounting for every dollar of personal giving, along with the federal, state and local taxes they paid. And imagine what would happen if everyone truly did have total control over all their "hard-earned money." Would investment in our communities go up or down? Would the dollars be spent more effectively? Would America be a better place for all?

The anti-tax crowd claims that personal giving and private charities could do a better job than government in a number of areas. And others fear the President's Faith-Based Initiative is just a Trojan horse designed to reduce the size of government while winning votes in the evangelical heartland—without improving the lot of society's less fortunate.

Faith, charity and taxes define another zone of the Great Divide. Squaring off from absolute positions fails to solve much. With people on both sides standing so rigidly on principle, we forget to ask: What if it works? What if government truly does a better job at some things? What if churches are better at others? How might we be willing to think differently about our positions?

In today's StarTribune, Vic Rosenthal and Suzanne Bring write in an op/ed piece:

While individual acts of charity build a stronger sense of community, and may meet the immediate needs of the poor and homeless, they do not get to the underlying causes of oppression. Homelessness and lack of insurance can only be dealt with through budgets, state and federal, that provide sufficient funding to meet the needs of everyone in our community. That requires a budget which meets the needs of our community, that reflects the moral values of giving...

If we are willing to tithe or pay dues even when it benefits those we don't know, or provide charity for others we don't know, why must we treat taxes as something so abhorrent? Without taxes, we cannot implement policies to meet the needs of the poor in our community, regardless of their faith, race or neighborhood.

It is time to understand the state budget as a moral document and taxes as the moral equivalent of giving to the community.

Check the link below for more about Rosenthal, executive director of Jewish Community Action, who won a Ford Foundation 2004 Leadership for a Changing World Award. He distinguishes between charity and public collective work. Charity or direct-service volunteerism makes the donor feel good, but the effects do not address root causes of poverty or racism.

There's also a good discussion of Faith-Based Initiatives from Frontline that raises interesting issues, such as, if so many Americans are religious, why wouldn't they benefit from programs that share the most important aspects of their religious perspective? Weigh that against the fact that the federal government wants civil rights to be part of public morality, so where the money goes, civil rights guarantees go.



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