Barack Obama has been remarkably disciplined in his campaign rhetoric. He has stressed the importance of fixing the fouled-up economy and of purging poisons from our political system. Yet in his famous colloquy with Joe the Plumber, Obama sprang a rhetorical leak. Not that the sense of what he said wasn't clear and well-meaning. But his comment about how it's a good thing to spread the wealth around was a ripe target for those itching to expose what they're convinced is the wild-eyed radical lurking behind the sane and sober exterior.
If you want to construe it that way, "spreading the wealth" is language that comes uncomfortably close to those isms on the far left: socialism, Marxism, communism. To many ears, it suggests that hard work will be punished and that slackers can expect to get by on the fruits of other people's labors.
But it's not necessary to apply such a sinister spin. For example, it's been the consensus in this country for a long while that our income tax system should, for fairness' sake, be progressive, with those in the upper income brackets paying at higher rates. They thus pay a larger share toward all programs conducted in the national interest, including those that benefit the less-affluent. Makes sense to me.
A little while ago I was giving a final edit to some letters to the editor that we plan to publish and came across one that made another relevant point: spreading the wealth is a core principle in the Judeo-Christian tradition. Taken literally, Christian teachings seem to frown on any wealth accumulation at all — leading to the vows of poverty taken by some who are determined to walk the walk. That is a hard standard for most of us to meet, although there are fallbacks that allow us to gauge when an appropriate portion of our earnings are being donated to charity — in other words, when we're being sufficiently generous.
This put me in mind of an event sponsored by the N.C. Council of Churches some years back that I attended with an eye toward writing a column about it, which I did. It featured a talk by the council's then-executive director, the Rev. Collins Kilburn, about the intersection between religion and politics (more than a few fender-benders have occurred at that intersection, as we all know).
Looking back at that column, which ran on Feb. 2, 1997, there are some nuggets worth recycling:
(NOTE: Quoted passage begins here)
(Kilburn) stressed the importance of avoiding what he called "dogmatic self-righteousness and certitude" - a pitfall that routinely seems to ensnare those who enter the arena from the right.
"The corrective is within our tradition," Kilburn said. "All of us are sinful and fallible, and can be mistaken even in our most idealistic convictions. We can't know with certainty how God would have us act in a given political situation."
However, he said, Christians should not be intimidated: "The appropriate Christian stance is to be zealous about what we think God's will for society is." That mandate for zeal, tempered with wariness of fanaticism, is one of the council's political/philosophical cornerstones.
There are several others, set forth in a position statement adopted by the group last year and elaborated upon by Kilburn. First is that Christians have a duty to become vigorously involved in political causes and activities because so many public issues have a moral aspect - the distribution of resources, crime and punishment, war and peace. For mainline church members, Kilburn said, the typical sins are not fanaticism, but "indifference, despair and abdication."
Advocacy for those on society's margins is an imperative, the council believes. "Welfare mothers, welfare children, refugees," Kilburn said. "Take their side, champion their cause. People faithful to the Bible will be strongly faithful to this theme." A society that slashes support for poor people so that the affluent can save on their tax bills is not what the Council of Churches has in mind.
In a similar vein, the council believes (as Kilburn put it) that Christians should work to ensure that the fruits of the earth are shared and distributed justly. The ideal is not to achieve absolute equality of wealth, he said, but to reduce the degree of disparities. With an Old Testament flourish, he framed the issue this way: "Woe for those who enjoy living in opulence while others languish."
A further premise is that government is a good and necessary institution. "Many problems in society need to be addressed by the whole society," Kilburn said, and government is the only instrument that can do that. "The churches are already strapped in meeting social needs. They do meet many of these needs, but that doesn't eliminate the need for a basic social safety net." He added: "Christians aren't for big government or little government. They're for government that's big enough to meet the task."
(NOTE: End of quoted passage)
In the context of the dust-up about Obama's reference to spreading the wealth, I particularly relish Kilburn's warning about living in opulence while others languish. Now, is it government's job to keep that from happening? Not to the extent that we all should report to the collective farm and get to work on the next five-year production plan dreamed up by the commissars at party HQ. But as Kilburn suggested, we face many problems that government can play a beneficial role in addressing. If that requires the affluent among us, including affluent plumbers, to kick in a little more, so be it.