Lutheran Perspectives on the “Wealth Gap” and American Tax Policy

[1] During the past several decades, the economic disparity between the poorest and the richest Americans has widened. This is partly the result of enormous increases in the salaries of many upper echelon executives and professionals, and the stagnation of wages among many working class employees. The growing “wealth gap” also is related to tax cuts, which have reduced the highest tax bracket on earned income from 70 percent in 1981 to 35 percent today, and have reduced inheritance taxes and levies on capital gains. Meanwhile, an erosion of progressivity in tax rates has left taxpayers with relatively modest incomes paying the same rate as persons with the nation’s highest incomes.

[2] The growing concern among Christians for social justice has inspired many Christians to deplore these increasing economic disparities and to call for a tax system that would more evenly distribute tax burdens. As early as 1986, a report of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops observed that there is a “strong presumption” against “extreme inequality of income and wealth as long as there are poor, hungry, and homeless people in our midst” and declared that “the tax system should be structured according to the principle of progressivity, so that those with relatively greater financial resources pay a higher rate of taxation.”[1] More recently, University of Alabama Law Professor Susan Pace Hamill, a Methodist, has written influential works contending that regressive and flat taxes are inconsistent with Judeo-Christian ethics and that the erosion of progressive taxation has contributed to a growth in wealth disparity and poverty that Christians must regard as unacceptable.[2]

[3] The outspokenness of Lutheran churches throughout the world on a wide array of social and political issues during recent decades demonstrates that tax policy and the income gap are subjects in which Lutherans may appropriately speak as Christians. Although the Lutheran doctrine of the “two kingdoms” often has been invoked (perhaps most frequently by non-Lutherans who have misunderstood it) as an excuse for Lutherans to refrain from religiously-motivated involvement in politics, modern scholars largely agree that this is not what Luther intended. As Lutheran theologian and bishop William H. Lazareth has observed, “To exclude the crucial realm of politics from Christian thought and action is not merely ecclesiastical apathy; it is ultimately theological heresy and ethical disobedience. It is true that politics will never bring anyone salvation. But it is also true that political life is the God-ordained pattern for preserving life in peace, justice, and freedom so that the saving gospel of Christ might be proclaimed to the ends of the earth.”[3]

[4] Lutherans always have sought to lessen poverty and to promote the welfare of all citizens. As one scholar has explained, Luther’s doctrine of justification by faith “cut the nerve” of the medieval Catholic attitude toward poverty, which accorded spiritual merit to impoverishment and promised celestial rewards to the givers of alms. With the advent of Lutheranism, “poverty is no longer seen as the favored status of the Christian, but rather a social ill to be ameliorated even if cannot ultimately be cured…The poor are no longer the objects of meretricious charity, but neighbors to be served through justice and equity.”[4] Under Luther’s aegis, Lutheran cities and principalities during the sixteenth century discouraged begging and began to develop policies to prevent as well as to ameliorate poverty.[5]

[5] It is perhaps no accident that the modern social welfare state was pioneered in predominately Lutheran Germany by a Lutheran chancellor, Otto von Bismarck, and has found its full flowering in Lutheran Scandinavia. From an ethical standpoint, the development of state-supported welfare programs enhances the dignity of the individual by regarding his welfare as a right rather than as a privilege that depends on the whims of private benevolence. Moreover, social welfare programs help to enable the poor to achieve their human potential in the image of God.[6] On the other hand, some Lutheran theologians have warned that a welfare state that displaces private charity threatens the integrity of the Christian concepts of agape and the diaconate, which are based not on condescension toward the poor but rather on mutual love and obligation between both the giver and the recipient.[7]

[6] Lutheran support for social welfare institutions has been consistent with a strong Lutheran work ethic. Although Max Weber based his theory of the Protestant work ethic more on Calvinists than Lutherans, Luther’s rejection of meritorious poverty, his emphasis on Christian vocation, and his call for Christians to participate in meaningful work helped to generate a work ethic which has promoted the economic development and prosperity of Lutheran nations.

[7] Lutheran support for social welfare measures and opposition to poverty, however, does not necessarily mean that Lutherans must oppose disparities in wealth or champion any particular economic system or structure of taxation. With their unique awareness of the ubiquity of sin, Lutherans understand that no economic system can escape human corruption. Lutherans therefore naturally look with skepticism on the moral claims of both capitalism and socialism. Few practicing Lutherans would criticize capitalism with the fervor of Popes John Paul II or Benedict XVI, but virtually no Lutherans embrace laissez faire economics with the quasi-religious devotion found so often among many Reformed and sectarian Protestants.

[8] Moreover, the Lutheran doctrines of justification by faith alone and the concomitant doctrine that good works are the fruits of faith preclude the Church from prescribing any particular economic system or tax structure. As in all ethical and moral matters, a thorough grounding in Lutheran theology qualifies the individual believer to follow one’s own conscience about what type of economic or tax system is most consistent with Christianity. There are several Lutheran precepts, however, which should encourage Lutherans to deplore growing disparities in wealth and to favor more progressive forms of taxation.

[9] As the report of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops argued, extreme inequalities in wealth may be “detrimental to the development of social solidarity and community.”[8] Lutherans should find this argument particularly appealing. The communal values of Lutherans, like those of Roman Catholics, strongly weigh against pronounced disparities in wealth. Although Lutherans share with other Protestants the individualistic concept of the priesthood of all believers, Lutherans are more communal than other Protestants. Like Catholics, Lutherans emphasize the sacraments, profess a common creed, employ a standardized liturgy, and have churches that embrace virtually the entire population of certain nations.

[10] Moreover, the growing income and wealth gap also tends to diminish the dignity of work, thereby undermining the integrity of the concept of “vocation” which has played such a large role in Lutheran theology and culture.[9] Luther emphasized that “the works of monks and priests, however holy and arduous they may be, do not differ one whit in the sight of God from the works of the rustic laborer in the field or the woman going about her household tasks.”[10] Modestly paid workers may begin to doubt the value of their contributions when society and government permit large numbers of persons to earn immense compensation which bears no discernable relation to the utility of their services and which is vastly disproportionate to the value of services performed by lesser paid individuals. Although large corporations try to justify the huge compensation packages for top executives on the ground that they are instrumental in generating larger profits, this argument is belied by the fact that many executives continue to receive enormous pay even when their companies are losing money.

[11] By demeaning the dignity of labor, the wealth gap also diminishes the dignity of the person, transforming workers from valued employees into fungible economic objects. It therefore demeans the dignity of the individual. In the secular language of the Lutheran ethicist Immanuel Kant, it violates the categorical imperative by treating people as means to an economic end rather than valuing their humanity and work as an end in itself.

[12] The result is a diminution in pride in work for its own sake, and a tendency of the young to shun socially useful but modestly paid jobs that require a high level of training and dedication in order to seek careers which are more lucrative but which arguably have less social utility. Already, for example, there is a growing shortage of police officers, nurses, and church organists. In the legal profession, many highly qualified lawyers either have refused appointment to the federal bench or resigned federal judgeships because a federal judge earns only a few thousand dollars more than first-year associates in many major law firms. Lutheran congregations should be mindful that there is a growing disparity between the compensation of clergy and the remuneration of professionals who have comparable educations and responsibilities, and that the Church will suffer if potential clergy are diverted to better-paid occupations.

[13] The wealth gap also encourages greed, which Luther regarded as a fundamental sin because it promotes idolatry and separates man from God.[11] Luther’s attitudes toward greed illustrate his theological view of the insidiousness of sin. As one scholar has pointed out, Luther regarded greed “as a form of sin that hides injustice and conceals spoliation under a mask of good works and apparent good intentions.”[12]

[14] Furthermore, the growing gap between rich and poor also tends to glorify materialism and to encourage ever more consumption. This tends to both diminish the spiritual values of the individual and to ravage the natural environment.

[15] Income and asset disparities which encourage materialism are particularly deplorable because so much new wealth is wasted on the type of “conspicuous consumption” identified a century ago by the economist Thorsten Veblen, who retained many Lutheran values even after he shed his Lutheran faith. While many of the wealthiest Americans contribute generously to myriad charities, the capital explosion of recent decades also has resulted in a profusion of spending that is intended more to inspire awe and envy than to satisfy any rational desire for comfort, convenience, or beauty. Moreover, while some private charity produces many social benefits, one might argue that particularly large beneficence in a democratic society ought to be the product of a political process that involves all citizens rather than the result of the fancies and whims of a handful of extremely wealthy persons.

[16] One could argue that Lutheran values have made Lutherans less susceptible to feckless spending. Although a disproportionate number of the world’s wealthiest persons are Lutheran, even the most affluent Lutherans tend to live modestly. It may be significant that Norway is the only one of the oil-rich nations (including not only the Arab countries but also the United States, the United Kingdom, Russia, and Mexico) in which beneficiaries of oil have shunned ostentatious displays of wealth. Individual Norwegians have not flaunted their wealth, and the Norwegian government has invested its vast oil revenues in human welfare and a unique trust fund that invests in ethically responsible companies. The frugality and good stewardship of Lutherans also is evident in the fact that American Lutherans have by far the lowest bankruptcy rate of any major religious group in the United States.

[17] Since the erosion of progressive taxation has contributed greatly to growing disparities in wealth, Lutherans who deplore the wealth gap have good reasons to favor a tax system in which rates are more progressive. As the statement of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops explained, progressive taxation “is an important means of reducing the severe inequalities of income and wealth in the nation.”[13]

[18] In the only apparent official statement by an American Lutheran denomination on tax policy, the American Lutheran Church in 1970 emphasized that taxation is a subject on which Christians should “vigorously” make their opinion known, because taxation is so closely related to issues of social justice. Although the ALC did not endorse any particular form of taxation, it declared that a tax “progressive in ratio to a reasonable maximum…appears to be the core of any modern tax system.” The ALC contended that sales taxes “weigh unduly heavily upon the poor.” The ALC explained that “[t]axes should never so impoverish either the strong or the weak that they thwart incentive or deny opportunity to do needful things outside the structures of government.”[14]

[19] Like many Christian commentaries on the ethics of progressive taxation, the ALC statement appears to assume that progressive tax rates will make more revenue available for social programs. The imposition of higher tax rates on the rich, however, will not necessarily result in improved social services, and regressive taxation does not necessarily preclude extensive social service programs. The same is true of a flat tax. While some economists and many public officials and citizens believe that a flat tax will help all citizens by encouraging more investment, Christian ethics is more concerned with distributive justice than allocational efficiency, instrumentalism, or utilitarianism.

[20] Another argument, emphasized by Hamill, is that progressive taxation is consistent with Christian concepts of self- sacrifice and “principles imposing greater moral obligations on those blessed with greater amounts of wealth.”[15] Although a Christian could fulfill these obligations through private charity, Hamill argues that governmental compulsion is necessary because “most people, due to the human tendency towards greed, would never pay their share voluntarily.”[16] Another tax law expert recently concluded that the concept that those who have more should pay a greater share of their income in taxes is so intuitively fair that it is consistent with both natural law and the principles of Christianity.[17]

[21] In addition to the tax structure and corporate compensation practices, the growing income and wealth disparities are exacerbated by the huge influx of immigrants into the United States. Many of these persons, particularly illegal aliens, work for pathetic wages and are cruelly exploited by their employers. Although many of these people and their descendants will surely in time be absorbed into the middle and upper classes, their presence has tended to encourage public toleration of the wealth gap and to create a dependency on cheap labor. Moreover, many of these immigrants come from nations in which vast gulfs between rich and poor are accepted without question, and they may have internalized the anti-egalitarian values of their native lands. The many American Lutherans who have urged more lenient immigration policies should carefully consider the ethical aspects of these facets of immigration.

[22] The tendency of Lutherans to adhere to a highly egalitarian ethic that disdains significant disparities in wealth among citizens is likely to have influenced the tax policies of predominately Lutheran countries. Although the Scandinavian nations have reduced income taxes in recent years – Sweden once had an anomalous top rate of 101 percent – they remain much higher than in the United States. The highest national rates are 59 percent in Denmark, 58 percent in Iceland, 55 percent in Sweden, 54.3 percent in Norway, and 53 percent in Finland. The highest rate in Germany is 42 percent. Since these countries have higher sales taxes and higher compliance rates than does the United States, the effective tax rates are even higher. Meanwhile, the Scandinavian nations have imposed modest rates of corporate taxation that have encouraged investment and contributed to the continuing prosperity of these nations.

[23] Estonia and Latvia are the only predominately Lutheran countries that have a flat tax (22 and 25 percent, respectively), but such a tax may be ethically more justifiable there than in most nations. Having lived for half a century under the Soviet heel, their people have accumulated no large fortunes, and the private sector has a compelling need for capital to develop enterprises that already thrive in other western nations.

[24] Since the growing wealth gap and the elimination of steeply progressive tax rates are inconsistent with so many Lutheran values, there are strong, if not compelling, reasons why American Lutherans ought to encourage the more egalitarian economic policies that prevail in predominately Lutheran nations.

End Notes

[1] Economic Justice for All: Pastoral Letter on Catholic Social Teaching and the U.S. Economy (Washington, D.C.: National Conference of Catholic Bishops, 1986), 92, 99.

Susan Pace Hamill, An Argument for Tax Reform Based on Judeo-Christian Ethics, 54 Alabama Law Review 1 (2002); Susan Pace Hamill, An Evaluation of Federal Tax Policy Based on Judeo-Christian Ethics, 25 Virginia Tax Review 671 (2006).

William H. Lazareth, “God’s Call to Public Responsibility,” in George W. Forell and William H. Lazareth, eds. God’s Call to Public Responsibility (Fortress Press, 1978), 40.

Carter Lindberg, “Luther on Poverty,” in Timothy J. Wengert, ed., Harvesting Martin Luther’s Reflections on Theology, Ethics, and the Church (Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2004), 140-41.

Ibid ., 141-44.

Hamill, An Evaluation of Federal Tax Policy, supra, 690.

See Helmut Thielicke, Theological Ethics, vol. 2, Politics, William H. Lazareth, ed., (William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1979), 300-08.

Economic Justice for All , supra, 92.

See Karlfried Froehlich, “Luther on Vocation,” in Wengert, ibid, 121-33.

Ibid , 121, quoting from The Babylonian Captivity of the Church.

Ricardo Willy Rieth, “Luther on Greed,” in Wengert, supra, at 161.

Ibid, 162.

Economic Justice for All, supra, 99.

Tax Reform: A Cause for Christian Action. A Statement of The American Lutheran Church (1970).

Hamill, An Evaluation of Federal Tax Policy, at 681, 698.

Ibid ., 681.

Mark S. Hoose, “The Conservative Case for Progressive Taxation,” 40 New England Law Review 92-93 (2005).