A Religious Defense of Big Government: Sermon for Rosh Hashanah 5772

Source: Economic Policy Institute, The State of Working America 2011

Three years ago, I traveled with several JRC members and nearly 1,500 others to Postville, Iowa. We went to show our solidarity with 400 immigrant workers of the Agriprocessor kosher meat packing plant who had recently been arrested and imprisoned. It was, at the time, the largest single-site workplace raid in US history.

After participating in an interfaith service, we marched through the streets of Postville. As we reached the downtown area, we met up with angry counter-protestors, many of whom were holding signs condemning the invasion of “illegal immigrants” into their communities. One woman held a large sign that still sticks in my mind – it read: “What Would Jesus Do? Obey the Law.” I distinctly remember pointing out the irony of this sign to a fellow marcher, considering Jesus is actually considered to be one of the earliest practitioners of civil disobedience.

Now, I certainly don’t believe there’s anything inherently wrong when people of faith invoke religion to support their political positions.  From the prophets to Martin Luther King, faith has played a powerful and important role inspiring movements of political transformation.

But on that day in Postville, I was reminded that religion generally works best as a force for social good when it is leveraged on behalf of the the vulnerable and the oppressed.  But when those in power use faith as a justification for their oppression of the weak – frankly, that’s when we tend to witness religion at its worst.

To put it in the most basic terms, I’d say religion and politics mix well when they are used for the purposes of liberation. When they are used on behalf of empire – when they are wielded in what my Christian colleagues might call a “Constantinian” fashion – religion and politics generally tend to make for a pretty fatal mixture.

That’s why I reacted so instinctively when I saw that sign in Postville. “What Would Jesus Do? Obey the Law.” Really?  Even if those laws are oppressive?  Even if those laws are enacted by an all-powerful empire and wielded as a weapon against the weak?  Now I’m not a Christian theologian, but I was always led to believe this was exactly the kind of thing that used to drive Jesus nuts.

However you might choose to read your Bible, this much is fairly clear to me: if our religious tradition teaches us anything useful at all about laws, it’s that we need them to safeguard the well-being of the poor, the stranger, the widow the orphan. For their sake and ours, we are obliged to use the rule of law on behalf of the weakest – to protect those who are most at risk in our community.

I mention this because I strongly believe there has been a growing backlash against these kinds of laws in our country over the past few decades.  Government’s role in creating a stable foundation for the most vulnerable is currently under vicious political attack. And I’m very sad to see this political backlash supported by growing religious rhetoric.

Indeed, politicians, clergy and pundits, are increasingly invoking God when they attack the role of government. They preach that the real evil in our midst is “Big Government,” that higher taxes are immoral. The mere suggestion that society has a responsibility to ensure a more equitable distribution of wealth  – well, this simply represents secular, godless (or God forbid) “socialist” values.

Now that the 2012 campaign is gearing up, this religious rhetoric is entering our political discourse in some pretty surreal ways. Recently, for example, Michelle Bachmann responded to Hurricane Irene by saying it was God’s warning to Washington to rein in taxes and runaway spending.  And not long ago. Texas governor Rick Perry gave an ersatz Dvar Torah in which he compared the government to Pharaoh, claiming that we’ve all “become slaves to the government.”

One of the most popular financial gurus in the country, a Christian fundamentalist named Dave Ramsey, preaches the same sort of gospel.  His signature advice to his followers is to handle money “God’s way.” What would it mean for our country to run its economy “God’s way?” According to Ramsey, God’s ways would not include Social Security, since God would not want to invest for the long-term at such a modest rate of return. God’s ways also don’t include progressive taxation, since God desires us to emulate the habits of the wealthy. And God’s ways certainly do not mean creating government programs to protect the vulnerable, since God commands people to help themselves.

Now I know we’re tempted to chuckle when we hear this kind of stuff. But lest you think these views only reflect the feelings of a radical few, you should know that these kinds of religious ideas are finding traction – and they are growing increasingly popular.  According to a just-released study by Baylor University,  approximately one in five Americans believe that God opposes government regulation and champions the free market.  As one researcher put it, there is a significant demographic that actually believes “the invisible hand of the free market is really God at work.”

There are so many things that trouble me about these kinds of religious ideas – but I think what troubles me the most is their inherent moral insensitivity. For me, saying “God helps those who help themselves” is just a theological version of “the poor and the hungry will just have to fend for themselves.”

So I’ll go out on a limb here and say that big government is not our enemy. On the contrary, I’d say it is our central religious imperative.  In fact, I think that those who bash big government have got it backward.  The real religious issue here is not that our government is oppressing American citizens or that we need to minimize its role in our lives.

No, if there is one critical religious and moral concern facing our national community – the concern that frankly we should be shouting from the rooftops – it’s that the US, the wealthiest nation in the world, has the greatest wealth inequity of any Western industrialized nation.  It’s that the top 1 percent of the households in our country hold 40 percent of our country’s wealth.  It’s that government as enacted laws that enable the rich to get richer while the laws that protect the poor are slowly but surely being dismantled.

Along these lines, I’d add that our religious concern should be aroused by the fact that the number of people currently living below the poverty line is almost 47 million – the highest level ever recorded by the Census Bureau. Or the fact that in the world’s wealthiest nation, one in four children under the age of six live in poverty. That 33 million adults and 17.2 million children live in food insecure households.  And of course,  it’s the fact that these numbers all across the board are significantly higher for people of color.

Now, I know there are many in the religious community who do share these concerns and who work tirelessly to alleviate them.  People of faith make up a large percentage of those in the trenches – and they know better than anyone the real spiritual concerns facing poor and middle class Americans today.

But for too many reasons, these concerns have not been politically mobilized. They are being drowned out by a louder religious voice in our political culture – one that attacks the role of government and insists that the best way we can help the poor and the unemployed is to insist, in essence, that “God will provide.”

And that’s a real shame, because one of the ethical  glories of Biblical tradition – a tradition that is shared by Christians, Jews and Muslims alike – are the myriad of commandments that demand society distribute its wealth equitably – so that the most vulnerable among us may never slip through the cracks.

So, my friends, it’s time for a little Torah study. I’d like to try something that in today’s cultural climate might be considered sacrilegious. I’d like to make the religious case for big government.

Let’s start with Deuteronomy 15:11 – one of the Torah’s most famous teachings on economic justice:

The poor will never cease from the land, which is why I command you: open your hand to the poor and needy kinsman in your land.

At the heart of this commandment is a profound challenge. For whatever reason, the world is a broken place. Economic inequity will forever be a constant for society – and so we are told we must never accommodate it at face value.  We are bidden to take responsibility for the poor in our midst and consistently do what we must to alleviate their burdens because they will always be among us.

It’s also interesting that the commandment “open your hand to the poor” is written in the singular – like most of the laws in Deuteronomy.  As such, it commands each and every one of us, as individuals, to honor the value of tzedakah.

But at the same time, God commands these laws to the nation as a whole. Economic justice is at once an individual and a collective responsibility. In other words, individual charity is desired and important, but it is not enough. At the end of the day, the Bible views the creation of economic equity as a communal obligation as well.

Another famous example of this comes in the book of Leviticus, where the Israelites are subjected to what might be called significant “government regulation.” Indeed, those who use religion to bash big government might be surprised to discover that the Bible contains a commandment that all Israelite farmers must leave the corners of their fields unharvested so the poor and the stranger may glean from them. And they’d probably be appalled to learn that every fiftieth year, on the Jubilee Year, all land reverts back to its original owners and all debts are automatically forgiven.

And when it comes to taxes, the Bible makes no bones about it: “thou shalt pay.” Far from being a necessary evil, paying tax is viewed as a sacred obligation. Examples of taxes abound in the Torah: the Israelites are commanded to pay a 10% tithe for the poor, a tithe for the Levites, offerings for the priests and a flat shekel tax for communal sacrifices.

Neither does this kind of anti-government, anti-tax mentality exist in any meaningful way in Jewish tradition itself.  On the contrary, in a classic line from Pirke Avot (3:2), Rabbi Hanina teaches,

Pray for the well-being of the government; for were it not for fear of it, each person would swallow the other alive.

Jewish law has little specific to say about the government redistribution of wealth, since when halachah developed Jews were living exclusively under the rule of foreign governments.  However, the Rabbis made a point of ruling that Jews are obligated to pay taxes imposed by the governments under which they lived unless they were patently unjust. The ruling stems from the famous Talmudic principle, “Dina d’malkhuta dina.” (Bava Kamma 113a)  Literally, “the law of the land is the law.”

In general, the rabbis created a system in which the rule of law ensured a society of equity and economic justice.  This is not to say they advocate “class warfare” (to use a term being bandied about a lot these days). Equity means ensuring the protection at of the weak, without compromising the welfare of the strong. In her book “There Shall Be No Needy,” my colleague and friend Rabbi Jill Jacobs, sums this idea up well:

(Jewish Law) aims to mitigate inequity so as to prevent one person from exploiting or degrading another. It tends to favor and protect the more vulnerable party, while still looking out for the well-being of the more powerful one. Thus the law prevents selling needed medicines for more than the going rate, while also allowing doctors to accept money for their work; permits workers to leave in the middle of the day, while also limiting this permission when the labor market is tight and the crops are in danger of spoiling; and prevents a landlord from evicting a tenant suddenly, while also allowing the lease to be broken if the landlord loses his or her own home. When the balance tilts too far to one side, the principle of tikkun olam (in its earliest rabbinic manifestation) allows for adjustments to the legal system such that society functions more equitably.

These religious values express a certain essential world view about society and human nature.  At the end of the day, we’re being taught that issues of human poverty and wealth imbalance are too massive – and the stakes simply too high – to be left to individual noblesse oblige.  We are taught to never assume that left to their own devices, those who have will naturally take care of those who don’t.  And it’s downright dangerous to claim that God, working through the divine machinations of the free market, will somehow provide.

This does not mean that markets are bad or that they are immoral. Markets are by nature amoral – sometimes the results of market processes are good and sometime they are bad. That’s why it’s morally dangerous to rely on markets to protect the public good. While markets are incredibly useful and productive institutions, they are only moral insofar as they are structured to act morally. And that’s why we need government as a way to pursue our moral goals – so that we can do the right thing when the market fails to do so.

Past experience has shown us that corporations will not always provide safe working conditions or livable wages, that mortgage brokers will not voluntarily regulate themselves from predatory lending, that private schools cannot ensure that all our children get a decent education, that companies will not clean up their pollution on their own, and that “let the buyer beware” is not going to protect us from dangerous products. No, if we want to real social and economic equity in our country, we must acknowledge – in fact we must champion – the role of government in our national community.

Some might be surprised to know that one of the most eloquent American religious advocates of this point was none other than Dr. Martin Luther King. Most Americans view King primarily as a civil rights leader – but in fact at the end of his life, he was very outspoken against economic injustices in our nation. King wrote and spoke widely against the United States’ economic system for creating a widening gap between the rich and the poor.

To his credit, King understood that racial injustice could not be divorced from the deeper issue of socio-economic justice. To this end he publicly advocated a variety of government programs, including the creation of jobs by government and the institution of a guaranteed annual minimal income.

Of course, today our nation venerates King virtually on the level of a founding father. But as we prepare to unveil the new Martin Luther King memorial in Washington DC, I wonder what King would say about the state of economic justice in our country today. What he would say if he knew that this $120 million monument that was paid for largely through corporate donations – the largest being $10 million from General Motors, which now uses the King memorial in its car commercials?

As our nation celebrates Dr. King’s memory next month, do you think we’ll be prepared to honor his full legacy? To remind ourselves that he spoke passionately about the poor and working men and women, that he urged our government to create new programs and to guarantee a livable income for all American citizens?  And that these values came directly from his Biblically-inspired religious faith?

Now I am not saying that saying we should look to the government to be the answer to all of our problems. Of course a bureaucracy as large as the federal government is bound to be inefficient and wasteful in too many ways. But at the same time, I’d say it’s prejudiced in the extreme to cite inefficiency in order to question an essential function of government itself.

I’m also struck that those who rail against “big government” tend to use this term very, very selectively.  We rarely hear them use this claim, for instance, in reference to hundreds of billions of dollars our government allocates for defense spending – which include the maintenance of hundreds of military garrisons all over the world and the funding of two never-ending wars that a majority Americans believe we should not even be fighting at all.  We rarely hear “big government” directed toward federal laws passed in order to give significant tax breaks to the richest citizens in our country. And we certainly don’t hear conservative politicians and pundits refer to laws that outlaw abortion rights or same sex marriage as “big government.”

No, like everything else in politics, this term is a convenient euphemism. Underneath the slogan, I believe there lies an ideology of radical individualism – a value system that views social safety nets with disdain and believes that wealth will naturally trickle down from the wealthy to the rest of society.

But it’s just not working that way.  The “trickle-downers” tell us that the best way to create jobs and jump start the economy is to get government off the backs of business. For me, the most compelling argument against this theory is to simply take a look around. We’ve had more than three decades of government deregulation and what do we have to show for it? A steadily rising gap between the rich and poor, an increasingly squeezed middle class and ominously rising unemployment.  It’s simply not working.

We’re currently witnessing some encouraging signs that our administration is ready to take on this fight. Last week, Obama unveiled a deficit reduction plan that proposed $1.5 trillion in new taxes on corporations and Americans earning over $250,000 a year. And thanks to the support of Warren Buffet, it also includes a tax on the super-rich.  And sure enough, already the mere suggestion that the rich should pay their fair share is getting slammed by many politicians and pundits as “class warfare.”

Class warfare. It takes some chutzpah to claim that in a nation where the top 1% hold 40% of the wealth, a modest little deficit reduction plan can be called “class warfare.” And anyhow, what’s wrong with a little class warfare?  When the Torah demands that society actively redistribute its wealth, isn’t that class warfare? Don’t we gather around the seder table every year to celebrate what is, after all, class warfare?  When it comes right down to it, isn’t economic justice worth fighting for?

For me, one of the ironies of all this is that while I do believe government has a role to play in ensuring equity, I’m not all that confident that our elected leaders will be the ones to lead the way to this kind of reform. I think one of the hardest lessons of these past two years was that so many of us were inspired by the Obama campaign to believe in the power of the government to effect real social change – only to have these hopes dashed as mere illusions.

To put it bluntly – when it comes to the work of social change, I think we’re placing far too much faith in our political leaders and far too little on ourselves.  I’ll return to what I said at the outset: religion works best as a force for social good when it is invoked on behalf of the the vulnerable and the oppressed – when it speaks truth to power in order to shift power.  Politicians to the left and to the right – no matter how inspiring they may be – are part of the power elite in this country. Who will hold them to account if we do not?

That is what religion at its best has always done – and that is what the faith community desperately needs to do today.  We in the interfaith community share a venerable religious vision that speaks directly to the crises of this country. It’s a religious vision that understands the world is a broken place and that it doesn’t get fixed by itself. A vision that disavows the simplistic faith that “God will provide” and is rooted in the conviction that society can never take the welfare of its weakest citizens for granted.

And we shouldn’t take times such as these for granted.  Alas, we know all too well that these are not merely theoretical issues for any of us.  We all know people who are suffering heartbreaking losses as a result of this horrid economy. There are members of our own congregation – people who are in this sanctuary as I speak to you who have lost their jobs, who have lost their savings, lost their homes.

Many of us are just not used to thinking of ourselves as vulnerable – but as the middle class slowly shrinks in our country, we’re coming to grips with a truly painful reality. That our lives may never really have been on such firm ground after all.  That our children are growing up in a world that is more fragile than we might ever have dreamed.

I know we are all doing what we can to reach out to those in our community who need our support now more than ever. It is times such as these that challenge us to access our highest selves.  But at the same time, I do believe that modern democratic government and its programs are also a reflection of our best selves – our most decent selves.

And if this is truly so, then attempts to drastically cut taxes and shrink the public sector can only serve to diminish our ability to act as responsible moral beings. The more we Americans buy into a vision of government as bad, the more we stand by as this institution is weakened, the more we weaken our ability to redeem our world.

I know you all join me in my prayer that this be a better year – a year of dignity and prosperity for all. For us, for our loved ones, for those we don’t know personally but whose humanity is ours and for whose welfare we are ultimately responsible.

May we do what we can, what we must to create a fair and equitable world in our day – and may we bequeath future of genuine hope to our children.


16 thoughts on “A Religious Defense of Big Government: Sermon for Rosh Hashanah 5772

  1. Pat Lane

    Wonderful stream of ideas, especially about relying on ourselves to help change this dismal picture. I’d be interested in what we, as a congregation, or as individuals, can do to help those JRC members who have lost jobs or homes. Surely, “community” means more than a greeting on Shabbat or a call if someone is sick. Ideas, anyone? Are we responsible for our brothers and sisters in more than a theoretical way?

  2. Jordan Goodman

    Shalom All,

    Though there are no proof texts, here’s another well considered POV
    on this subject. Especially interesting is the exchange with Jon Stewart arguably one of the most influential progressive voices in the country.


    Re fairness, one point left out in the O’Reilly/Stewart exchange is that the the top 1% of earners pay 40% of income taxes http://on.wsj.com/npIw9k

    L’shana Tova U’m’tuqa
    Shavu’a Tov,

  3. Dave

    Jesus did civil disobedience? Other than overturning the moneychangers tables I can’t think of a single other event that could be called ‘civil disobedience’.

    And with regard to the Romans, quite the opposite, render unto Caesar, and all that. Yes, he played the good soldier for Rome.

    Like his Dad (I’ve got that right, haven’t I)?

  4. i_like_ike52

    Society is NOT required to make a “more equitable distribution of wealth”. The poorest members of society must have their basic needs seen to (food, clothing, shelter) and workers must be dealt with fairly by their employers, but there is NOTHING wrong with wealth, and there is no mandate to take money away from the wealthy because the less wealthy are jealous of them. There is nothing wrong or immoral about making money as long as it is done fairly and wealthy people are entitled to enjoy their money..as long as they are wise enough to show enough sensitivity not to push extravangance in the face of those who don’t have what they have.
    The state has no mandate to stick its fingers in everyone’s pockets and take their hard earned money in order to make a “more equitable distribution of wealth” beyond the role the state is obligated to fulfill (defense, infrastructure, proper order of society and, as I said, filling the basic needs of those who don’t have). Taxation beyond the levels I have indicated is nothing more than theft.

    1. Dan Solomon

      Hi I_like_ike52:

      You write that the “state has no mandate to stick its fingers in everyone’s pockets and take their hard earned money in order to make a “more equitable distribution of wealth””. But that’s not the issue that is being debated in this country. The issue in question is a tax increase on the wealthiest 1 or 2 percent of the population. This is hardly “everyone’s pocket”. The people that this tax increase would impact can easily afford it. In other words their quality of life would not suffer and the rest of society would be better off. Also this would relieve the tax burden on the rest of us. In other words, in principle, the taxes of 98% of us could be reduced. Therefore the net tendency of the government to “stick its finger into everyone’s pockets” could go down.

      The way I look at it is that if you tax the rich they are still rich and the rest of get some relief and are better off. I call this a win-win.

      1. i_like_ike52

        Dan –
        I don’t necessarily disagree with you . I am not opposed to a progressive taxation system (i.e. those with higher income pay a higher percentage). What I do object to is the idea that the state has an inherent right to help itself to the taxpayers hard-earned money and then to turn around and give it to others simply in the name of “equality” or “social engineering”. BIg government is as much a threat to the freedom of the citizen and unrestrained big business. People with power to control the economy are prone to abuse it, whether they are “robber barons” or government bureaucrats. Living in Israel I saw the injustices really “big gov’t” could cause when then imposed practically confiscatory taxes on the average citizen and then handed out the money to “deserving” sectors,…frequently friends, family and cronies, or people who belonged to the “correct” political party.

  5. Barbara Silverman

    As meaningful on rereading as it was when you delivered it during the Rosh Hashanah service. I plan to share it with family and friends.

  6. Lesley W.

    RE Jesus and civil disobedience: you could argue that most of his public ministry was a form of civil disobedience: healing on the sabbath, flouting the “purity” laws, associating with undesirables like tax collectors and prostitutes.

    As for the “render unto Caesar” incident, some claim this was a swipe at corrupt temple priests who were using Roman coinage as opposed to the local coinage in use in Israel, (remember it starts with him asking one of the priests to give him a coin and then asking “Whose picture is on it?”So in other words, yes of course, your base ill gotten gains SHOULD go back to Caesar, good riddance to bad rubbish and all.

  7. Ross

    My favorite interpretation of “Render unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s, and unto God the things that are God’s” is from Dorothy Day who noted that if you render unto God the things that are God’s there is nothing left for Caesar.

  8. Jacki Kimel

    I was so impressed with your sermon when I heard it! I was happy to have an opportunity to read it and absorb more.


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