Dr. Ben Carson, a candidate for the Republican nomination for U.S. President, spoke to students at Christian-based Liberty University on November 11th, the day after the fourth national Republican presidential debates. National Public Radio reported that Carson said his 10% flat tax policy is inspired by the Christian practice of tithing. Carson said, “You know the reason I liken it [the 10% policy] to tithing is because I believe God is the fairest individual that there is and if he thought it was fair I think it must be pretty fair you know…” The problem is, we do not know and he is not helping us know. Ignorance cannot be the way toward tax reform, can it?
When we consider the friction between, on one side, those who hold a literal view of their religious texts and do not want to know anything contrary to that literal view, and on the other side, those who want to know regardless of their religious beliefs, it is vitally important if we want to know, to bracket our religious beliefs in matters of U.S. public policy because the U.S. is not a theocracy. The fact that the U.S. is not a theocracy and will not become a theocracy, is a point many on both sides of the debate can agree on. With this shared understanding, can we proceed to devise a tax policy through knowing, as in having knowledge, as in having epistemological methods and frameworks for our tax policies? Can Carson, or any religious politician for that matter, have a debate about tax policies related to their religious beliefs without them believing that their religion is being attacked and thus they themselves are being attacked?
In my experience as a pastoral counselor and theologian who has engaged in psychological research (and was once a law school student), Carson’s relationship to his beliefs tend to be more egosyntonic, giving rise to defensiveness when critiqued, but the process of gaining knowledge scientifically need not be egosyntonic when approached with an open mind and no attachment to the outcome needing to reflect one’s religious beliefs. Can the academies of religion, economics, and law together help religious politicians understand tax policy without them becoming defensive and paranoid toward the press and anyone questioning their beliefs? Can their spiritual advisors, be they academics or not, help them understand that the religious practice of generosity towards the church, the mosque, the temple, and the synagogue is not the same thing as a U.S. citizen’s obligation toward their country?
Tax policy is complicated because the obligations of our citizenry and economy are complicated. Simple religious formulas do not rise to the epistemological level that is required to responsibly lead the U.S. But what is required? What do we believe and what do we know? Let us make room for dialogue, trialogue, quadralogue, and quintalogue between political candidates, those who study law, religion, and economics together, and those who lead congregations mindful of the U.S. context and its Constitution, to help our religious candidates formulate policies that are not simply egosyntonic. What is happening on the campaign trail now, the defensiveness, the paranoia, and the demonization of what Carson calls “secular progressives” is not psychologically healthy for him or anyone. If demonization of other Americans is the consequence of religious belief-over-knowledge tax policy, then perhaps Carson and others can remember that the opposite, knowledge-over-religious belief tax policy, as an egodystonic practice, can actually serve to humanize others by not making us slaves to rampant capitalism. To be free from the scourge of rampant capitalism is also a value shared on both sides of the belief vs. knowledge tax policy debate. I believe a quintalogue of religious leaders, educators, researchers, policy makers and politicians can be the bridge we can all stand on as we proceed toward tax reform.
Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.