Jesus Hates Taxes: Biblical Capitalism Created Fertile Anti-Union Soil

While the assault on unions by Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker and other GOP governors and legislators seems driven mostly by the billionaire Koch brothers and corporate-funded groups, religious right leaders and activists have spent decades creating fertile soil for anti-union campaigns through the promotion of “biblical capitalism,” which researcher Rachel Tabachnick describes as “the belief that unregulated capitalism is biblically mandated.” 

Pseudo-historian David Barton, a frequent guest of broadcaster Glenn Beck, is using his newly enlarged audience to promote American exceptionalism (America was created by its divinely-inspired founders as a country of, by, and for Christians) and Tea Party-on-steroids economics (Jesus and the Bible oppose progressive taxes, capital gains taxes, estate taxes, and minimum wage laws). The religious right has a long practice of claiming divine mandate for its policy agenda as it makes for an exceptionally potent political argument: if God supports radically limited government, then progressive policies are not only wrong but evil, and supporters of liberal policies are not only political opponents but enemies of God.  

Two days after the November 2010 elections, Barton, Newt Gingrich, and Jim Garlow (who runs Gingrich’s Renewing American Leadership group), held a conference call with pastors to celebrate conservative political gains. On the call, Garlow and Barton asserted a biblical underpinning for far-right economic policies: Taxation and deficit spending, they said, amount to theft, a violation of the Ten Commandments. The estate tax, Barton said, is “absolutely condemned” by the Bible as the “most immoral” of taxes. Jesus, he said, had “teachings” condemning the capital gains tax and minimum wage. 

Barton also enlists Jesus in the war against unions and collective bargaining. Two years ago Barton devoted his Wallbuilders Live radio show to celebrating a Supreme Court decision that upheld an Idaho law ending state withholding of public employee union political funds. Barton’s co-host Rick Green called for activists to “spark a fire” and encourage other states to take up the effort to disrupt unions’ political activities. Barton called the Supreme Court’s decision “the right historical position and the right biblical position,” and went on to explain why the Bible is anti-union. 

According to Barton, a parable from the 20th chapter of the book of Matthew about the owner of a vineyard making different arrangements with workers was about “the right of private contract”—in other words, the right of employers to come to individual agreements with each employee. Jesus’ parable, he said, is “anti-minimum wage” and “anti-socialist-union kind of stuff.” (This is just one of the parables of Jesus cited by Barton and others in support of laissez-faire economic policies.)

The religious right’s anti-union roots are long and deep. Researchers have traced them through the teachings of R.J. Rushdoony, an intellectual godfather of sorts for much of the increasingly dominionist religious right; Gary North, a leading Christian Reconstructionist; and through fundamentalist textbooks used by homeschoolers and Christian schools. The roots of the Family, as Peter Laarman notes in his examination of religious indifference to the decades-long war on workers’ rights, are in anti-unionism. Back in 1942, according to Jeff Sharlet, author of The Family: The Secret Fundamentalism at the Heart of American Power:

[T]he National Association of Manufacturers staked [Family founder Abraham Vereide] to a meeting of congressmen who would become students of his spiritual politics, among them Virginia senator Absalom Willis Robertson—Pat Robertson’s father. Vereide returned the manufacturers’ favor by telling his new congressional followers that God wanted them to break the spine of organized labor. They did.

One of the most striking examples of this theory reaching into the political realm is found in an early Christian Coalition Leadership Manual, co-authored by Coalition founder Ralph Reed in 1990. A section titled “God’s Delegated Authority in the World,” which argues that “God established His pattern for work as well as in the family and in the church,” cites four Bible passages instructing slaves to be obedient to their masters, including 1 Peter 2:18-19:

Slaves, submit yourselves to your masters with all respect, not only to those who are good and considerate, but also to those who are harsh. For it is commendable if a man bears up under the pain of unjust suffering because he is conscious of God. 

And then, the astonishing lesson drawn by Christian Coalition leaders from these slaves-obey-your-masters passages: 

Of course, slavery was abolished in this country many years ago, so we must apply these principles to the way Americans work today, to employees and employers: Christians have a responsibility to submit to the authority of their employers, since they are designated as part of God’s plan for the exercise of authority on the earth by man. 

Slavery also makes an appearance in “Indivisible,” a booklet of essays being aggressively promoted by the Heritage Foundation as part of its campaign to assert that genuine fiscal conservatism cannot be separated from social conservatism. In one essay, anti-gay activist Bishop Harry Jackson writes that minimum wage laws “[remind] me of slavery.”

There’s no reason to believe that religious right and anti-union forces won’t continue to join forces. Later this month, the anti-union National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation will join anti-gay activists, anti-immigrant groups, and other groups primarily associated with social conservatism, at a gathering in Iowa convened by religious right favorite Rep. Steve King to discuss “American Exceptionalism.” National Right to Work promotes a guide for employees with religious objections to joining a union: 

To determine whether your beliefs are religious instead of political or philosophical, ask yourself whether your beliefs are based upon your obligations to God. Do you simply dislike unions or hate this particular union’s politics? Or, does your desire to stand apart from the union arise from your relationship to God? If your beliefs arise from your decision to obey God, they are religious. 

And in April, religious right and Republican leaders will gather for the second year in a row at Liberty University at the invitation of the Freedom Federation, a collection of religious right groups launched in 2009 with a Declaration of American Values, which added opposition to progressive taxation to the religious right’s usual issue agenda. While the Freedom Federation refers to itself as a federation of faith-based organizations, its founding members also include Americans for Prosperity, the Koch-funded group that has funded attacks on Democratic lawmakers and mobilized Tea Party activists on behalf of right-wing candidates.

Just last week, the Family Research Council’s Tony Perkins tweeted his support for the Wisconsin Republicans’ union-busting: “Pro-family voters should celebrate WI victory b/c public & private sector union bosses have marched lock-step w/ liberal social agenda.”

It’s clear that the attempt to once again “break the spine of labor” is meant to cripple any opposition to the vision of a country in which corporations are given free rein to maximize profits without concern for workers’ safety, community well-being, and environmental protection. The seeds of that vision were first planted by Christian Reconstructionists and The Family and today’s conservative Christian leaders are only too eager to take advantage of the fruits of those labors to make the case that Jesus opposes efforts to ensure a living wage to workers, and that workers should accept as good slaves whatever treatment their employers dish out. 

Peter Montgomery, an associate editor for Religion Dispatches, is a Senior Fellow at People For the American Way Foundation where he was on staff for 15 years. Before that he was associate director of grassroots lobbying for Common Cause and wrote for Common Cause Magazine, an award-winning journal featuring investigative reporting about the federal government.