January 13, 2015

Against Statolatry

Three thousand years ago, the Israeli political leader Samuel, describing what a tyrannical government would look like, solemnly forewarned the people it would seize — brace yourself — a whopping 10 percent of their income.

Today the average American forks over three times that amount. As I wrote 15 years ago in The Oklahoman, “A tax bite this severe should give us pause for one simple reason: human governors are presuming to set themselves in a place of honor far above the governor of the universe. After all, Joseph Sobran reminds us, ‘the good Lord asks only 10 percent, lacking as he does liberalism’s ambition.’”

Where our treasure is, there will our hearts be also. When this much of our treasure is rendered unto Caesar, the state can tend to become a false god. Instead of looking to our Father to give us our daily bread, we begin to look to the state. (For similarities between modern Americans and the ancients who looked to their god-man for sustenance, see my conversation with the late historian J. Rufus Fears.)

One of statolatry's ablest critics is Presbyterian pastor David W. Hall. Another is the Reformed pastor and theologian Doug Wilson, who had several good blog posts recently on the subject of property rights. Wilson writes:
First, the level of taxation must not rival God (1 Sam. 8:15). God claims a tithe, and if that is all God needs, and if God is a jealous God, then we ought to see any attempt on the part of civil government to go past ten percent as an aspiration to Deity. This is the perennial temptation for fallen man (Gen. 3:5), particularly for rulers of all kinds (Is. 14:13), and so that temptation must not be funded. Cutting off the government at 9% is like refusing a third Scotch to a wobbly tavern-goer at 1:00 a.m. Shouldn’t be controversial.

Second, the taxes need to be levied, in the main, so that the rulers can perform the functions that God requires them to perform. Coercion is a big deal, and so the government must only be allowed to exercise it when they have express warrant for what they are doing. If they have express warrant to hunt down murderers, and they do, then they have express warrant to collect money to pay for the men to do this. They are God’s deacon of justice, and the deacon of justice needs to be paid just like the rest of us (Rom. 13:4). They are not allowed to collect fees to pay for activities that are prohibited to them. If they are not allowed to do it in the first place, they are not allowed to tax us to pay for it. To do so would be theft.
Indeed, Wilson (you may know him as the sparring partner for the late atheist Christopher Hitchens) says elsewhere that “belief in the lordship of Jesus Christ obligates us to a position that honors the concept of limited government.”

Now, Wilson isn’t claiming that Jesus is a conservative. (“Given where He is, at the right hand of the Father, I really don’t know how the label would attach.”). But he is saying that Jesus wants you to be one. After all, Jesus wants you to
take personal responsibility, honor the property of others, respect and follow the sexual ethic of Scripture, refrain from taking the blood of innocents, remember the poor with our own funds (as distinct from funds we stole from others), and respect the need for the civil magistrate to stay within his appointed bounds. Now, take those positions and bundle them all together. What do you call that? I call it a recognizable form of conservatism. 
With Cost of Government Day now arriving two days after Independence Day (Selah), it’s clear that statolatry is a significant problem in this country. “The paternal state not only feeds its children,” writes scholar Herbert Schlossberg, “but nurtures, educates, comforts and disciplines them, providing all they need for their security. This appears to be a mildly insulting way to treat adults, but is really a great crime because it transforms the state from being a gift of God, given to protect us against violence, into an idol.”

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