By Anne Bradley
Income inequality is one of the most hotly debated topics of the 2016 presidential debates, and an issue with which Christian voters are forced to wrestle. Bernie Sanders calls it the great moral issue of our time, while Washington Post columnist George Will disagrees. Those on both sides of the issue offer valuable insight to a uniquely Christian understanding of inequality.
In an interview with Mother Jones, Bernie Sanders says income inequality is a moral issue rooted in Scripture:
I think this goes back to the Bible. There is something immoral when so few have so much and so many have so little. […] You have millions of young people graduating college deeply in debt. They can’t get their lives started, can’t get married. So I think the issue of income and wealth inequality is in fact a moral issue.
Though Sanders doesn’t reference specific verses, there are many Scripture passages about equality. Romans 2:11 says God shows no partiality; Mark 12:31 says Christians are called to love their neighbors as themselves; and Galatians 3:28 says, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”
Christians know God made us each with equal dignity. When we hear about vastly growing inequality, it’s no wonder our heart aches.
Those who want to stop growing wage gaps between the rich and poor fear a class divide in which the upper class looks down on the poor. The one percent oppresses them through special privileges and crony influence in society. Such a “Downton Abbey” breed of society—as some call it—would be a moral ruin.
God doesn’t see social classes. He sees unique individuals. However, it’s difficult for our culture not to connect income to human worth at some degree. We know one person is not inherently better than the next, yet such a great wage disparity seems to say otherwise.
Sanders proposes redistributing wealth to reduce inequality. He says,
A nation will not survive morally or economically when so few have so much while so many have so little…We need a tax system which asks the billionaire class to pay its fair share of taxes and which reduces the obscene degree of wealth inequality in America.
Obtaining equality in this way could, theoretically, be accomplished. The government can play Robin Hood, stealing from the rich and distributing to the poor, until everyone has greater income equality.
On the other side of the income inequality debate, George Will disagrees with the income redistribution solution. He believes income inequality is actually beneficial to everyone. Income earned through value creation, even if not universally equal, provides jobs and economic opportunities while income inequality resulting from theft and plunder does not.
Yet a desire to redistribute income and create more equality still persists in our nation. Why is this? If you ask Sanders, he might say redistribution is necessary to protect the poor from exploitation. If you ask Will, he may attribute this longing to a deadly sin.
Will suggests the income redistribution solution is rooted in envy and a shallow obsession with others’ possessions. He says those who hold this view, “will ultimately be discomfited by the fact that envy is the only one of the seven deadly sins that does not give the sinner even momentary pleasure.”
A recent study found that an employee’s satisfaction with their wage is dependent on what their coworkers are making. For example, most people are happier making $50 when their peers are making $40 rather than $60 when their peers are making $70. Though some commentators suggest this comes from a desired sense of fairness, it also might sound like envy to some.
Rather than focusing on inequality, Will implies income mobility—the opportunity to climb the income ladder over time—should be our concern. The U.S. Treasury reported that between 1996 and 2005, more than half of all U.S. taxpayers moved into a higher income quintile. Might equal opportunity be more dignifying to the human person than equal incomes?
On the issue of income inequality, Christians are faced with this challenge: to guard against upper class exploitation of the poor and to avoid feeding into class envy at the same time. Perhaps the answer lies with our creative human nature.
Rich or poor, God designed us with the ability to create and add value to the economy. The economic pie is not fixed—if I take more, you will have less—but it grows as we contribute new ideas, processes, inventions, scientific discoveries, and technologies. The pie grows through human creativity manifested in entrepreneurship, enterprise, and trade.
Because the economic pie is capable of such growth from unfettered human activity, redistributing income becomes unnecessary. It doesn’t fix the root of the problem. Rather, we must empower the poor by helping them recognize their full potential.
Each individual is created with equal dignity and unique gifts to contribute to society. For that reason, we should turn our focus on policies that unleash the creativity of each human person so we can all grow the income pie together.
Christians can find truth on both sides of the income inequality debate, but a deeper focus on the human creative capacity gives us a hope and optimism to solve the potential problems income inequality presents. When we view individuals at every level of society with a calling to add unique value to the economy, it protects against class envy while also empowering the least of these.
Dr. Anne Bradley is the vice president of economic initiatives at the Institute for Faith, Work & Economics (www.tifwe.org). Bradley is a visiting professor at Georgetown University, and she also teaches at The Institute for World Politics and George Mason University.