Covetous Leaders: How the Religious Right gets it Exactly Wrong

Covetous Leaders 2
The authors of the Bible did not write with a constitutional democracy in mind. Nevertheless scripture offers guidance that can be useful to us in our own present situation.  Though the Bible has nothing to say about electing officials and candidates for public office, it does offer insights about characteristics of good leaders and traits that constitute bad ones.  Scripture speaks of the behaviors that are affirmed in national leaders; such as, they “give deliverance to the needy, and crush the oppressor” (Psalm 72:4).  But there are also characteristics that are condemned as unworthy of leaders.

In one suggestive passage we find the advice given to Moses as he sought people to whom he could delegate authority to serve as judges over the Israelites.  He was told to select those who “fear God, are trustworthy, and hate dishonest gain” (Exodus 18:21).  “Hate dishonest gain” is the translation found in the Revised Standard Version and New International Version. The King James Version prefers hate “covetousness.”

That word has found a favored place in the lexicon of conservatives. It is used as a foil against those who protest the greed of the rich who close their hearts and who are inclined to close the national coffers to the needs of the poor. The poor and those who support their interests are accused of being “covetous” toward the rich, desiring to take from the rich to give to the poor.  Obviously the Bible views covetousness seriously enough as a sin for it to be given a place in the Ten Commandments.

But there is nothing in scripture to suggest that covetousness is a problem particular to the poor, much less those who seek to use whatever ability and influence they have to improve the lot of the less advantaged. To the contrary, more often than not it is the strong and wealthy labeled as covetous. So in Micah chapter two we find that it is those with power who “covet fields, and seize them; houses, and take them away; they oppress householder and house” (vs. 1-2). Covetousness seems to be the inevitable precondition for theft and so it is a particularly bad trait in national leaders. “A ruler who lacks understanding is a great oppressor, but he who hates covetousness will prolong his days” (Proverbs 28:16 NKJV).

What bearing does this have on our present situation? “[W]e are currently governed by men who love covetousness,” claims Douglas Wilson an aggressive advocate for the views of the religious right. He – and a host of others – points to King Ahab as an example of an evil, covetous ruler. And King Ahab is certainly a leader who deserves condemnation. He provides an example of what a leader should absolutely not be.  But those among the religious right miss the real nature of his deplorable covetousness.

The key story is found in 1 Kings 21:1-16. King Ahab wanted the vineyard of a devout man named Naboth that was conveniently located right next to the palace where he wanted to plant a garden. The king offered Naboth money or a better vineyard for the land. Naboth turned down the offer. Jezebel the queen urged Ahab to take more drastic action. She came up with a scheme to get rid of Naboth by finding false witness to bring a trumped up charge against him for which he was executed. This cleared the way for the king to take possession of the land.

What lesson does this story have for us? Quite a number of bloggers on the religious right have in one way or another maintained, “In Ahab’s day [kings] simply plundered the property; today they call it taxes.” Some have also claimed that the story offers a wholesale rejection of the practice of imminent domain, wherein private property is taken – and justly compensated for – by a government entity for a necessary public purpose.  This power is granted to the federal government by the Fifth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.

But are these really the most relevant and legitimate lessons of this story? To answer that question we need to look at the aim of King Ahab. He sought Naboth’s vineyard to make it his own private property. He targeted the property of this man with the sole intention of personal gain. It was the selfish whim of the king that led him to take for himself the property of another, having an innocent man killed to achieve his ends.

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This episode in scripture is most definitely not an example of anything similar to either taxation or the practice of imminent domain. King Ahab had no desire to advance the public good. He was not putting into place a policy for the government to get the revenue necessary for public works or the improvement of his society or to aid the poor or defend the nation. His action was all about enriching the already rich, namely King Ahab himself.

To claim, “Rulers always want the property of others – sometimes merely for self –aggrandizement, often so that they can hand it out to their supporters to gain their loyalty”, is an overstatement. To go even further and to maintain that a government that seeks to address the needs of the poor with tax revenue is like King Ahab while the richest few percent in the nation who are called upon to pay more taxes constitute “the Naboths of America” falls into the realm of the ridiculous.

A leader who is covetous in a way remotely analogous to King Ahab is one who will personally and directly benefit from the policies he or she seeks to enact. Naturally all politicians who pursue policies that are broadly viewed as helpful to the nation will benefit politically. This is not the issue. The covetous leader is one who will gain materially from the policies he or she promotes.

What kind of policies might those be? It is important to remember that on average those who become President and those in Congress are considerably wealthier than the ordinary citizen. Consequently, policies that are the most materially beneficial to the rich also reward the politicians. So where might we more legitimately look for covetousness?

  1. It is notable that the ten wealthiest members in Congress, each with a net worth of over 100 million dollars – seven of them Democrats, three Republicans – all voted to extend the Bush tax cuts. Those with pre-tax earnings between $50,000 and $75,000 receive about only $1,034 in tax cuts.  Those making an annual income of over a million dollars a year on average see more than an additional $74,000 a year in their pockets, according to Congress’ Joint Committee on Taxation. For the richest members of Congress, that comes to a quarter million dollars a year and up. There are some who are currently proposing even more tax cuts that will disproportionately benefit the rich. Could it be that this is evidence of covetousness?
  2. Effortless income, which comes from dividends and capital gains, is taxed at only 15%. This is the source of most of the income for the wealthy, including rich politicians. Regular income, the sort that well over 90% of people work to earn, is taxed at a higher rate. By allowing the wealthy to have their primary income taxed at a lower rate it enables them to avoid some $59 billion in taxes per year. That loss of revenue has to be made up elsewhere, in part by people who have only earned income.  And, again, wealthy politicians benefit from this policy. Could it be that this is evidence of covetousness?
  3. Disproportionately the wealthy – again including many politicians – benefit through their stock investments from major corporations whose profits are bolstered by corporate welfare. Over 50% more is spent by the government on corporate welfare than on traditional social welfare, according to a recent Cato Institute study. Major Banks, the largest of the agricultural companies, defense contractors and big oil companies have benefited the most.

Some of the companies receiving corporate welfare are among the dozens of major corporations that have made billions of dollars in profits and not only paid no federal taxes for several years but received subsidies from the government. Many elected leaders reap rewards, not just through investments in these companies but through the campaign contributions they give. Could it be that this is evidence of covetousness?

We do, indeed, need to be wary of covetous leaders. But covetous leaders are not the politicians who call for the over-privileged to pay more taxes so the poor and weak will stand a chance of staying out of abject poverty and still others will be less likely of falling into bankruptcy. Rather the covetous leaders are the ones who materially benefit from the policies they advance as they protect the interests of the rich. Too many on the religious right are looking in exactly the wrong direction for covetous leaders to chastise.

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Craig M. Watts is the minister of Royal Palm Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in Coral Springs, Florida and Co-Moderator of Disciples Peace Fellowship. He authored the book Disciple of Peace: Alexander Campbell on Pacifism, Violence and the State (Doulos Christou Press: Indianapolis, 2005) and his essays have appeared in many journals such as Cross Currents, Encounter, the Otherside, DisciplesWorld and more. Craig blogs on the Disciples Peace Fellowship’s, “Shalom Vision.”

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  • http://www.facebook.com/peter.fodera.1 Peter Fodera

    This was some of the worst scholarship and Biblical exegesis I’ve come across in a while.

    First, whatever else you did you did NOT explain how the Christian Right gets anything exactly wrong. If anything, you illustrated how the LEFT gets if wrong both Biblically and Constitutionally.

    Next, confiscation of land by the government is EMINENT Domain, not IMMINENT Domain.

    Next, conservatives, those whom you pejoratively refer to as the Religious Right, are MUCH MORE LIBERAL givers than their Liberal/Democratic counterparts.

    Just compare the giving of Presumptive President Mitt Romney to VP Joey Biden, or Barack Hussein Obama for that matter.

    http://www.realclearpolitics.com/articles/2008/03/conservatives_more_liberal_giv.html

    Next, dividend income is AFTER TAX income, already taxed up to the corporate federal income tax rate of 35% — currently the highest in the world. The fact that dividend income is taxed an additional 15% is arguably scandalous. History shows that TOTAL TAX Revenue from dividends and capital gains has gone UP after the tax rates on both have been lowered, as under BOTH Clinton and Bush, Jr. “Regular Income” is a BEFORE TAX expense for companies that pay it to their employees? Did you bother to do ANY Research on this at all?

    Currently 47% of Americans pay ZERO federal income taxes: ZIP, ZILCH, NADA, while a mere 53% of American WORKERS pay fully 100% of all federal income taxes. You can NOT have EVERYONE paying their FAIR SHARE while almost half pay NOTHING AT ALL!

    Conservative Christians want to let all wage earners keep more of the money they earn; not less. REMEMBER: our brilliant Theist and Deist framers did NOT originally allow income to be taxed. It wasn’t until the greedy, godless Marxist-sympathizing Progressives of the early 20th century decided they need more money to “buy votes” that they strong-armed the nation into passing the 16th-amendment; one of the worst Constitutional changes made in our history!

    Ours is NOT a theocracy but our Theist and Deist founders made it abundantly clear to people who use BOTH hemispheres of their brains that,

    “We have no government armed with power capable of contending with human passions unbridled by morality and religion. Avarice, ambition, revenge or gallantry would break the strongest cords of our Constitution as a whale goes through a net. Our Constitution is designed only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate for any other.” — John Adams

    “So much faith in the general government of the world by Providence, that [he could] hardly conceive of a transaction of such momentous importance [as the Constitution] to pass without being in some degree influenced, guided and governed by that omnipotent and omnipresent and beneficent Ruler, in whom all inferior spirits live and move and have their being.” — Benjamin Franklin

    “Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, religion and morality are indispensible supports . . . [R]eason and experience both forbid us to expect that the national morality can prevail in exclusion of religious principle.” — George Washington

    “(the Constitution) was the same ‘laws of Nature and Nature’s God’ to which Thomas Jefferson, our third president, had appealed for our right to exist as a Nation in the Declaration of Independence.” — James Madison

    “Can the liberties of a nation be thought secure when we have removed their only firm basis, a conviction in the minds of the people that their liberties are a gift of God?” — Thomas Jefferson

    The father of our Constitution, James Madison, explained the absence of any Articles, Sections or Clausse in the Constitution dealing with redistribution of wealth, wealth transfers, and government administered benevolence this way:

    “I cannot undertake to lay my finger on that article of the Constitution which granted a right to Congress of expending, on objects of benevolence, the money of their constituents.”

    The 1st amendment — which does NOT contain the text “separation of church and state” — was meant primarily to keep government OUT OF RELIGION, and as John Adams stated so eloquently above, NOT keep religious men out of government. If fact, out Constitution requires Conservative, virtuous, prudent, religious men to function properly.

    Our leaders do NOT put their hand upon the Constitution and swear to “preserve, protect, and defend the Bible, so help them God;” no, they place their hand upon God’s Word and swear an oath before God and witnesses, to “preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution of the United States, so help me God!”

    We are not a theocracy but a Rule of Law REPUBLIC — NOT a democracy — predicated upon Judeo-Christian values, affording Creator endowed unalienable rights, but not primarily “emanations of penumbrae” (look it up) NOT found within the Constitution.

    Here’s how the LEFT — religious, atheist, agnostic, Islamic, Buddhist, or otherwise — get it EXACTLY WRONG:

    1) AT least half of them serving as party delegates at their party convention BOO God not once, not twice, but thrice. I heard a cock crow soon thereafter.

    2) Contrary to God and SCIENCE, they wantonly crucify pre-born babies in their own mothers’ wombs and afford both mother and doctor legal impunity.

    3) They profane the sacrament of marriage by completely disregarding the Truth that God made us male and female in His image and a MAN will leave his mother and father and cleave to his WIFE; Adam marries Eve; Adam does NOT marry Steve, nor Eve Eva.

    4) They believe that BIG Government is man’s temporal salvation. That government is the primary earthly answer to what ails mankind. If there’s a problem, convene Marxist educated arrogant elites behind closed doors, scheme a new program, use arcane parliamentary procedures to block opposition, have them tell us they’ll need to pass it so we can learn what’s in it, promise pro-lifers within their leftist caucus that “not one dime of tax-payer money will be used to fund abortion buts RULE out putting that in writing within the legislation itself,” ram the bill down our throats with NOT a single other-party vote, and then renege on the promise and FORCE EVERYONE to contribute money every single year for tax-payer funded abortions.

    5) Find time to improve your golf game (over 100 rounds and counting), hoops game, bowling game, poker game, increase your appearances on crotchety and nasty Letterman but say “NO” to the Prime Minister of ISRAEL — after first voting to remove Jerusalem as the capital of Israel before re-inserting it back in to your party platform with at least 50% of delegates screaming “NO!”

    6) Travel to Las Vegas — aka Sin City and the Capital of GREED — the day after the nation learned that extremist Muslims, allegedly with an Al Qaeda link, forced their way onto our sovereign territory, killed at least four of our citizens, burned our flag, and put a BLACK Islamic, al-Qaeda like flag in its place.

    Godless!

    “I have never understood why it is ‘greed’ to want to keep the money you’ve earned but NOT greed to want to take somebody else’s money.” — Dr. Thomas Sowell.

    The Religious Right are far MORE liberal givers of their OWN money voluntarily to charity than are political-economic Marx-based Liberals. Presumptive President Mitt Rommey gives about 30% of his income to charity, Barack Hussein Obama less than half that percent, and Joey Biden less than 1%!

    https://www.facebook.com/photo.php?fbid=110108565810345&set=a.102781546543047.5311.100004336054487&type=1&theater

    I’ll stop here for now. If you need more clear examples of how the LEFT gets it unGodly wrong, just ask. I’ll be happy to oblige.

    • blumuze

      A cogent, if inaccurate, view of the left. Allow me to correct you:

      1) The Left are not against God, per se. We are for separation of church and state. Not exactly an unconventional view, and one we believe was shared by the founders.

      2) We are not for abortion. We are for a woman’s right to choose. We are especially against the idea of the state making prohibitive laws in this matter.

      3) The Left are not so much for same sex marriage as we are against the state telling consenting adults who they are allowed to marry. Your insane interpretation of Gods laws, along with your crusader-like intent to impose them everyone else, is what we object to.

      4) Being on the left doesn’t mean you’re a card carrying commie as you suggest. We are a lot more complex and diverse politically than you are clearly able to imagine. Among our diversity you’ll find those of us who are capitalists, gun owners and bible thumpers, as well as every philosophical stripe from Marxist to moderate. The sooner you realize this, the sooner you’ll be able to get your blood pressure under control.

      5) Israel, oh Israel. Why doth the tail insist on wagging the dog? The U.S. was, is, and always will be a strong supporter of Israel. I will only speak for myself here, because, indeed, opinion on the left varies greatly on this subject, but Israel needs to remember who’s its daddy and stop acting like a spoiled child when it doesn’t get its way. Somebody has to draw the line. That is, unless you’re an end-times freak who believe Israel, and the Israelis, need to go up in flames before you can be raptured, or some such crap. Personally, I look forward to the rapture, because then the earth will be rid of fire and brimstone idiot party-poopers like — you.

      6) WTF? This is where your wheels fell off.

    • Harold

      Peter, I always find it amusing when I come across one like you who declares that somebody you disagree with has “the worst scholarship and Biblical exegesis I’ve come across in a while,” though showing no capacity of your own to evaluate either scholarship or biblical exegesis. And then to follow that up with that off-the-wall-rant….Sad.

    • Val

      “Contrary to God and SCIENCE, they wantonly crucify pre-born babies in
      their own mothers’ wombs and afford both mother and doctor legal
      impunity.”

      And you conveniently ignore science by claiming that someone can crucify an unborn fetus still in the mother’s womb. By the way, crucifixions haven’t been done in a very, very ,very long time.

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