We've been having lots of discussion recently about where the line is drawn between church and state. Whether it's arguments in support of a Christian America or claims of persecution for righteousness sake -- relating to health insurance coverage, the debate has roared. Martin Marty throws open the debate a little further with this essay, using as his foil the claim by a Florida man that he doesn't owe taxes because he's part of the Kingdom of Heaven. Not sure it works, but even in its silliness it raises the questions of boundaries and what is essential and non-essential. And, is heaven a new tax haven replacing the Cayman Islands? Take a read, offer a thought!
The Kingdom of Heaven and the IRS
-- Martin E. Marty
A Gentile (as in Russell P. Gentile) is the most recent, perhaps most earnest, certainly the boldest claimant, on the government and religion news front in the winter just past. While others have protested along the line of “separation of church and state” when government is interpreted as having crossed that line, Gentile goes further. The Florida businessman pleaded that he should not be punished (as he will be punished) for not having paid owed taxes which he argues that he does not owe. While the public is familiar with Catholic bishops being critical on the issue of having to pay taxes, even indirectly, or even “indirectly indirectly” when a government policy apparently conflicts with conscientious and doctrinal issues, Gentile will not pay taxes for anything. We are familiar with Baptists and others who hold the line on “separation,” Gentile poses a transcendent issue.
In short, he says he is not subject to human laws but is an American national who “resided in the Kingdom of Heaven.” He has been “as polite and patient” as he could be, but threatens to sue if the Feds come after him. (Thy have come.) He would not report his income, and faces substantial federal prison time and fines. He broke numbers of laws and set out to obstruct justice. The legal cases continue, and outcomes are uncertain as we write. Why waste readers’ time on a case that can be described as comical and trivial?
The problem is that the Kingdom of Heaven is invoked in other cases as well. James Madison’s words argue “that it may not be easy, in every possible case, to trace the line of separation between the rights of religion and the civil authority with such distinctness as to avoid collisions and doubt on unessential points.” And most colliders say that they deal with essential points. These days we are told that Catholic and Evangelical authorities are the chief critics of the civil authority. Does Mr. Gentile’s apparently bizarre claim cast light on the others? We have to prove he is conscientious and sincere, though he is a bad calculator if he thinks that he can hold on to all his money as a member in the Kingdom of God. The last we heard from a relevant source, the New Testament, it claims all that one has and is.
Back to reality: we are in tangles over what is “essential,” what is “authority,” and who has the power to tie up government, gain media time, and affect policy. Are Catholic and Evangelical leaders the only ones who have a moral right to raise these issues? Do they succeed because they have the money, the power, and the clout to advance their claims? Every year, every day, thousands of Americans, equally conscientious as they are, do not get their way when government policies conflict with their consciences. Jehovah’s Witnesses go to jail and other “sects” make legal cases and irritate the courts as they refuse to follow mandates to have their children vaccinated, etc. Those who oppose fluoridation of water are inconvenienced. Pacifists know that we know that they suffer for conscience’s sake whenever they pay federal taxes, and will get no more than sympathy from those of us who share their conviction but do not probe to its depths. Or who do not make a legal case of being members of the Kingdom of Heaven.
Conclusion: we citizens need patience, dialogue, study, and argument of more reasoned, thoughtful, and sympathetic character than we often see and hear and show. Otherwise Mr. Gentile and his kind will be the ones who make the best case.
J. D. Gallop, “Melbourne Man Faces Prison after Making Deal with IRS,” Florida Today, March 20, 2012.
---. “IRS Intervention Not Divine for Melbourne Man,” Florida Today, March 21, 2012.
James Madison is quoted from a letter to the Rev. Jasper Adams, in John F. Wilson (ed.), Church and State in American History (Boston D C Heath, 1965), pp. 77-78.
Martin E. Marty's biography, publications, and contact information can be found at www.memarty.com.
David M. Freidenreich's book, Foreigners and their Food (California 2011), analyzes how Jews, Christians and Muslims use food regulations to construct boundaries between "us" and "them." This month's Religion & Culture Web Forum features Freidenreich's chapter on Christian laws from the fourth through the ninth century. Here, Freidenreich argues that "Christian food restrictions define Jews in two different and, indeed, contradictory ways: as equivalent to or worse than heretics, which is to say insiders gone horribly bad, and as equivalent to or worse than idolaters, which is to say the ultimate outsiders." These contradictory depictions, however, "share a common feature: the ascription of impurity to Jews and their food" (112-13). Read "How Could Their Food Not Be Impure?" here.
Sightings comes from the Martin Marty Center at the University of Chicago Divinity School.