Why Ben Carson is Wrong About Tithing and the Old Testament

Ben Carson, who spoke here last year, has become a new conservative folk hero. There is a lot that can be said about him & his recent speech in Washington, but I think one point merits closer attention, and that is his belief that the Bible itself offers justification for a flat tax rate because of its injunction to tithe at a set percentage. Here’s the problem with that view, though:

The tithe as in the Bible isn’t just by virtue of being in the Bible; and even if it were, it wouldn’t mean that it could be justly imposed on contemporary society by governmental policy.

The first point, I think, should be fairly obvious: lots of things aren’t just in the Old Testament. For starters, a righteous man was commanded to flay (seriously—flay; as in burnt-offering flay) his son. There is enough death to put Moroni at ease, then there is that fairly troubling command in 1 Samuel 15:2-3 to “kill both man and woman, child and infant, ox and sheep, camel and donkey” as if killing the people and the children wouldn’t have been enough—to add to the innocent blood of the infant the blood of the sheep to make sure desecration and destruction has taken its full toll. Then there are all of the special covenants that, even perhaps in a religious setting, people have a hard time making sense of, but that become incomprehensible in a contemporary political setting. When the injunction to tithe was given it wasn’t given with a justice claim.

All of this is to say that these things weren’t fair or just by virtue of their inclusion in the OT. The typical justification for said unjust “Heavenly Distributive Schemes”—to put it nicely—is that God had his reasons, which is I suppose satisfying enough for some, but one must also concede the point that from a societal & political standpoint these things are still very much unjust. If not, very few moral or human right claims make sense, and terrifying is the person who did not concede the point.

The second point is perhaps less obvious, but it shouldn’t be. Take the following two people and their accompanying salaries:

A: $20,000

B: $100,000

Assuming a 10% tithe, A must pay $2,000 and B $10,000. So the question is this: does the $10,000 mean more to B than the $2,000 does to A? And, ceteris paribus, I think you’d have to say that the $2,000 is much more valuable to A. Presumably, much of As earnings go towards essentials—health care, food, minimal housing, etc.—than does Bs, which, say, goes towards a family vacation. Prima facie, I don’t think a flat rate is fair at all—it certainly seems to be much more lenient to the wealthier solely by virtue of it being flat.

None of this, of course, is to say that a sufficient justificatory scheme is impossible; it may very well be, but it isn’t found in the Old Testament.

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