Last week, Archbishop Justin Welby published an article in the Daily Mail in which he argued that wealthier families should pay more tax in order to reduce the widening levels of inequality in contemporary Britain. His comments accompanied the report of a ‘think tank’ group he has been part of, the ‘left leaning’ Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR), which proposed a wide range of changes to policy, including a renewal of the manufacturing sector in the UK. Welby introduces his comments with reference to stagnation of income and growing inequality:
For more than a decade, most people have seen no improvement in their pay, even while the economy as a whole has continued to grow. As the Bank of England has shown, for nearly 40 years the share of our national income going into people’s pay has been falling while the share going to profits has been on the rise. Chronically low pay means that a hard day’s work no longer keeps people out of poverty: today, a majority of the poor are working families…
In London, we have the wealthiest region in northern Europe; yet six of the ten poorest regions are also here in the UK. I do not believe we can continue with an economy that works so badly for so many.
But he also makes clear the motivation for his involvement in the group:
As a Christian I start with learning from Jesus Christ that people matter equally, are equally loved by God, and that justice in society matters deeply – a theme that runs throughout the Bible. That’s why over the past two years I’ve been a member of the IPPR Commission on Economic Justice.
Welby’s comments immediately attracted criticism, and from the usual suspects. Jules Gomes published one of his notable rants, accusing the Archbishop of ignorance about economics as well as abandoning Christian understandings of morality:
Welby’s ideology is also morally corrosive. It undermines personal responsibility by transferring authority for crucial life-decisions from individuals to the State. The state supplies our basic needs and leaves us only to decide how we should spend our pocket money.
If you can get past the (at times toxic) rhetoric, Gomes raises some important issue. What does ‘equality’ mean—is it equality of opportunity or equality of outcome? From an economic point of view, how do you measure poverty—is it about poverty of income, poverty of assets, or poverty of consumption? What is the relationships between privilege and personal responsibility when it comes to income inequality? There are plenty of things to critique in these comments, such as his easy dismissal of high taxation economies when the ‘Nordic model’ is actually looking quite successful by many measures, but his rant illustrates the complex issues at stake.
Peter Hitchens’ equally polemic criticism also includes some serious questions about drawing a straight line from the value of Christian compassion to the conclusion of raising taxes:
Christians can be socialists or conservatives, or liberals in politics. Or they can be none of these things. It is their personal actions, not their views, that matter. It is absolutely not the task of the religious leader of England to take sides on political and economic quarrels of which he plainly knows little and understands less.
But does he understand the Gospels any better? In the Sermon on the Mount, Christ at no point says ‘Blessed are the Tax Collectors’. When he tells us to help the hungry, the sick and the homeless, he does not tell us to hand on the job to the State. He tells us to do it ourselves, not through the cold, impersonal agencies of PAYE and the Universal Credit system.
Hitchens also questions the way Government currently works in the light of the massive inefficiencies evident in both health and welfare systems:
Governments are often very bad at spending money. I pay quite a bit of tax, and wouldn’t mind at all if it went (for example) on an NHS that was well-run, schools that I thought were good, or on a criminal justice system that I thought was effective. But I get none of these things.
And it’s not because the State has too little money that this rich country now has so many food banks. It is because the state is so incompetent at helping those in real trouble.
Come and join us for the second Festival of Theology on Wednesday October 17th!
In light of all these questions, it was really fascinating to be involved in a debate on Radio 4’s Sunday programme last Sunday morning with Andy Walton, a friend of mine who is a member of the Centre for Theology and Community (item starts at 12m 36s in). I’m not sure I was on my best form (in part as I had a cold) but some fascinating issues came out of the discussion. You will hear me hesitate in response to the first question to me from the presenter, and there is good reason for that. I was asked ‘Was Justin Welby right to propose raising taxes?’ and that question can be understanding as asking one of two questions. The first one (which I think Andy answered very ably) is ‘Is there a Christian case for higher taxes?’ But the other question is: ‘Should Christian leaders be making specific economic and political statements?’ which is the one I attempted to address.
When they do, I think three key problems arise:
1. Economic positions are complex and technical and the answers are easy to get wrong.
There is an old joke which goes: if you laid all the economists in the world end to end…you still wouldn’t reach a conclusion. Economics likes to present itself as a science, but it is much less rigorous than that, since the ‘laboratory’ that you are working with is the real world, and the only experiments you can conduct are the ones of the past. So it is much more like history than physics—and yet it is primarily used to predict the future. When I studied microeconomics and macroeconomics as part of my MSc, I learnt that in the phrase ‘economic theory’, the most important word is ‘theory’. If you are unsure about how unreliable economic predictions are, just think back a year or so to the forecasts of doom around the referendum on the EU.
If economists and politicians can get these things wrong so often, what hope does a Christian leader, who cannot devote the time and expertise to this, have, and what are the consequences of buying into a theory which proves to be mistaken?
2. Christian leaders represent and care for people of all political persuasions.
If a Christian leader proclaims that a (more or less) socialist political agenda is the one they support, and they connect that explicitly with the teaching of Jesus, what impact does that have on Christians who vote Conservative? Conversely, if a Christian leader advocates Conservatism, what impact does that have on Christian socialists? It is not a little ironic that, through much of the 20th century, the latter was the issue (with the C of E being seen as ‘the Conservative party at prayer’) but in recent years it is the former. To my knowledge, only one of the 120 or so bishops in the C of E says he would have voted to leave the EU, which puts the leadership of the Church out of step with about half the population.
But there is more than a practical question underlying this. C S Lewis once said that people find his views on politics as a Christian very puzzling, since on issues of society and government he looked rather left wing, but on issues of personal morality he looked rather right wing. I find it very strange that church leaders seem quite happy to make public pronouncements on tax and society—but I cannot remember a single bishop every commenting on questions of personal morality, the importance of personal responsibility, or issues which have been the home territory of traditional Christian ethics, such as the family and the importance of fidelity in marriage. (Justin Welby does have a chapter on ‘family’ in his latest book Reimagining Britain but he singularly avoids actually saying anything about what ‘family’ means.)
This is an odd dynamic from a Christian perspective, but it is also odd given the state we are in. It is well established that the single most important factor in educational achievement is the presence of a stable, supportive family environment, so addressing this would in fact address a main cause of inequality. And you only have to tune in to a single episode of Eat Well For Less or one of any number of similar programmes to see that we are a culture which has lost any sense of personal discipline, and that this actually causes waste and poverty and poor health.
3. We are not called to proclaim salvation by economics.
I began my contribution by noting that ‘Jesus was not a member of the Labour Party’, which was intended to be an arresting expression of the conviction that we do not believe that salvation comes by means of a particular economic or political policy. My worry is that, in Justin Welby’s opening remarks, he makes it appear that he buys into the idea that economic prosperity and equality are the things that will buy us happiness—and even that happiness is the most import measure of a country’s achievements. (Might the alternative measure of ‘goodness’ be something closer to Christian belief?)
Any Christian leader who identifies with a particular political or economic policy too closely falls into the trap of accepting the terms and assumptions of the debate from the outset—that we are autonomous, rational individuals who’s happiness is the ultimate goal and this is achieved by material prosperity—in short, materialist utilitarianism. But it seems to me that the Christian gospel is far too radical to be captured in such a set of assumptions.
Take one example: the principle of Jubilee found in Leviticus 25. (Remember Leviticus, that primitive stone-age text that we should pay no attention to…?) Andy Walton mentioned this in the discussion as an example which offers a parallel to redistributive taxation. But it is actually nothing of the sort. For one, it actually assumes that, in between the 50-year Jubilees, there will be unfettered inheritance from parents to children (contrary to one of the proposals of the IPPR) and it also assumes that people can acquire wealth in proportion to their discipline and productivity. So far, so economically right wing. But the key assumption of the Jubilee is that actually no-one owns anything—that all wealth (in an agrarian society, in the form of land) belongs to God, and that we are mere stewards or tenants, who are entrusted with this for a short time, and at the end of that time we are to return what we have to its original state. So far, so radical Marxist! And yet there is also the assumption that we will give an account of how we have used the resources entrusted to us by the one who entrusted them.
If we were to take Jubilee seriously, then our economics would fit none of the models currently available, and we would ask radical questions of each of them. That seems to me to be what Christian leaders ought to be doing.
For all these reasons (and I suspect there are more) I think Christian leaders should avoid making pronouncements that align themselves with particular economic or political policies. I cannot remember anyone ever saying ‘Oh, I see that that bishop votes Labour—I think I had better find out more about this person Jesus’.
I am not suggesting here that the gospel has nothing to say about economics—quite the opposite. Jesus’ saying ‘Render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s’ (Mark 12.17, Matt 22.21) does not separate the world into two adjacent realms ruled by the respective powers, but sets what ‘Caesar’ demands (which is limited) within the orbit of God’s demands, which are total. It has been part of my Rule of Life to engage in a disciplined way with the contemporary debate about politics and economics—but the goal is to offer a Christian perspective and critique of all economic and political claims, not to ally with any one of them alone.
Much more needed is a comment on the fundamental assumptions behind each of these positions, and a radical reappraisal of the goals we have set for ourselves as a society.
Following the headlines this morning, it is perhaps worth adding a fourth reason for caution to the above three:
‘Practise what you preach!’ – Justin Welby blasted for ‘HYPOCRITICAL’ speech about economy
THE ARCHBISHOP of Canterbury has been branded a “hypocrite” for making a speech in which he heavily criticised Amazon and the gig economy while the Church of England invests in the giant tech company and uses zero-hour contracts.
The bottom line here is: do not pronounce on policy issues unless you are following through your own words with your own actions. That is challenging for any Christian leader, but it is particularly challenging for a national church leader since (in this case) the Church of England is such a complex organisation. In fact, Justin Welby has no formal role in setting the policy of the Church Commissioners—which most people will find incomprehensible, since they regard the Archbishop as CEO of the Church—but that won’t cut much ice with either the person on the street or the headline writers trying to catch their attention.
Come and join us for the second Festival of Theology on Wednesday October 17th!
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