This was published on my Patheos Column, "An American Islam."
President Obama aims to live by the Christian principle that a person who is blessed with much must give back to the community. That seems to be the underlying sentiment of his remarks at the National Prayer Breakfast in early February, where the President framed his tax policies within biblical principles: "But for me as a Christian, it also coincides with Jesus' teaching that 'for unto whom much is given, much shall be required.'"
Here, the president is quoting Luke 12:48: "For unto whomsoever much is given, of him shall be much required." Indeed, Jesus Christ did stress the importance of helping the poor, saying once: "Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me (Mt. 25:40)."
The President then added, "It mirrors the Islamic belief that those who've been blessed have an obligation to use those blessings to help others, or the Jewish doctrine of moderation and consideration for others." Here, he is absolutely correct: In Islam, there definitely is the principle that "unto whom much is given, much shall be required."
That is, in fact, is the entire purpose of zakah, which is the "fourth pillar" of Islam. Zakah is a wealth tax; Muslims must annually give 2.5 percent on unused wealth accumulated over the course of the year to the poor and needy. The word zakah, in fact, means "purifying dues," because such a tax "purifies" the person from greed and miserliness. (Interestingly, some professors and directors of economic think tanks have recently called for a similar type of tax.)
In the Quran, this concept is explicitly explained:
Verily, the human being is born with a restless disposition. [As a rule], whenever misfortune touches him, he is filled with self-pity; and whenever good fortune comes to him, he selfishly withholds it [from others]. Not so, however, those who consciously turn toward God in prayer. [And] who incessantly persevere in their prayer; and in whose possessions there is a due share, acknowledged [by them] for such as ask [for help] and such as are deprived [of what is good in life] (70:19-25).
Another passage in the Quran reads:
[But,] behold, the God-conscious will find themselves amid gardens and springs, enjoying all that their Sustainer will have granted them [because], verily, they were doers of good in the past: they would lie asleep during but a small part of the night and would pray for forgiveness from their innermost hearts; and [would assign] in all that they possessed a due share unto such as might ask [for help] and such as might suffer privation (51:15-19).
President Obama, in fact, is asking less of the rich than Jesus did. When a man came to Jesus asking how he can attain eternal life, he told him: "Go thy way, sell whatsoever thou hast, and give to the poor, and thou shalt have treasure in heaven: and come, take up the cross, and follow me" (Mk. 10:21) and "How hardly shall they that have riches enter into the kingdom of God!" (Mk. 10:23)
The President is only asking the rich to pay a few percentage points more than what they are paying now. In his latest budget, Obama proposed a 30 percent tax on those with incomes above $1,000,000. Conservative Christian leader Ralph Reed of the Faith and Freedom Coalition criticized this concept, saying that tying this tax policy to Jesus' teachings was "theologically threadbare and straining credulity." But it is Reed's response that strains credulity.
The wealthy should pay their fair share of taxes. The obligation of those who are doing well to help those that are less fortunate is deeply rooted in the Judeo-Christian (and Islamic) traditions. This is because the ultimate source of this concept is the God of Abraham Himself who, despite the contention of some, is worshipped by Muslims, Christians and Jews alike.
You would think that this common belief in a common Lord would bring people together on an issue such as this. But, this is the 2012 election season. Very little, it seems, makes sense.