A spiritual and moral case for Illinois’ Fair Tax proposal

A spiritual and moral case for Illinois’ Fair Tax proposal

When Illinois voters head to the polls in November, they’ll vote on a proposal to amend the state’s constitution and create a graduated income tax system. Dubbed the Illinois Fair Tax, the amendment would sunset the state’s current flat tax structure in favor of a system that is more just and equitable for Illinois’ working class.

The usual suspects — secular and religious — have expressed opposition to the proposal. Fearmongers and conspiracy theorists warn the Fair Tax will create a retiree tax, a double tax and other fiscal boogeymen. More rational opponents of the amendment base their arguments on the belief that a flat tax structure is, by nature, the fairest form of taxation.

But does a flat tax structure actually provide an income tax system that is truly fair to all state residents? Or, in addition to the financial benefits for the state, are there spiritual and ethical reasons why a graduated or fair tax system offers a more just and morally responsible tax structure for Illinois and other states?

What is the Illinois Fair Tax Proposal?

Illinois is one of eight U.S. states with a flat-rate income tax system, and one of four states that requires a flat income tax in its constitution. The federal government and 33 states — including almost all of Illinois’ neighbor states — have graduated income tax systems.

Illinois’ current tax rate is 4.95% across the board. Under the Fair Tax proposal, the tax rate would remain unchanged for incomes between $100,000 and $250,000. Incomes less than $100,000 would be taxed at a slightly lower rate, while incomes higher than $250,000 would be taxed at a progressively higher rate, capped at 7.99% for annual incomes over $1 million. Only incomes above $250,000 would see an increase in their state tax rate under the Fair Tax proposal. More than 90% of the state’s residents would receive a tax cut.

Proponents of the Fair Tax argue that a flat tax creates an unjust hardship for middle- and working-class families because it forces them to pay a larger share of their total income in taxes. For example, someone earning $25,000 and paying a flat tax of 10% is forced to live on $22,500 a year, while someone earning $1 million under the same flat tax structure enjoys $900,000 in disposable income.

It defies logic to argue that applying the same tax rate to both taxpayers (the one earning $10,000 and the one earning $1 million) even remotely resembles fair taxation.

The argument over the Illinois’ Fair Tax extends well beyond the Illinois state line. It directly speaks to the issue of income inequality and challenges us, as a nation, to confront the profound injustices associated with unfair distribution of wealth.

The Fair Tax debate and the moral value of money

We’ve been here before. In 1894, Congress launched a national debate over a proposal to enact the United States’ first peacetime income tax. Voices from every corner of society expressed opinions for and against a graduated tax structure, with many serving up the same arguments that have surfaced in the Illinois’ Fair Tax discussion.

Ironically, some of the most persuasive arguments for the graduated income tax in 1894 came from the religious sphere. Religious proponents of the 1894 graduated tax based their support on the clear biblical mandate for the wealthy to care for the poor. They also cited the centuries-old Judeo-Christian tenet that those with higher incomes should pay more.

But the most compelling religious case for a graduated income tax system — like the Illinois Fair Tax — involved something Joshua Cutler refers to as the decreasing moral value of money. Building on biblical sources (Matt. 18.12, Luke 15.4, Mark 12.41ff., Luke 16.19-31 and others) proponents argued that lower levels of earned income are inherently more valuable than higher levels of wealth, “which they viewed as unearned and morally suspect.”

The decreasing moral value of money concept gained support both inside and outside of the religious community. Notable proponents of the concept included Theodore Roosevelt and William Jennings Bryan.

But more importantly, the moral value of money concept offers useful insights into the current debate over Illinois’ Fair Tax and the larger issue of income inequality. The lesson? The true value of money isn’t defined by numbers on a spreadsheet. At its essence, all money has moral value — and that value is defined by what it is used for. For example, an individual earning $25,000 a year uses their entire income to pay for basic necessities like food and housing. On the other hand, an individual earning $250,000 or more a year enjoys a significant amount of disposable income that they use to either buy non-essential items or accumulate wealth. 

In a flat tax system, low-wage earners are taxed on the funds they require for survival, while high-wage earners pay the same tax rate while living in extreme abundance. 

Modern-day opponents of the Fair Tax argue that this scenario is just capitalism at work — that in America, those who “work hard” enjoy the fruits of their endeavors. It’s an ignorant argument, at best. Low wage-earners work just as long and hard as high wage-earner. In many cases, they work harder. But more to the point, I would argue that there’s nothing “American” about a flat-tax structure at all. For more than a century, the United States has codified the decreasing moral value of money in its tax policy. In our graduated federal income tax system, those who earn more are expected to pay a higher tax rate.

From a spiritual and ethical perspective, the argument is even clearer. A flat tax system is more than just a bad idea. It’s anathema — an abomination to the historical Judeo-Christian values that inform our responsibility to the common good.

A final word for Protestants

Justice-minded Christians aren’t alone in supporting a graduated tax system. Both Judaism and Islam support the idea that wealthy taxpayers should pay a higher rate than the working class. In fact, the Islamic tenet of zakat supports taxing individuals on wealth — not income. The decreasing moral value of money strikes again.

But as a Protestant clergyperson, I’m acutely aware of the arguments my conservative peers offer in support of a flat tax. And the practice of tithing sits at the top of that list.

A tithe is the donation of 10% of your income to your church. Protestant ministers — especially evangelicals — regularly hammer home the importance of tithing, mostly because they depend on it to fund their operations. Whether you make $25,000 a year or $250,000 a year, one out of every 10 dollars you earn goes to the church. The tithe is essentially a religious flat tax. So, if it’s good enough for the church, religious conservatives argue, it’s good enough for government.

Religious opponents of the graduated tax system raised the same argument in 1894 and immediately met with resistance. It turns out the American people aren’t interested in operating the government like a local church.

But I know firsthand that Protestant churches — even so-called “tithing churches” — don’t practice what they preach. Although they preach the tithe, when the coffers run low, pastors appeal to wealthy congregants for additional donations. “If you’ve got more, give more” is a common mantra in these churches. When push comes to shove, tithing churches practice a graduated “tax” system. So, when these individuals advocate for a flat tax system in the public sphere, it’s hypocrisy. Plain and simple.

A graduated donation system is the right move for churches because it’s fair and just. And it’s no less fair and just for the citizens of Illinois. When Illinoisans head to the polls in November, they’re voting for more than a tax rate. In many ways, their votes will determine what we aspire to as a nation …

Will we be a nation that enables the accumulation of exorbitant wealth at the expense of the poor and working class?

Or will we remember the spiritual values at the heart of our faith traditions, and adopt a tax system rooted in fairness and economic justice?

I hope we do the right thing. And so should you.

The gig economy can be scary. But is it better for your soul?

The gig economy can be scary. But is it better for your soul?

The American economy is changing. Full-time, salaried positions are disappearing. They’re being replaced by one-off projects and short-term work contracts -— the kinds of jobs that make up the “gig economy.”

The idea of a gig economy can feel scary, especially for workers who like the security of a traditional nine-to-five desk job. But when I worked in the gig economy, I discovered that a freelance work model can also open the door to a more spiritually rewarding way of life.

How big is the gig economy?

The gig economy is big and it’s getting bigger every day. According to a recent Forbes report, there are currently about 53 million workers in the U.S. gig economy. By the year 2020, it’s estimated that 50 percent of the workforce will earn at least a portion of their income through freelancing.

While some of the people that are being added to the gig economy work low-paying seasonal jobs (like Amazon warehouse jobs during the holiday rush), others are year-round professionals with expertise in design, coding or (in my case) writing and content marketing.

Why is the gig economy growing?

There’s no denying that the gig economy offers a more cost-effective labor model for employers. In addition to reducing the cost of benefits, companies now have the flexibility to hire more workers during busy periods and fewer workers during slow ones.

But employers aren’t the only ones clamoring for freelance opportunities. More and more workers — including scores of  millennials — actually prefer contract work to traditional employment because it gives them the freedom to create lifestyles that accommodate their personal, professional and even spiritual needs.

3 ways the gig economy can be spiritually beneficial

Financial security is a concern for freelancers. But in some ways, the gig economy actually protects workers by providing income from multiple sources. If one employer disappears, you still have several other employers to fall back on.

But just as importantly, the freelance work model can provide several important spiritual benefits:

1. The gig economy forces you to engage in community.

At first glance, freelancing seems isolating. Many freelancers work from home and don’t have the kinds of daily interactions that exist in a traditional office setting. But successful freelancers know they can’t survive alone. They have to participate in communities (online and face-to-face) of like-minded freelancers to find gigs and professional support. These communities aren’t unlike spiritual communities — they require openness, selflessness and mutual respect to thrive.

2. Non-traditional work schedules are no problem.

Combining spiritual routines with traditional work routines is no easy feat. From morning prayer and meditation to volunteering and community interaction, spiritual activities are tough to squeeze in when you have to punch the clock for eight to 10 consecutive hours a day. The gig economy allows workers to create their own schedules and work routines. If you want to serve lunch at a soup kitchen or meditate from 10:00 to 10:30 each day, you can. It’s up to you whether you work in the morning, the afternoon or the evening. And if you want to take a few days off to travel or go on a retreat, it’s no problem, provided you can afford to miss the work or take your work with you.

3. You have to exercise faith and trust.

Traditional employment scenarios create a false sense of security. If you’ve worked at the same traditional job for several years, it’s easy to believe that it will always exist. But in reality, the company could downsize, get acquired or go out of business with little warning. Freelancers don’t suffer from those illusions. They have to constantly exercise faith and trust: faith that their next gig is just around the corner and trust that God is somehow looking out for them.

Non-traditional work routines aren’t for everyone. But as the gig economy grows, there will be even more opportunities to create your own work life — a life that’s big enough to accommodate the spiritual activities and commitments that matter to you.

What “A Star Is Born” teaches us about celebrity culture

What “A Star Is Born” teaches us about celebrity culture

Any movie starring Bradley Cooper and Lady Gaga is bound to rake in a few bucks at the box office. But the 2018 mega hit, A Star Is Born, earned more than a few bucks, grossing almost $450 million worldwide — a massive haul for a movie we’ve already seen. In fact, this was Hollywood’s fourth remake of the film. The original 1937 version starred Janet Gaynor. A few decades later, Judy Garland landed the lead in the 1954 version, followed by Barbara Streisand in 1976.

Why do we keep watching this movie? Are we just suckers for recycled storylines? Maybe. But it might also have something do with a shared, primal fantasy. Deep down, we all want to be stars. We want to be famous. We want to be celebrated. Of course, hardly any of us will ever attain anything close to celebrity status, so we’re left to reconcile our celebrity obsession with the realities of an unremarkable life.

But an unremarkable life may not be so bad. For thousands of years, people found spiritual and emotional significance by avoiding fame. In some cases, they have aggressively rejected the celebrity others tried to force on them. Here’s what we can learn from their example.

The psychology behind our desire to be famous

A Star Is Born satisfies all the requirements of a great story. But behind the story, there’s psychology — a deep-seated desire to be recognized by others for our gifts and talents.

More than half of the people who become famous achieve celebrity status before the age of 30. Since the odds of making it big drop significantly with each passing year, a ridiculously high percentage of young people are willing to sacrifice traditional goals for fame. In a recent study, a third of millennials said they would rather be famous than become a doctor or lawyer. One in 10 would opt for fame instead of a college degree and one in twelve would abandon or disown their families.

Those statistics aren’t unique to millennials. Previous generations harbored fantasies of becoming the next Joan Baez or George Clooney. Truth be told, on a bad day I still want to be Bono and I’m well past the 30-year cutoff.

There’s no single motivation behind our desire for fame. Researchers have found that on the surface, there are three primary reasons why we crave fame:

  • The desire to be seen or valued
  • The desire to live an elite lifestyle
  • The desire to make others proud or help them

But when we dig a little deeper, we discover that our shared yearning for celebrity comes from our shared experiences of injury, humiliation and neglect. Maybe it was a parent with high expectations and an inability to offer praise. Or classmates who made us feel like we were never good enough. Or a friend who treated us cruelly.

Whatever the source of our obsession (and it’s usually more than one), we want fame because we think it will insulate us from the harsher realities of our experience. But that’s not how it works. The kindness we expect to find in celebrity never materializes. Actual celebrities are frequently wounded and vulnerable people, and their woundedness only gets worse over time because they experience a constant barrage of criticism and nastiness.

In the end, all celebrity really means is that people know who you are. Understanding, appreciation, love, kindness — all the things that motivate us to desire celebrity are illusions grounded in psychological and emotional brokenness.

A spiritual alternative to celebrity

From social media to politics, celebrity culture permeates every nook and cranny of American life. It’s even found its way into the church. In some circles, worship gatherings have become stage shows, pastors have become celebrity wannabes and congregants have become groupies, constantly chasing the next big thing.

Not all churches or pastors have embraced celebrity culture. But even those who recognize the dangers of celebrity culture talk about it and toy with the idea of incorporating certain elements of it into their worship events and ministries. Celebrity culture has apparently become the new normal in Christianity.

Yet, for thousands of years, spiritual leaders across religions actively shunned the idea of celebrity and the desire for fame.

  • In the gospels, Jesus walked away from crowds of people — not toward them. And when people discovered his claim as the messiah, he told them to shut up about it.
  • In the fourth century, the desert mothers and fathers — spiritual rock stars who devoted themselves to lives of prayer and asceticism — left cities because people started treating them like celebrities. When the crowds followed them to the desert, the desert mothers and fathers migrated to caves or lived on top of poles to escape attention.
  • Born a prince, Siddartha Gautama abandoned the trappings of royalty to live as a mendicant, begging in the streets. Moved by the suffering he saw, he began a spiritual quest that transformed him into the Buddha, or enlightened one.

Saint Francis. Mother Teresa. Gandhi. There are plenty of examples of men and women who fled celebrity to pursue a spiritual calling. Ironically, some of them became famous, even during their own lifetimes. But it wasn’t because they wanted fame. They became famous because they proved you don’t have to be a celebrity to live a meaningful life.

When it comes down to it, we all want to be celebrated. Appreciation, love and kindness are basic needs that validate us as human beings. They are signs that our lives have value, that somehow the world is a better place because we’re in it.

The way we discover our value is by celebrating others. When we recognize the inherent, God-given value in others, we experience an exchange of the love and appreciation we crave. Through the validation of other people and the gifts they bring, we find our own validation as human beings and as children of God.

As a work of fiction, A Star Is Born is a decent movie. It’s also a stark reminder that celebrity culture requires a few winners and a lot of losers. Without millions of everyday people cheering them on, celebrities wouldn’t exist. But in God’s universe, there are only winners — and it’s your job to celebrate them all.

Doubt Your Calling

Doubt Your Calling

John 1.43-51: The calling of Philip and Nathanael

Calling is one of the more mysterious things we talk about in Christianity.

I’ve always envied people who say they know their callings with absolute certainty. For me – and I suspect for a lot of people – calling is a much murkier subject.

Although there have been times in my life when I thought I knew my calling, those moments never last. Before long, I find myself wandering in a spiritual fog, full of doubt and struggling to discern who I am or what God wants me to do with my life.

In this week’s lectionary reading (John 1.43-51), we have a front-row seat to the callings of two people: Philip and Nathanael. When Jesus calls Philip, Philip follows. There are no questions. No whys or what ifs. No doubt.

But when Philip extends the same call to Nathanael, Nathanael hesitates. “Can anything good come from Nazareth?” Nathanael asks. It’s only after Nathanael receives answers to his questions that he accepts the calling to follow Christ.

In the traditional interpretation of this passage, Philip shines as an example of virtue and faith, while Nathanael is portrayed as wishy-washy — a waffler who doesn’t have the spiritual wherewithal to recognize a good thing when he sees it.

But Nathanael’s story is comforting for misfits like me. It also raises important questions about the concept of calling: Is it wrong to question our calling? How does doubt figure into the discernment process? And maybe most importantly, what is a “calling” in the first place?

Calling is invitation

The concept of calling appears throughout scripture. Abram was called to travel to an unknown land. Moses was called to free the Israelites. Saul was called to stop persecuting Christians and become Paul the apostle.

These days, calling is usually connected to vocation. When we talk about discerning our calling, we’re actually talking about discerning our career path or our role in the church. But biblically and theologically, calling and career aren’t necessarily connected.

At its most basic level, a calling is just a divine invitation. Although it might involve an invitation to pursue a vocation, it frequently doesn’t. When Jesus called Philip and Nathanael, he didn’t provide job offers. Instead, he extended a simple invitation: Follow me.

When we re-imagine calling as invitation, we quickly realize that the process of our discerning our calling never ends. Every day, we’re faced with the same choice: Will we accept the invitation (calling) to follow Jesus and all that it entails or will we choose a different path?

Doubt and calling go hand in hand

Doubt gets a bad rap in Christianity. It’s typically seen as a sign of weakness or spiritual defect. But if you think about it, doubt is the flip side of faith. Without uncertainty, we wouldn’t need or value the gift of faith because our spiritual lives would be filled with facts and absolutes.

If we can learn anything from Nathanael’s story, it’s that doubt and calling go hand in hand. Since calling is an invitation, we need to ask questions before we decide whether to refuse or accept. If we don’t thoughtfully consider the invitation, our acceptance rings hollow. It lacks depth and meaning.

The relationship between doubt and calling is biblical. In the gospel of Luke, it’s called “counting the cost.” People who blindly accept divine invitations without considering the consequences are destined to fail. Whether you’re building a tower or deciding whether or not to accept God’s latest invitation, doubting the inevitably of the outcome isn’t a lack of faith – it’s a prerequisite for faith.

The takeaway from this week’s lectionary is to doubt your calling every single day. Ask questions. Consider consequences. Express uncertainty. And when you finally discern God’s invitation, accept it and rely on faith to carry you the rest of the way.

Why decluttering your soul is just as important as decluttering your closet

Why decluttering your soul is just as important as decluttering your closet

Ever feel like you’re drowning in clutter? According to recent statistics on clutter, Americans/ obsession with stuff is costing us time and money —- resources that most of us would rather spend on other things.

  • We wear 20 percent of our clothing 80 percent of the time.
  • Twenty-five percent of two-car garages don’t have room to park cars in them.
  • There is a direct correlation between cortisol (stress) levels and the density of objects in our houses.
  • Approximately 10 percent of American households rent a storage unit for their overflow possessions, at a cost of $1,000 or more a year.
  • Eliminating clutter would reduce the amount of time you spend cleaning your home by 40 percent.
  • Nearly a third of Americans report that cleaning their closets is more satisfying than sex.

You can probably identify at least a half dozen areas of your life that need decluttering right now. None of us is immune to clutter and the longer you ignore it, the more the stuff you own will start owning you.

Decluttering is a spiritual necessity

Clutter is an unavoidable consequence of consumer culture. When we declutter, we make a conscious decision to turn over a new leaf and reject the misguided notion that things could ever lead to happiness or personal fulfillment.

But material things aren’t the only source of clutter in our lives. Non-material clutter is often more spiritually damaging than the boxes of clothes stacked in your spare room or the piles of plastic toys taking up space in your garage. Donating or discarding unused possessions is a good start, but don’t stop there. Use it as a catalyst to begin the more difficult process of decluttering your emotional and spiritual life.

  • Regrets – A lot of us go through life carrying a bag full of regrets. Whether it’s things we did or things we didn’t do, regrets weigh us down, like the clutter in our houses. Worse yet, they hold us back from trying new things or becoming better versions of ourselves.
  • Unhealthy Goals – There’s nothing wrong with having goals. But sometimes our goals are unhealthy, especially if ambition drives us to achieve things that don’t line up with our spiritual or moral values. For example, when the desire to earn a living morphs into an obsession to become filthy rich, it’s time to clean house.
  • Relationships – Purging relationships from your life gets dicey. I’m not talking about cleaning up your friends list on Facebook. I’m talking about distancing yourself from friends or even family members who are no longer supportive or represent a positive influence in your life. Sometimes you have to walk away from those relationships to move forward, especially if the relationship has turned toxic.

How to declutter your soul

The concept of decluttering has a long history in Christianity and other religions. In Matthew 10, Jesus sent the disciples out without any money or spare clothes; in Luke 14, he told his followers that taking up the cross might require them to “declutter” their relationships and leave behind family members. It’s similar to the philosophy of detachment found in Buddhism and Hinduism.

Ready to get started? Here are several things you can do to declutter your soul and improve your spiritual health:

  1. Take inventory. Spend a few minutes each day evaluating the material and non-material clutter in your life. If it isn’t useful anymore or if it’s weighing you down and holding you back, add it to the list of things that are ripe for removal.
  2. Create a plan. Create a plan to eliminate each area or piece of clutter from your life. If you can, donate material possessions to a local charity. For non-material clutter, consider practical steps you can take to change unhealthy behaviors, relationships or obsessions.
  3. Don’t replace old clutter with new clutter. Avoid replacing unhealthy goals or relationships with new ones, at least for now. Over time, you may discover removing negative things from your life creates space for positive ones. But for the time being, focus on enjoying the freedom of living your life without unnecessary burdens or distractions.