Rendering Unto Caesar

A few days ago I came across a passage from the 1976 Internal Revenue Handbook. It said: "During a state of national emergency from enemy attack, the essential function of the [IRS] will be as follows: . . . Assessing, collecting and recording taxes." Now just imagine this: You're huddled in a bomb shelter, and what have you got to look forward to? A visit from a zealous bureaucrat demanding to see your receipts. But a recent article in Money magazine indicates that even that degree of zealousness isn't enough anymore. The deadline for filing our tax returns is just a few days away. But according to Money magazine, 16 million Americans will underpay on their taxes this year, many of them deliberately. Seven million won't even bother filing. And the cost of what the IRS calls the "tax gap"? More than $150 billion dollars—just a little less than the total federal budget deficit. What's more, almost all of these tax cheats will get away with it. Money magazine came to a simple conclusion about Americans and taxes: What keeps people from cheating isn't conscience; it's a lack of opportunity. For example, among citizens who draw a salary, who have taxes withheld, and whose business expenses are paid by their employers, the compliance rate is 99.5 percent. These people don't cheat because their circumstances don't give them much chance to. But among people who don't get a salary, such as the self-employed, the compliance rate is much lower. And the figures look even worse when you compare them to the compliance rate of 20 years ago. Back in 1973 the top marginal tax rate was 70 percent. But the tax gap in those days was less than 25 billion dollars. Today the top marginal rate for most Americans is 31 percent, and the tax gap is six times larger. This is vivid evidence of the moral decline in American life: People don't feel a sense of responsibility to their society. They prefer to cheat rather than to be honest. But the IRS isn't taking this lying down. Starting in October, audits will reflect what the IRS calls "economic reality" testing. In other words, does the taxpayer's return reflect his lifestyle and assets? Businesses, homes, bank accounts, even marriage and birth certificates will all be fair game as the IRS hunts down tax cheats. Of course this is dangerously intrusive. But it illustrates perfectly something I call "Colson's Law": When inner restraints are gone, external restraints have to increase to fill the void. And that's when it gets dangerous, because the government begins to take over. I'll be the first to tell you that there's plenty wrong with our tax system. Taxes are too high, and they do pay for wasteful spending. But simply disregarding the law isn't an option for Christians. Jesus Himself told His followers to render unto Caesar what belongs to Caesar. And Paul says in Romans 13 that we are to "pay taxes to the one to whom tax is due." If Jesus Christ could command this deference to Rome—an oppressive regime that persecuted the church—how much more valid it is that we Americans, who elect our own government, should pay our taxes. It is our civic duty, it is the moral thing, and it's the responsibility we accept in a free society. And as Christians, we must set the example by following the example of Jesus—to render the tithe that Caesar demands.


Chuck Colson


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