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Transatlantic Blog

Bernie Sanders’ pagan view of charity

Bernie Sanders holds a pagan view of charity. I mean that not in a pejorative but in a denotative sense: Sanders’ preference for government programs over private philanthropy echoes that of ancient pagan rulers.

Sanders, a democratic socialist, has said that private charity should not exist, because it usurps the authority of the government. Sanders voiced this antipathy at a United Way meeting shortly after being elected mayor of Burlington in 1981.

The New York Times reported:

“I don't believe in charities,” said Mayor Sanders, bringing a shocked silence to a packed hotel banquet room. The Mayor, who is a Socialist, went on to question the “fundamental concepts on which charities are based” and contended that government, rather than charity organizations, should take over responsibility for social programs.

It fell to Republican Governor Richard Snelling, who also addressed the meeting, to affirm that “charity is not a dirty word.”

In his belief that philanthropy should not exist, Bernie has put his money where his mouth is. He donated less than one percent of his income to charity in the year he became one of America’s “millionaires and billionaires.” This crept up to an annual average of 2.2 percent over a decade. (By way of contrast, Joe Biden donates about nine percent of his money to charity.) “Unless we learn more from Sanders, which might put these numbers in a different context, he is a victim of his own critique: He is not paying his fair share,” wrote Charlie Camosy in the National Catholic Reporter.

Even when Sanders has given money to private charity, it has been out of concern for growing the state. In 2013, he joined his fellow Vermont legislators in briefly donating five percent of their income to charity. Sanders said he did this to “express solidarity” with (generously compensated) federal workers facing budget constraints.

Our concern is not that Sanders chooses to use the lion’s share of his wealth for his personal benefit; it is his wealth, and he has the right to dispose of it as he wishes. What is unsettling is his persistent desire to stop others from doing so, as well as his dyspepsia that people might be loving their neighbor without his consent.

Would a President Sanders try to redistribute funds from private charity to the government? That is virtually the essence of his policies.

In a perceptive piece for The Washington Examiner, Howard Husock of the Manhattan Institute notes that Bernie Sanders’ wealth tax is the perfect vehicle “for the assets of foundations to be taxed.” The IRS would simply lump together nonprofit assets with the donor’s wealth. “The government would have to determine whether the assets of charities controlled by wealthy people would be subject to the tax,” writes Robert Rubin in the Wall Street Journal, “and the decision could reshape the nonprofit sector.” A wealth tax on the Gates Foundation would drain nearly the full total of its annual grants into federal coffers, according to an analysis by the National Taxpayers Union Foundation.

The threat of a “democratic socialist” government confiscating charitable funds is not merely theoretical. Sanders did precisely that as mayor of Burlington. In 1987, he slapped a charitable nonprofit – a hospital – with a $2.9 million tax bill. The institution’s president said Sanders taxed the nonprofit “without any prior discussion,” but that’s not entirely true. Shortly after taking office, Sanders put caregivers on notice: “We want [the hospital] and the physicians associated with it to begin taking a more active role in community health care by using their vast resources for the common good,” he wrote in September 1981. He later complained the nonprofit paid “nothing in taxes … nothing for the services they receive,” such as police protection and road maintenance. And Sanders persisted in waging an (unsuccessful) court battle to collect, even though the unprecedented tax charge would raise the patients’ costs by an average of $300 ($696 in 2020 dollars, adjusted for inflation).

Sanders’ wealth tax would also squeeze the primary source of charitable donations. The top one percent of U.S. income earners account for one-third of all charitable donations, according to the Philanthropy Roundtable. This and Sanders’ other soak-the-rich tax policies would result in a massive shift of wealth and resources out of private, charitable hands into those of government officials and central planners.

Sanders’ jaundiced view of charity certainly does not comport with Judaism. The greatest Jewish theologian, Maimonides, said the highest form of charity is to help someone start his own business. “The greatest level, above which there is no greater,” he wrote, “is to support a fellow Jew by endowing him with a gift or loan, or entering into a partnership with him, or finding employment for him, in order to strengthen his hand so that he will not need to be dependent upon others.” It is difficult to square this with Sanders’ notion that 327 million U.S. citizens (and a healthy cohort of non-citizens) should depend on the government for their daily bread – and on the highest level of government at that.

However, there is a religious antecedent to Senator Sanders’ views: the pagan Roman Emperor Julian the Apostate (361-363 A.D.). Julian, a former Christian who became an evangelist of the recently vanquished pagan cults, sought to create a welfare state bureaucracy to counter Christian philanthropy. He ordered pagan priests to distribute state funds in order to maximize his power over the citizenry.

The poor themselves were virtually an afterthought.

“It infuriated him that Christian leaders were usurping a role that was rightly his to bestow,” explained Walter Roberts of the University of North Texas and Michael DiMaio Jr. of Salve Regina University. “Julian feared that Christian practices were causing many citizens to look to other sources than the emperor for protection and security.” In other words, one of the “fundamental issues” behind Julian’s social policy “is that of patronage.”­

Julian would not be the last pagan leader to order “the disbanding of all private welfare institutions.” Believers are commanded to care for others, and private charities offer greater flexibility, personalization, and return on investment than welfare state schemes. But pagan leaders like Julian looked askance at any force – no matter how benevolent – that could liberate people from a position of complete dependence on the state. They saw philanthropy not as an opportunity to meet the needs of the poor, but as a turf war.

Based on his comments, so does Bernie Sanders.

(Photo credit: Gage Skidmore. This photo has been cropped. CC BY-SA 2.0.)

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Rev. Ben Johnson is a senior editor at the Acton Institute. His work focuses on the principles necessary to create a free and virtuous society in the transatlantic sphere (the U.S., Canada, and Europe). He earned his Bachelor of Arts in History summa cum laude from Ohio University and was inducted into Phi Beta Kappa.