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Wednesday, September 29, 2004

'The least of these.'

While we're talking about taxes, make sure to read the Christian Century's interview with Susan Pace Hamill, whose Beeson Divinity School master's thesis — The Least of These: Fair Taxes and the Moral Duty of Christians — inspired Alabama's Republican governor to try to fix the state's outrageously regressive tax code by appealing to biblical principles of concern for the poor. (We covered the story here last summer.) Here's part of the interview:

How do your opponents [like the Alabama Christian Coalition]—who also wanted to use biblical language—respond to your arguments for fairness in tax law?

Their response was mostly to attack me as a carpetbagger or worse. They said that itís up to the church to take care of the poor and that low taxes help people do that. They said I obviously wanted to increase taxes and hurt families.

Letís consider that argument. First, does charity replace justice? The answer is clearly no. You can have a decent amount of charity going on in the midst of unjust laws. An A+ record in charity canít turn an F in injustice into a C average. Things donít work that way. And all the charity in the world is not going to produce the fairness in taxation we need. People are just too greedy to give things up voluntarily.

Any reasonable reading of the biblical account of the Fall teaches us that on our own weíre not going to do the right thing, and weíre certainly not going to voluntarily give up what we should. Thatís why tax laws exist.

I was concerned about families. I was talking about lowering taxes for a lot of families and raising taxes for others so that the result would be just. I said a family of four struggling at below the poverty-wage level is very different from a family of four whose breadwinner earns $200,000 a year. So which families are we talking about hurting? . . .

My article on the Alabama tax code draws on divine command ethics and cites over 100 evangelical commentaries—all quite conservative resources. It argues that if a community is run by the market, then Mammon has triumphed over God. In other words, if the least among us have no minimum chance to succeed, the community is not reflecting godly values.

Iím so tired of hearing folks claim that somehow charity will make up for inequity in taxation. It wonít. Evangelicals should go back and read about the Fall. They are pretending that somehow people are not tempted by the sin of greed. That is inconsistent with the way any Bible-believing person believes.

This is must reading. ("Unjustly Taxed: A Biblical Critique of Alabama's Tax Code," Christian Century 9.21.04)

Copyright © 2004 by Philocrites | Posted 29 September 2004 at 10:41 PM

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September 30, 2004 02:24 PM | Permalink for this comment

Living in Alabama, sometimes I feel that we are an experiment for what the religious right would like the entire country to be. Aside from playing the religious card for political gain, we are chronically undertaxed to the point that all manner of social services are collapsing. I am also struck, after living in California and in Texas about the argumentative timidity of Alabama progressives.

Nathan Morgan, from Alabama Arise, came to talk to us a couple of years ago at the UU Tuscaloosa congregation about the point that Hamill makes, that the state tax code cannot be reconciled with the biblical commandment to take care of the poor, and that this was an argument that needed to be made to the public when pushing for a progressive tax reform. I expressed alarm at the idea that we had to invoke scripture when debating policies, and his response was along the lines of (this is not exact) ďwell, if you are going to talk politics in Alabama, you need to invoke anything you need to including scripture.Ē (By the way, this proposed sound reform was soundly defeated in September of last year.)

There is something seriously amiss with this strategy of pointing out the cognitive dissonance of right wing fiscal policy and the religious doctrine of the conservative base. It simply is not working. The level of disciplined double-think that this demographic has demonstrated is comparable to any product of Stalinism. That is why it is so easy for the Alabama Christian Coalition to dismiss Hamills argument by digging out her signature for a reproductive freedom petition.

Of all the political books that have emerged this season, the one that I think is most intriguing is Thomas Frankís ďWhat is the Matter with Kansas?Ē It explores how is it that the Democrats lost their populist base, and how talking about values makes the political space immune to any arguments around social welfare, labor and fiscal issues. Here is a link to an excerpt:

BTW, Iím a graduate student at the University of Alabama where Susan Hamill is. I was an observer at a Faculty Senate Meeting where a resolution was passed supporting Susanís academic freedom in the face of ad hominem attacks. It was not passed unanimously, and I thought that was telling. Hereís a link to the minutes of that meeting and the resolution that was passed.

Also Josh Marshall, from Talking Points Memo, has a bit of U of A folklore about how Karl Rove practiced his campaign attack skills around here. Thought I would share.

bob smietana:

October 2, 2004 06:29 PM | Permalink for this comment

The frightening part for me, as someone in the Evangelical camp, is how Biblical Hamill's position, and how many Evangelicals have no idea what she's talking about. I don't know if you've seen the interview with Mark Shields in the latest US Catholic (, but he has a great line about people who believe that life begins and conception and ends at birth.

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