Friday, November 13, 2009

The Master's Tools: Religion and Taxes

Posted by Neil H. Buchanan

In a post here earlier this week, Mike Dorf continued his discussion of his colleague Steve Shiffrin's new book, The Religious Left and Church-State Relations. At the risk of over-simplifying, Mike's ultimate point was that there is at least a serious danger -- if not an extremely high probability -- that attempts by Christian liberals to engage with the Religious Right on their own terms will do more harm than good. He concluded his post: "The master's tools will never dismantle the master's house." Here, I will engage with the substance of the claim that the religious left is the "right" group to fight the Religious Right (Shiffrin's argument having been, as I understand it, that the secular left should stand aside because they cannot effectively engage with the other side).

As a minister's son who has been an atheist since roughly age 17, I should say at the outset that these arguments are very familiar and extremely salient. The rise of the Religious Right coincided with -- but in no way caused -- my departure from the church, and their arguments were always quite puzzling to me. The thing that had made it difficult to leave the church, after all, was the message of love and caring for the least among us that constituted the beauty at the core of Christianity. While it was no longer tenable to remain a member of an organization whose core notion of faith I did not share, I at least liked the idea that there were people who held that faith and who learned through that faith the importance of being loving, generous, modest, caring, etc.

The messages of hatred and exclusion that emanated from the likes of Swaggart, Falwell, et al. were thus a shock. The disconnect was stark, but over the years I simply came to accept the idea that some people were using (what I continue to believe) was an inherently liberal message for reactionary purposes. It always, therefore, seemed somewhat hopeful when a religious figure would emerge to reaffirm the message of social justice. It never seemed to change anything, but the battle seemed worth fighting.

In 2002, a tax law professor made national news by arguing that Judeo-Christian ethics required a progressive tax code. Susan Pace Hamill, who serves on the faculty of the University of Alabama School of Law and who is a committed Christian, had spent her sabbatical at a seminary studying and writing about Christian social justice. She took aim in particular at Alabama's state tax system, which was (and -- spoiler alert! -- still is) one of the most regressive in the country.

Hamill's work gained the attention of Alabama's Republican governor, who aggressively campaigned to have the state's tax laws brought more closely into line with what he and Hamill agreed would be an approximation of Christian justice. Hamill also traveled the state, preaching in church after church her scripture-based view that all good Christians had no choice but to agree that Jesus would want Alabama to have a progressive tax system.

The result was a crushing defeat for the progressive forces. As I recall, the final vote statewide was something like 65-35 against. Even the poor had voted against the measure. The governor was also defeated for re-election. (My memory is somewhat faulty here, because I cannot recall whether he was defeated in the same election or the subsequent one.)

It was, of course, possible to draw from that defeat only tactical lessons. Maybe the measure was too ambitious and should have been passed in smaller doses. Maybe the change in rates should have been the focus, rather than also increasing overall revenue to cover a budget deficit. Maybe there was no way to defeat the national anti-tax Republicans who targeted the election. Still, explaining away a landslide is no easy task. When one considers that Alabama is one of the most religious states in the country, moreover, the state should have been fertile ground for an argument like Hamill's.

Even so, it is undeniably true that such a tax proposal never would have had a chance in Alabama if it had been pushed by a secular liberal on non-religious grounds. Shiffrin's argument thus at least gains some support from this incident, because a few (too few, alas) hearts and minds were won over by Hamill's scriptural arguments. (I should note that Shiffrin limits his argument to church/state relations, so it is probably more accurate to describe this as "Dorf's expansion of Shiffrin's argument.")

In addition, this might be a particularly bad example to use as a test of Mike's thesis regarding the master's tools. Using religious arguments in Alabama to push a point that secular leftists endorse runs very little risk of making the state even more prone to religiously-based political posturing, after all.

Nevertheless, the very reason I (and, I suspect, many readers of this blog) am aware of this otherwise-local story is precisely because it was a very prominent attempt to use religious arguments to make a left-friendly political point. It was not just the fervent churchgoers in Alabama who heard this message. The entire nation was told, in essence, that Christianity-based arguments are not only useful but correct. Mike's concern, which I obviously share, is that this ultimately bolsters the public's view that Christianity is the best -- if not the only -- way to view issues of public policy.

At the very least, it did not do much to make atheists more welcome in the public square.

[Meanwhile, I am off to Edinburgh, Scotland, tomorrow. "The Vatican of Presbyterians" awaits.]


  1. While in Edinburgh, you might think of and pay tribute to another Neil, who died earlier this year: Sir (Donald) Neil MacCormick, QC, FBA, FRSE (27 May 1941 – 5 April 2009), or just Neil MacCormick, was a renowned legal philosopher and Scottish politician. He was Regius Professor of Public Law and the Law of Nature and Nations at the University of Edinburgh from 1972 until 2008. He was a sometime Member of the European Parliament, member of the Convention on the Future of Europe, and officer of the Scottish National Party (SNP). From the Wikipedia entry:

  2. Just to add a very small point, it seems to me that the argument should be over whether the religious left is better equipped to make the arguments for liberal policies to the religious right than the secular left is. A few weeks ago there was a post on this blog (I believe) about victimization, and how every political group feels victimized. It seems to me that, to the extent the religious right feels persecuted or mocked, the religious left is better equipped to reach out to them and persuade them to support liberal policies than the secular left is.

  3. i meant to add that Neil's Alabama example may suggest that my intuitions are wrong (or that there was more going on in the discussion).

    In either case, it seems to me that the "common understanding" on some issues between the religious left and right can allow discussions without provoking defensiveness.

  4. Wonderfully thoughtful and elegantly elaborated post, Neil, many thanks.

    I think I'm most sympathetic to Steve's tactical 'get out of the way' idea where the issue up for public discussion has to do with church/state relations, but even here I would tend to modulate it and say let the religious share a lead role rather than take the lead role (I think that's probably what Steve has in mind too).

    Where the issue under discussion is anything else, however, I suppose my own tendency is to say 'let a thousand flowers bloom.' The only constraint, I think, should probably be a respect-for-other-minds constraint. I like to think of us as a sort of variant on the Kantian 'kingdom of ends': a Kingdom of Joint-Deciders.

    Please give my loving regards to E Castle and to the Firth of Forth!

    All best,


  5. Bob,
    If the secular left (and right) step aside and leave the religious left and religious right to discuss the boundaries of church/state relations are you not concerned that those boundaries are being set entirely by the church and the state is not even involved in the discussion?

  6. I'm supposedly writing an article on religious arguments in tax policy but I'll content myself with a couple of brief points here:

    1. I find it quite revealing that Neil's father was a minister. I think this explains a lot. You're still religious, Neil, just in a different direction.

    2. I don't know much about Alabama politics. I do know that the tone of Pace Hamill's arguments became progressively more shrill as the debate wore on, at one point accusing Bush and others of having substituted a philosophy of personal fulfillment for true Christianity--not quite heresy but about as close as you will find in a secular law review This tendency to demonize opponents is indeed one of the things that makes people suspicious of religious arguments, and it applies on the left no less than the right

    3. Despite it all I remain convinced that religious thought has a positive role to play on all sides of tax (and other) policy debates. I just think that people need a certain modesty in making and addressing them There is a difference between interpreting God and being God, but the difference is easily forgotten

    BTW Michael I think the "master" of the church is God and not his (her) earthly representatives, although this too if easily forgotten

  7. "Judeo-Christian": Enough. Without prejudice but recognizing cant when I see it, this is absurd. Jesus was not merely reading from the Hebrew Bible, but innovating in departure from it ... he was an ethical revolutionary ... there is no Samuelity or Isaiahity. Moses and Jesus were polar opposites in the most essential of ways ethically and religiously; Moses, Joshua, Samuel, and Isaiah have far more in common with Islam's Muhammed than Jesus.

    However, presuming you meant a charitable faith-based ethic, the same ethic would require national drug testing for illegal narcotics. The point is that this is not a religious theocracy, but a society based on limited government, liberty, and private enterprise. Anyone Judaic ethical or Christian ethical or Islam, etc. ethical can begin a charity and witness how many more do in the USA than anywhere in the world. But to compel people unduly to fund what invariably has become a corrupt public services system is neither charitable, ethical, faithful, nor in the spirit of what built this most generous to the poor of all nations. Those who readily would urge on the IRS to invade the private lives of our hardest life-time workers (5-100 yrs), ethical livers, and frugal savers blanch at the thought of government ethically solving the real problem, i.e., the horrid and shocking behavior of the USA poor despite all they get for free and all they may enjoy with contribution of any kind. Poverty in 1820 UK was a tax problem. Poverty in 2009 USA is a police problem and an industrial organization (government service efficiency). Rudy Guiliani did more for the poor (and minorities) by stopping crime and thwarting the education unions than John Lindsay and his successors ever did; in fact, their efforts were in sum counter-productive. Look at what a cesspool "ethical" government policies like rent control and various education unions (labor monopolies) have made of the urban USA. We spend 2x as much on public school per capita here than in Europe and somehow Democrats blame the generous USA worker and taxpayer rather than themselves and their special interest groups. You would be ethical, outlaw civil service unions as they were outlawed in the 1930s. Even FDR knew better than to permit that. It's not Republicans who are the greedy ones, but Democrats; written Independently.

  8. For what it is worth, my claim is that the religious left has a more politically attractive argument than the secular left in combating (and engaging)the religious right on issues involving church-state relations (the main audience for these arguments would be the religious middle of the country). I believe (and I think this is obvious) that expressions of religious hostility by secular liberals in the political context of church-state relations are politically counterproductive. Otherwise, I think the secular left and the religious left should be partners on these issues. On these issues (and some others, but not most), I think the religious left has a political advantage, but their messages need not be contradictory (the religious left embraces the equality themes pressed by the secular left). Except for the expressions of religious hostility in the political context of church-state relations (or for that matter, any political context), I am not suggesting that the arguments of the secular left are counterproductive and I am not suggesting that they step aside. Even if I were, I would be shocked if any member of the secular left did so.
    Finally, I find it politically misguided for members of the secular left to want the religious left to stop making political arguments; the abstract speculation that secular arguments or the mode of secular argumentation will be crowded out of political discussion does not convince me. With apologies to any one who believes it, the latter strikes me as so far removed from reality as to be crazy talk.

  9. Steve,
    Let me explain the "crazy talk" - for my point anyway.

    Let's even keep the discussion limited to church/state relations and pick one of the "hot topics" inside - teaching of creation in public elementary education.

    We know that, today, the position of the Vatican is evolution is science and creation is not, so that creation should not be taught alongside evolution as competing scientific theories.

    However, this position is actually relatively new. What happens to your position (and, presumably, the position of all Catholics) if the man in the pointy hat declares he has communed with God (something I believe you believe he can do - or at least it is the official position of your Church) and informs us that evolution is incorrect. That God, in fact, created everything today as it is today. That God desires this and only this be taught to our children and to do otherwise is a sin. The position of the Church, as commanded by God, is that creation, and not evolution, should be taught in schools - both public and private - around the world.

    Where do you now stand on teaching evolution and creation in public school under those circumstances?

    (If those are not the religious circumstances that compel you, simply assume in their place a firm religious belief - perhaps God answering one of your prayers in a way you interpret the message to be as above).

    I would hope that if I told you that I derived my moral code from the will of Curzuntoy the Mighty, with whom I communicate on a regular basis, and that you should trust me (and Curzuntoy) to work in your best interests that you would think I was nuts. You would also hopefully reject my offer for me (and Curzuntoy) to speak on your behalf even if, at the time I made the offer, my position on an issue was coterminous with yours I could present a reasonable argument as to why I would be in a better position to converse with the opposition.

  10. Paul
    It has been the teaching of the Church reaching back at least to Aquinas that it is the right and duty of a Catholic to follow his or her conscience if he or she disagrees with Church teachings. If the Pope becomes delusional in the way you suggest, any member of the religious left would refuse to be bound by what the Pope has to say. Those Catholics who are part of the religious left already disagree with numerous pronouncements of the Pope and the Bishops - certainly on their teachings with respect to women and gays.
    Meanwhile, you have not responded to what I actually described as "crazy talk" - the idea that the presence of religious arguments in political life crowds out secular modes of argumentation. Religious arguments have played a role in the political arena since the beginning of the republic; so have secular arguments; the latter have never been crowded out.
    This is not to deny that atheists have been discriminated against. Of course, they have and that is indefensible. The picture of religion you have described, however, has nothing to do with the religious left.

  11. Steve,
    I see I misunderstood what you meant as "crazy talk". Perhaps then I have misunderstood your entire point - which I took to be that the Secular Left (and Right) should step aside from engaging the Religious Right and leave that engagement to the Religious Left - at least on the matter of Church/State relations. Am I misunderstanding your position?

    I think we have no disagreement that the Religious Left and Religious Right are closer in position to one another than the Secular Left and Religious Right.

    If all you mean to suggest is that you predict the Religious Right is more likely to agree with the Religious Left than they are with the Secular Left, then we also have no disagreement.

    I presumed, perhaps incorrectly, that you were putting forth a tactical suggestion that the Secular Left should disengage and put their trust in the Religious Left on this matter.

    As an aside to this, I find your reply to my hypothetical perplexing.

    As a first matter, you suggest that if the Pope were to declare that God spoke to him and made clear His will (as described in the reply above) that this would make the Pope "delusional." It was my understanding that you believe that the is an omniscient, omnipotent God and that He does "talk" (or otherwise make his will clear) to persons. Why, if you believe these things, would the Pope be "delusional" if he made such claims. Certainly past Popes have made such claims and these claims are codified as part of Church doctrine. My understanding is that whenever the Pope speaks ex cathedra he is not announcing his opinion, but instead is announcing a command/revelation of God.

    If you believe in these things, then why would you assume a Pope acting in the manner in which I describe is "delusional."

    Secondly, you stepped outside the hypo. I asked you to assume that, if the Papal decree was an insufficient basis for you to believe in its truth, then you should assume that instead of receiving this communication from the Pope that instead you received this revelation directly from God. I assume you believe this is possible.

    many people, including people in power, have claimed to have such an experience. There are no shortage of examples of significant changes in opinion based on this very thing purportedly happening. There are, in fact, many examples of such occurrences in "The Bible".

    I, of course, agree that anyone claiming such a thing is, in fact, delusional. But then I think anyone professing a belief in God is equally delusional. I don't understand why you would also hold this view.

  12. I think I was the source of the "crowding out" worry, aka "crazy talk.". ;-)
    But I didn't mean religious talk would crowd out secular talk in the sense that it would be at all difficult for anyone interested in the latter to hear it, only that for the great mass of passive citizens who are paying intemittent attention to the news for, say, 15 minutes a day, 2 more minutes of mainstream analysis in religious terms means two fewer minutes in secular terms.

  13. Paul
    (1) I think the religious right and more important the religious middle are more likely to be persuaded by the religious left than the secular left.
    (2) I do not think the secular left should step aside except I do not think it should make religiously hostile comments in support of a political position because it is counterproductive.
    (3) I accept (but do not strongly believe) the infallibility of the Pope on matters of faith (read religious doctrine - it is a relatively insignificant doctrine practically, the Pope has exercised it only twice, and I can accept both of the doctrines endorsed); I do not think the doctrine applies to matters of morals (that is controversial within the Church, but, as I understand it, Richard McCormick an important Catholic theologian took that position among others, and I agree with him; Hans Kung, another important Catholic theologian, rejects infallibility altogether). I know of no one who thinks that the doctrine of infallibility applies to matters of science.
    I say delusional because I believe in the biblical adage "by your fruits you shall know them" and if the Pope announced a scientific doctrine so far removed from reality based on a vision, I think delusion would be the right conclusion. By the way, I should mention that I know of no claims by Popes or Bishops that people should believe what they say based on their visions.
    Having said this, I think there is much wise writing in Catholic tradition on matters of morals, but I include liberal theologians in that tradition and it is from them that I have learned the most.
    Finally, you ask if God could appear to the Pope or to me in a vision. I would say yes, and in the unlikely event that I thought it had happened to me and I did not think it delusional (we now are in the twilight zone), I would act upon it. But I would not expect anyone to join me unless I had proof (I expect I would need some miracles to back that up). But, as I say, this is the twilight zone. The possibility of visions has no traction in American political life and you know that. It is a red herring.

  14. Hello Paul,

    I won't interrupt the colloquy between you and Steve, who is much more knowledgable and thoughtful on this subject than I, other than quickly to reply to your query. That query follows an "if" clause that reads in pertinent part:

    "If the secular left (and right) step aside and leave the religious left and religious right to discuss the boundaries of church/state relations..."

    My reply is that neither I nor, more importantly, Steve seem to me to countenance any such stepping aside.

    I understand Steve to be saying rather that the *secular* left should not want the *religious* left to step aside -- though Steve is of course better able to articulate the thought than I, and his new book articulates with great thoroughness, knowledge, wisdom and verve.

    And as for what I myself said on this matter in the post to which I take yours to respond, please note again that I said, now quoting again (with emphasis added):

    "let the religious *share a* lead role rather than *take the* lead role."

    All best,

  15. All right, Michael, we know how have the perfect attack ad if you ever go into politics: "Even his own blog says he is crazy."

    Seriously, I think the danger is not so much "crowding out" as "dumbing down." In a monotheistic religion, there is a tendency to believe that there is only one truth, so that there may be a temptation to discredit or attribute heretical content to opposing views that is no weaker, and perhaps stronger, than the same tendency in secular argument. I don't think this means religious people should stay out of policy arguments, only that they should obey certain rules of the road, including a recognition of varying points of view within one religious tradition and a respect for other religious or nonreligious viewpoints, that may not always come naturally to them.

    BTW I see a great conference here, we already have politics and religion, if we can work sex into the title who wouldn't attend?

  16. Taking up Michael Livingston's suggestion, perhaps we should title the conference, 'The Master's Sex Tools.'

  17. Anonymous1:50 AM