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.]