What would Jesus do?

Published 12:00 am Sunday, June 15, 2003


If the religious right had called up Central Casting last year to fill the part of governor, it could hardly have done better than the teetotaling, Bible-quoting businessman from rural central Alabama who now heads up the state. As a Republican congressman, Bob Riley had a nearly perfect record of opposing any legislation supported by the liberal Americans for Democratic Action.

But Governor Riley has stunned many of his conservative supporters, and enraged the state’s powerful farm and timber lobbies, by pushing a tax reform plan through the Alabama Legislature that shifts a significant amount of the state’s tax burden from the poor to wealthy individuals and corporations. And he has framed the issue in starkly moral terms, arguing that the current Alabama tax system violates biblical teachings because Christians are prohibited from oppressing the poor.

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If Governor Riley’s tax plan becomes law – the voters still need to ratify it in September – it will be a major victory for poor people, a rare thing in the current political climate. But win or lose, Alabama’s tax-reform crusade is posing a pointed question to the Christian Coalition, Focus on the Family and other groups that seek to import Christian values into national policy: If Jesus were active in politics today, wouldn’t he be lobbying for the poor?

Alabama’s tax system has long been brutally weighted against the least fortunate. The state income tax kicks in for families that earn as little a $4,600, when even Mississippi starts at over $19,000. Alabama also relies heavily on its sales tax, which runs as high as 11 percent and applies even to groceries and infant formula. The upshot is wildly regressive: Alabamians with incomes under $13,000 pay 10.9 percent of their incomes in state and local taxes, while those who make over $229,000 pay just 4.1 percent.

A main reason Alabama’s poor pay so much is that large timber companies and megafarms pay so little. The state allows big landowners to value their land using &uot;current use&uot; rules, which significantly lowball its worth. Individuals are allowed to fully deduct the federal income taxes they pay from their state taxes, something few states allow, a boon for those in the top brackets.

Governor Riley’s plan, which would bring in $1.2 billion in desperately needed revenue, takes aim at these inequalities. It would raise the income threshold at which families of four start paying taxes to more than $17,000. It would scrap the federal income tax deduction and increase exemptions for dependent children. And it would sharply roll back the current-use exemption, a change that could cost companies like Weyerhaeuser and Boise Cascade, which own hundreds of thousands of acres, millions in taxes.

Church and state are not as separate in Alabama as they are in most places. (The chief justice of the Alabama Supreme Court was in federal court last week defending his decision to install a 2.5-ton rendering of the Ten Commandments in the state’s main judicial building.) Alabamians are used to hearing their politicians make religious arguments, and Governor Riley thinks he can convince the voters that Christian theology calls for a fairer tax system. &uot;I’ve spent a lot of time studying the New Testament, and it has three philosophies: love God, love each other, and take care of the least among you,&uot; he said. &uot;I don’t think anyone can justify putting an income tax on someone who makes $4,600 a year.&uot;

The state’s progressive voters, including many in the sizable African-American community, have backed tax-law changes like these for years. And reform-minded business leaders, who see such tax changes and improved schools as crucial to the state’s economic development, have promised to spend millions of dollars on television ads in support of the September referendum.

But religious groups could provide the margin of victory. Susan Pace Hamill, a University of Alabama tax professor with a theological degree from an evangelical divinity school, plans to train speakers this summer to take the theological argument to the grass roots. Kimble Forrister, the state coordinator of Alabama Arise, a coalition that advocates for poor people, expects the 100 church groups that are part of his organization to hold church-basement workshops this summer to get the word out to their congregations.

The Christian Coalition of Alabama has not yet taken a position on the September vote, but it has been speaking out against the plan’s tax increases. In an interview last week, John Giles, the group’s president, had trouble pointing to a biblical passage that directly supported his opposition to new taxes, but he referred to Jesus’ statement about rendering unto Caesar what is Caesar’s. The key question, he argued, is, &uot;How much is Caesar’s?&uot;

As the Bush administration and the religious right fight to put theology more squarely into public policy discussions, they are going to have to be ready for arguments like the ones coming out of Alabama. Many theologians argue that it is far easier to find support in the Bible for policies that help the poor than for, say, a cut in the dividend tax. If Governor Riley’s crusade succeeds this summer, Alabama may offer the nation a model for a new kind of tax system: one where the Devil is not in the details.

This article originally appeared in the New York Times