Matthew 1040: A Biblical Tax Policy? One Governor Says Yes
by Oliver Libaw
What does the Bible have to do with tax policy? For Alabama Gov. Bob Riley, a lot.
Alabama’s conservative Republican governor has created a new convergence of faith and politics. Citing his Christian faith, he’s calling for a $1.2 billion tax hike, largely on the backs of wealthier taxpayers, for the benefit of the poor.
It’s all adding up to the largest increase in the state’s history, and perhaps the first based on the Bible.
“Alabamians are a faithful people who believe that creating a better world for our children and helping our neighbors are both sacred duties,” Riley wrote in explaining his tax plan.
Alabama — which, like many states around the nation, faces mammoth budget problems — puts a larger tax burden on the poor than many other states. Even families earning less than $5,000 a year pay state income tax, and those earning less than $13,000 pay a much larger percentage in state and local taxes than those at the top of the income ladder.
Riley’s plan would shift much of that burden onto wealthier taxpayers and corporations.
“Jesus says one of our missions is to take care of the least among us,” the governor told the Birmingham News after announcing his plan. “We’ve got to take care of the poor.”
The state’s voters will decide the plan’s fate at the ballot box in September. So far it appears too close to predict, but Riley’s religion-driven proposal has already stirred controversy among the faithful in Alabama and elsewhere. Should the Bible influence tax policy and government decisions, and if so, what does the Christian holy book tell governments to do in a land where the separation of church and state is the law?
Should Religion Play a Role?
Liberal religious activists are ecstatic about Riley’s Bible-toting tax plan.
“What Bob Riley is doing is acting like a Christian,” said the Rev. Jim Wallis, the editor of Sojourners, a Christian magazine that focuses on social justice issues.
Wallis believes his faith mandates support for progressive policies, like government services for the poor.
“The Bible is full of poor people,” he said. “Biblical politics has the poor at the center.”
But for many Christians, the issue is not that simple, however.
“For most of us, religion and politics are just too complicated for an easy, simple world view,” said John Green, a political scientist at the University of Akron in Ohio who studies religion in politics.
“Does care for the poor mean taxes, or does it mean charity, or does it mean food stamps?” he asked.
Richard Cizik, a vice president of the National Association of Evangelicals, cites Matthew 22:21: “Render therefore unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s; and unto God the things that are God’s.”
“It’s really hard for the Christian to determine what’s God’s and what’s Caesar’s,” said Cizik, whose group represents at least 10 million Pentecostals, Charismatics, and other evangelicals.
But even those who give very different answers agree it is an important question.
Cizik says he doesn’t support raising taxes, but he agrees religion has something to say about tax policy.
“The Bible isn’t a recipe for a tax policy. But it does say a lot about the poor. And I think that evangelicals need to address this issue in increasing measure,” he said.
Wallis agrees. “A budget is a moral document, whether it be a family budget or city budget,” he said. “It says what our priorities are and what we care about.”
Where Faith and Politics Intersect
Religious leaders on both sides of the political spectrum say they think the connection between faith and politics is growing.
Conservatives point to President Bush’s faith-based initiatives effort as evidence. Despite continuing controversy over Bush’s plan, they say it shows a willingness to accept religion’s role in addressing society’s problems.
On the left, religious leaders cite spiritually motivated environmental activism and social justice movements.
“What’s happening now around the country is that faith is being applied to issues that Jesus talked about — like poor people,” said Wallis. “It’s a sign of things to come.”
For the Rev. Eileen W. Lindner, the general sectary of the National Council of Churches and a Presbyterian minister, recent world events have heightened the link between religion and policy.
“One of the realities of the post-9/11 world is that we’re asking, ‘How does your religious faith inform what you’re doing?’ ” she said.
“I believe we are right at the very early days of asking afresh, ‘What is the role of faith in our society?’ “
Whether or not the connection is growing, there is a long history of interaction between religion and politics that goes beyond current hot-button issues like abortion, gay rights, and prayer in schools.
“In the U.S. in recent times we tend to associate reliance on religion with conservative positions,” said Michael Perry, an Emory University School of Law professor and author of the forthcoming book, Under God?: Religious Faith and Liberal Democracy.
In the past, however, religion has played a part in politics across the spectrum, he says, citing the Civil Rights movement as an example. Other examples abound, such as Jimmy Carter’s biblically infused language in explaining his decision to relinquish control of the Panama Canal. Because America is a thoroughly religious nation — much more so than Europe, for example — it is inevitable faith will play a role in politics, Perry says.
A 2000 Pew poll reported that 70 percent of Americans thought it was important to have a strongly religious president, and last year, a survey by the same group found that almost 50 percent of respondents felt churches and other religious groups should express their views on social and political subjects.
“I think the position that ‘It’s inappropriate to bring religion into politics’ is pretty much a nonstarter in the real world of the U.S.,” Perry said.