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Jesus Christ Tax Collector?

Tomorrow Alabamians will teach their governor a lesson in church-state relations.

By 9.8.03

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According to Alabama governor Bob Riley, it's the best thing since Mother Teresa beer. What started as a plan to close a budget gap foisted on him by a previous profligate administration turned into a crusade to bring fairness to the state tax code and public services. Fairness in this case means at least $1.2 billion in new taxes, higher salaries for inner city school teachers, and more generous college scholarships for the state's youth.

What's more, Riley stops just short of telling voters that it's their Christian duty to vote for the referendum on September 9. He says that Jesus would vote for "the least of these" and places his plan firmly in this category. He points out that the state income tax kicks in at an absurd income level -- less than $5,000 -- and that statewide educational performance is arguably the worst in the nation.

But rather than calling for income sheltering (where government agrees not to go after the first x number of dollars of a family's income) and gradual education reform, his plan would lower the income taxes of the poor, raise property and luxury taxes, hike income taxes on the better off, and trade more education funding for flexibility in the hiring and firing of new teachers (the state teachers' union has acquiesced in this but expect them to move to gut the reform in the event that anything is passed). Some doubters have dubbed this plan the Jesus tax.

Riley is of course winning all kinds of Strange New Respect awards from groups and commentators that usually worry about the mingling of religion and politics. Governing magazine named him "legislator of the year." New Republic editor Peter Beinart called him "that rarest of creatures: A genuinely inspiring politician," and berated the civil rights establishment for not marching in lock step with the a man who is invariably described as the "conservative Republican" Alabama governor. The American Prospect ran a glowing profile of Susan Pace Hamill, a law professor whose work on "social justice issues" provided the intellectual ammunition for Riley's plan.

Given the huge number of poor people in Alabama, you'd think that "the least of these" would be rubbing their hands together in anticipation of an opportunity to sock it to the country club set, but polls show the plan is likely to lose and lose badly. Granted, Alabama residents are viscerally anti-tax, but that is, at best, a partial explanation for its unpopularity. Thomas Pearson, an Alabama native who attends the law school at George Mason University, explains, "Alabamians are sick and tired of being told that they are somehow second class when compared with the rest of the country. The kind of elitism that this proposal smacks of is sickening."

Though he's not adverse to giving the poor a break, Pearson also takes umbrage at the governor's controversial sales pitch:

"That Gov. Riley and Ms. Hamill cloak their plan in the rhetoric of Christian Duty is the most disgusting tactic of all. Christ was not a politician and did not lobby the Roman Senate for more handouts. Rather, he did what many Christians since have done. He went out into the streets and ministered to the poor and the weak. Christian charity, like all charity is based on voluntary giving," he says.

The statewide campaign has shown, far better than any number of college seminars on religion in politics could ever hope to explain, the tortured relationship that the divine has with the mundane. Who would have thought, in Alabama of all places, one of the more enthusiastic rungs of the Bible belt, home of Judge Moore's 5,000 pound tribute to the two tablets of the Mosaic law, that voters would be gearing up to enthusiastically endorse the separation of church and state?

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About the Author
Jeremy Lott is an editor of rare.us.