Fall 2003, Vol. 6, No. 3

Table of Contents
Fall 2003

Quick Links:
Articles in this issue

From the Editor:
Under Whatever

The Anglican Crackup

The View From Lagos

Special Supplement:
Religion and the 2004 Election

The Case of Chaplain Yee

Instructions From the Vatican

The Social Gospel Lays an Egg

God and the EU Charter

Mel Gibson, the Scribes, and the Pharisees

Gibson and Traditionalist Catholicism

The Religion of Country



The Social Gospel Lays an Egg in Alabama
by Lisa San Pascual

In recent years, Alabama has produced far more than its share of controversies over religion and politics. But when newly elected Gov. Bob Riley—a stalwart low-tax Republican and standard-bearer for the religious right—took a page from the liberal Protestant playbook and announced that the Christian way to solve Alabama’s huge budget deficit was to raise taxes—Alabamians and journalists all over the country were amazed.

On May 19, Riley launched a campaign to persuade the state’s voters that they should endorse a $1.2 billon tax increase—the largest in the state’s history—in order to transform a tax structure that he had decided was unjust to the poor. “Jesus says one of our missions is to take care of the least among us,” he told the Birmingham News after announcing his plan. While that biblical message was familiar to legions of Alabama voters, Riley’s application of it was not.

And on September 9, Alabama voters responded by decisively squelching Riley’s proposal by a 2-1 margin. The real conundrum for journalists, however, was why Riley, a decided conservative, would attempt such a startling ideological leap. Perhaps it was the daunting responsibility of closing a gaping $675- million budget deficit—the deepest since the Depression—that forced pragmatism to prevail over piety.

But what puzzled journalists, and many of those who on both sides of the referendum, was the sudden reversal in tax policy that followed Riley’s move from Congress to the governor’s mansion. As a member of the U.S. House of Representatives, Riley voted like the conventional conservative Republican and fundamentalist Southern Baptist he still claims to be. But his tax plan as governor looked more like the work of a Social Gospel type. On the campaign trail, he attributed his conversion to progressive taxation to a book, The Least of These: Fair Taxes and the Moral Duty of Christians, published in January 2003 by Susan Pace Hamill, a University of Alabama law professor.

Hamill, a Methodist with a Social Gospel reading of Christian social ethics, condemned Alabama’s regressive tax structure, pointing out that Alabama’s poorest residents pay almost 11 percent of their income in state taxes, while the wealthiest pay less than four percent.

Riley seconded Hamill’s notion that helping the poor is a Christian mandate. “According to our Christian ethics,” he told the August 22 Talon News, “we’re supposed to love God, love each other, and help take care of the poor. It is immoral to charge somebody making $5,000 an income tax.”

But many in Alabama saw this as a startling flip-flop. “Up is down, down is up, and Gov. Bob Riley, who as a congressman bragged he had never voted for a tax increase, has proposed the largest one by far in Alabama history,” wrote Birmingham News columnist Bob Blalock on June 13, at the beginning of Riley’s campaign.

Other commentators were amazed that Riley was cutting left—straight across the sentiments of his conservative base—by turning to the Bible’s very frequent passages on the moral imperative of assisting the needy. As the summer progressed, Riley’s effort to synthesize compassionate conservatism and redistributionist liberalism puzzled almost everyone, with the religious right finding the plan too progressive and the left finding it too laden with religious rhetoric.

“Riley’s stature as a conservative, anti-tax Republican was expected to help sell the package,” Washington Post reporter Dale Russakoff wrote in a post-referendum wrap-up on September 10, “but he ended up largely isolated politically. His own state party came out against his proposal while the plan’s natural constituency of Democrats—particularly black Democrats—kept their distance.”

Nevertheless, a lot of Alabama journalists liked the looks of Riley’s unlikely fusion. “What Riley, a long-proven conservative, seeks with his tax plan is nothing less than a conservative renewal of Alabama’s civic order,” wrote Mobile Register columnist Quinn Hillyer on August 19, “one that improves both the state’s law-enforcement capabilities and its system of education.”

The most interesting aspect of the campaign is that Riley’s proposal split the national and Alabama organizations of the Christian Coalition. In May, the Christian Coalition of Alabama (CCA) declared its opposition. The CCA blamed the state’s fiscal difficulties on “years of poor stewardship and fiscal irresponsibility” instead of moral negligence, Jeff Gannon reported in the Talon News on August 22.

“Alabama does not have a tax crisis. It has a spending crisis,” the CCA thundered in an eight-page “voter education publication” distributed the weekend preceding the vote in churches, Christian schools, bookstores, and at football games. “The road to a better future isn’t paved with a tax increase.”

Surprisingly, the national Christian Coalition took the Riley exegesis seriously. Calling the tax plan “visionary and courageous,” its president, Roberta Combs, wrote in an Anniston Star op-ed August 10, “I think this is a good plan and I think people of faith need to know about the plan.” 

Combs’ comments infuriated the CCA. “I have known Roberta Combs for over 10 years and the position outlined today is inconsistent with the national Christian Coalition’s long-standing platform related to the burden of taxes on the families,” CCA Chairman Emeritus Bob Russell told an interviewer on the website.

The friction between the state and national chapters agitated Riley, too. “One of the things that’s bothered me all the way through this is why did the local chapter come out and not support this,” he said.

Alabama columnists, who largely supported Riley’s plan, were bemused by the controversy it sparked among religious conservatives. “When conservatives such as the governor are willing to do the right thing, politics be damned, then we moderate-to-liberal types have got to be big enough to recognize their efforts,” wrote Huntsville Times columnist David Person on August 8. “Bravo to the Christian Coalition of America for being honest and brave. And shame on the Alabama Christian Coalition for putting politics above progress.”

Newspapers also doubted the sincerity of the CCA. “The state Christian Coalition, funded in part (some say substantially) by the rich landowners of the Alabama Farmers Federation, will have given false religious cover for an opposition born of selfishness and cynicism,” Quinn Hillyer of the Mobile Register charged on August 20.

Mainline Protestant organizations supported Riley’s plan. Among these were the Alabama-West Florida Conference of the United Methodist Church, two regional jurisdictions of the Presbyterian Church (USA), the Alabama diocese of the African Methodist Episcopal Zion of Alabama, and the Episcopal Diocese of Alabama.

However, the folk Riley failed most spectacularly to convert were conservative Protestant pastors, especially independents. “Sure, most of the big denominations have endorsed tax reform,” wrote Birmingham News columnist Robin DeMonia on August 8.

But a number of Christian opponents complained when Riley asked pastors to trumpet the plan from their pulpits. (“What about separation of church and state?” they asked.) They also argued Riley’s camps were perverting Judeo-Christian principles, and that his supporters were using guilt to twist voters’ arms. “Contrary to what these imply,” one Calera minister wrote this week, “Jesus will love you even if you vote against Riley’s tax plan.”

Many were interested to see what would happen when Alabama’s avid church-goers had to choose between piety and pocketbook. “The problem is, first, Christians vote their pocketbooks, too,” David Lanoue, chairman of the political science department at the University of Alabama, told USA Today on September 10. “And second, a lot of Christians would argue that the responsibility for the poor should be directed toward churches and faith-based institutions and not toward higher taxes.”

In the end, Riley’s daring crusade to persuade Alabamians that Jesus wanted them to raise taxes proved far too novel and far too unpalatable for most Alabama voters. As the Rev. T.H. “Buzz” Barrett, pastor of the Pleasant Grove United Methodist Church, told the Mobile Register, “You could preach either for it or against it from the Bible, but you have to be careful not to wrap any flag around the cross, because that’s not where it belongs.”



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