'Who would Jesus tax?'
Don't confuse religion in politics with the right wing - think of the abolitionist, labor, and civil rights movements
NEW YORK — Bob Riley, the Republican governor of Alabama, wants to overturn Roe v. Wade and clear the way for a ban on abortion. He wants to repeal the Brady bill and earn an "A" rating from the National Rifle Association. He wants to return a Ten Commandments monument to Alabama's state courthouse, calling the commandments "an important foundation of American government."
And last week, Bob Riley tried to raise taxes. Lots of them. From the rich.
On Sept. 9, Alabamians voted overwhelmingly to reject Mr. Riley's proposed $1.2 billion tax hike. The increase would have closed the state's $675 million budget deficit and provided new revenues for its public schools, the worst-funded in America. A good chunk of this money would have come from timber companies, which own 75 percent of the land in Alabama but pay less than 2 percent of its property taxes.
Contradicting the GOP gospel of tax cuts, Riley managed to alienate most of his Republican constituents. But he also made frequent reference to the actual Gospel, which enjoins Christians to share their wealth. And that message could provide a saving grace for American liberals, who have forgotten the religious passion that used to inspire them.
"Jesus says one of our missions is to take care of the least among us," Riley argued, campaigning for his tax measure. "We've got to take care of the poor."
His plea sounds incongruous to contemporary American liberals, who associate Christianity with right-wing politics. For the first 200 years of US history, however, Americans used the Bible to attack inequality and injustice. Indeed, it's hard to think of an important liberal movement that wasn't powered by a strong religious impulse.
Consider the abolitionist crusade of William Lloyd Garrison, who condemned slavery as a "sin against Heaven." Blacks and whites were "children of a common Father," Garrison thundered, "created in the same divine image." After the Civil War, workers invoked the Bible in their struggle for higher wages, shorter hours, and safety regulations. "What was right in the time of Moses, Mordecai and Ehud will be right forever," a mineworkers' union declared in 1894. "God shall judge the poor of the people; He shall save the children of the needy, and shall break into pieces the oppressor."
In the early 20th century, Protestant ministers preached a "Social Gospel" on behalf of antitrust laws, women's suffrage, and international arbitration. Many of them drifted toward Theodore Roosevelt's Progressive Party, which sang "Onward Christian Soldiers" at its 1912 convention.
Most of all, Christian leaders - and Christian rhetoric - dominated black Americans' quest for civil rights. Lest we forget, Martin Luther King Jr. was not a lawyer or a policy wonk; he was a minister, a man of the cloth. And King's "I Have a Dream" speech - delivered 40 years ago this summer - was suffused with scriptural imagery.
"I have a dream," King intoned, "that one day every valley shall be exalted, every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places will be made plain, and the crooked places will be made straight, and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together."
To be sure, many conservative Christians denounced King's incursions into civil rights activism. In 1965, for example, Virginia minister and future Moral Majority leader Jerry Falwell urged clergymen to "get off the streets" and back into their pulpits. "Preachers are not called to be politicians, but soul winners," he argued.
By the late 1970s, however, these roles had reversed. Mr. Falwell and other conservatives charged into politics, mobilizing against abortion, gay rights, and evolution instruction in the schools. Liberal Christians retreated from the public arena, or phrased their political demands in secular terms. To many liberals, indeed, the Bible appeared to have no place in politics at all.
In Alabama's recent battle over the Ten Commandments, for example, right-wing religious groups rallied to retain the courthouse monument. Liberals kept quiet or denounced the monument, never considering that its message - especially "Thou shalt not steal" - might help sustain the battle against tax-shirking timber interests.
When it came time to fight Alabama's landed gentry, America's liberals backed down. Groups like the National Organization of Women and the AFL-CIO mostly ignored the tax controversy, fearful of linking their names to an anti-abortion, pro-gun Republican like Bob Riley. Among prominent African-Americans, meanwhile, only "American Idol" winner Ruben Studdard came out solidly in favor of Riley's proposal.
As history shows, though, you can't fight America's profound social inequalities without appealing to Americans' profound religious faith. Despite Riley's defeat last week, let's hope that my fellow liberals take heed of his courageous example - and take back the reins of scriptural activism. As in the Bible itself, we might need a stranger to lead us out of our own political wilderness.
• Jonathan Zimmerman teaches history and education at New York University. He is the author of 'Whose America? Culture Wars in the Public Schools.'