Tax Policy: A Sieve Separating the Genuine Pro-lifers from the Fakes
Susan Pace Hamill
This article is part of our “Kennedy, Carson, and Dobbs: Law and Religion in Pressing Supreme Court Cases” series.
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Labeling themselves “pro-life,” white conservative evangelical Christians waged war against abortion for decades. On June 24, 2022, the Supreme Court — recently configured in their image — handed them what will ultimately prove to be a Pyrrhic victory. Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization obliterated a woman’s constitutional right to choose to have an abortion, which was established fifty years ago in Roe v. Wade.
The post Dobbs battles have already begun and will rage for years. Constitutional law scholars are questioning the legitimacy of Dobbs. Others are claiming that Dobbs is part of a larger strategy to relegate women, people of color and the LGBTQ community to the status of second-class citizens. Medical professionals are lamenting the fact that Dobbs compromises their ability to treat patients. Policy wonks are criticizing the disproportionate impact of Dobbs on low-income women.
Finally, numerous Americans who support a woman’s right to choose abortion under most circumstances are questioning whether these right-wing Christians truly care about life.
Two decades ago, scholar Jean Reith Schroedel established a complete disconnect between opposition to abortion and support for a broadly pro-life culture by documenting that public policy in states obsessed with abortion restrictions bordered on hostile towards vulnerable women and children. In Alabama, a rabidly anti-abortion state, children’s rights advocates have protested that foster care support is less than it costs to board a dog in a kennel. Fifteen years ago, I linked the high sacrifice of Judeo-Christian inspired tax policy with the abortion issue.
Tax policy boils down to defining the amount of tax revenues needed and determining how the burden for paying taxes should be allocated among taxpayers enjoying different levels of income and wealth. Due to its compulsory nature, taxation is a contentious political issue. Although economics can provide some information, tax policy ultimately must be guided by an ethical framework. In a democracy tax policy is arguably the most important justice issue that reflects the true moral compass of the political leaders and the voters who elected them.
Judeo-Christian centered tax policy (as well as tax policy conforming to community-oriented secular values) raises an adequate level of revenue to ensure that all persons enjoy a reasonable opportunity to reach their potential. This requires much more than funding the minimum state. Tax revenues must also cover numerous other programs, including safety nets for the most vulnerable people, basic healthcare for all, and education.
White, conservative, evangelical “pro-life” Christians often argue that the church and other benefice and charity organizations are the best vehicle to meet humanitarian needs and that the state’s role in this area should be severely limited. This argument cannot be biblically defended because it denies the devastating effects of the Fall. This argument also ignores that the Bible repeatedly affirms that following Christ must involve generous charitable giving and promoting justice. Justice and charity metaphorically represent two distinct pillars embedded in the biblical message and both are supremely important. Due to the presence of greed permeating the human condition, benefice and charity cannot serve as a substitute for adequate revenues raised by compulsory taxation. Simply put, an “A” in charity cannot average an “F” in justice to a “C.”
Tax policy analysts and economists describe methods for allocating the tax burden as regressive, proportional, or progressive. Regressive taxes are inversely proportional to income and wealth and are condemned by virtually all credible scholars. Proportional models impose roughly the same tax burden as a percentage of income and wealth and enjoy limited support by some scholars. Progressive tax structures, which are favored by more scholars, increase the tax burden as the taxpayer’s income and wealth grows. However, scholars who support progressivity disagree as to whether the progressive model should be mild, moderate, or steep.
The moral principles of Judeo-Christian ethics (as well as community-oriented secular values) require the overall tax burden to be moderately progressive, and, in addition, require a separate estate tax applying to vast fortunes. Regressive taxes, which punish the poor and lower middle classes, are a form of biblical oppression. Proportional and mildly progressive models and efforts to minimize or eliminate estate taxes offend Judeo-Christian teachings on wealth.
Judeo-Christian moral principles do not precisely pinpoint the details. Striking a balance between the common good and reasonable rights to enjoy private property, the general Judeo-Christian guidelines steering the moral debate require intense scrutiny as to whether the wealthiest and upper middle-class taxpayers are paying their fair share of taxes. This is because Judeo-Christian teachings are much more suspicious of wealth than they are protective of private property, and because those enjoying higher levels of income and wealth tend to fight for the smallest tax burden possible.
Although taxes vary between states, the nation’s overall state and local tax policy is disgraceful. The states with the highest concentration of white, conservative evangelical “pro-life” Christians, the same states rapidly rendering abortion illegal in the post Dobbs world, are the worst. These so called “pro-life” states have state and local tax burdens showing the grossest degrees of regressivity. They raise pitifully low revenues, with education funding not even close to what vulnerable children need to have a meaningful chance to improve their lives. They also fail miserably on all measures of well-being, showing the highest poverty rates and levels of infant and maternal mortality. Like the Old Testament prophets and Jesus, himself, the voices in the wilderness of these states protesting the injustice oppressing “the least of these” are being squashed by many white, conservative evangelical “pro-life” Christians, especially powerful church leaders hiding behind religious rituals, symbols, and other pageantry, as well as their personal piety.
Especially during the administrations of George W. Bush and Donald J. Trump, both of whom enjoyed substantial support from white, conservative evangelical “pro-life” Christians, 21st century federal tax policy trends have descended in the wrong direction. Camouflaging their real values with the discredited theory of supply-side economics, these administrations pushed through income tax cuts primarily benefiting the wealthiest Americans and created alarming federal deficits jeopardizing reasonable opportunity and threatening the nation’s fiscal stability. Violating Judeo-Christian teachings which proclaim that some extremes of wealth accumulation are per se unjust under any circumstances, they sought to eliminate, and ultimately materially reduced the estate tax.
The true values underlying the nation’s tax policy reflect objectivist ethics. Regardless of their views on the laws regarding abortion, any person who claims to be genuinely pro-life cannot use objectivist ethics as amoral compass. This is because objectivist ethics prioritizes each person’s individual autonomous right to benefit from the free market without regard or concern for others. A tax policy driven by objectivist ethics limits tax revenues as much as possible, strongly opposes even a hint of progressivity, and would eliminate the estate tax. In addition to sharply conflicting with community-oriented secular values, objectivist ethics is a form of atheism and is therefore dead-on-arrival for any Christian or for any other person claiming to adhere to a religious faith.
Especially among white, conservative, evangelical “pro-life” Christians, the practice of Christianity has become a low-sacrifice operation. Focusing only on the legality of abortion is an especially insidious low-sacrifice decoy, which allows individuals to falsely portray their beliefs as grounded in pro-life principles. Narrowing the moral objection to abortion to its legality conceals hostility towards a true pro-life culture. There is no such thing as a genuine Christian pro-life agenda without Judeo-Christian inspired tax policy. Adequate tax revenues are essential to fully embrace the dignity of life, and those with greater levels of income and wealth must endure higher sacrifice by bearing greater tax burdens than what policies driven by objectivist ethics and other morally inferior tax policy would impose.
During the 2016 presidential campaign, the wider-than-a-football-field gap between the walk and the talk of white, conservative evangelical “pro-life” Christians supporting Donald J Trump was glaringly obvious. A journalist uncovered facts showing that Trump had previously supported abortion rights. Another noted that Trump, a “[b]rash, thrice-married [man], cosseted in a gilded tower high above Fifth Avenue and fond of swearing from the stage of his rallies…who has spent his career in pursuit, and praise of wealth would seem an odd fit for voters who place greater value on faith, hope and charity.” Richard Land admitted “[t]he relationship that evangelicals have with President Trump is a very transactional one,” while Rev. Richard Jeffries, a member of Trump’s evangelical advisory committee and senior pastor of the First Baptist Church in Dallas, said, “I want the meanest, toughest, son-of-a-you-know-what I can find in that role.” Both of these prominent conservative evangelical “pro-life” Christian leaders showed the world that evangelical support of Trump was not connected to genuine faith-based pro-life values, but was instead a tool to reclaim cultural dominance and power. In supporting Trump, white, conservative evangelical “pro-life” Christians directly violated the biblical message revealed when Jesus refused to be tempted by the Devil’s promise of vast power.
White, conservative evangelical “pro-life” Christians will soon discover that their victory was hollow. In making a Faustian Bargain with Trump these “pro-life” Christians ignored Jesus’ warning, “What good is it for someone to gain the whole world yet forfeit their soul?” and arguably committed the most immoral sin tarnishing Christianity since the support of slavery and Jim Crow. By surrendering their credibility as true representatives of Jesus Christ, they have mocked genuine Christianity and are a terrible witness for the church. Moreover, the biblical message warns that their hypocrisy, which borders on a form of blasphemy, if not corrected, will lead to certain eschatological judgment.
The casualties, especially among the poor and marginalized, which will multiply post Dobbs invokes the imagery of an African proverb, “When elephants fight, the grass gets trampled,” and most certainly offends a culture that truly values life. Over twenty years ago, my Christian Ethics professor, the late Wilton H. Bunch, presciently wrote, “at the present time, ‘anti-abortion and ‘pro-life’ are not synonyms. They must become identical in meaning if opposition to abortion is to remain a respected moral enterprise.” White, conservative, evangelical Christians are morally obligated to hear Dr. Bunch’s message and truly embrace public policy that is genuinely pro-life. This must start with supporting Judeo-Christian guided tax policy, which will require higher personal sacrifice from their largest campaign and church donors as well as from themselves.
I am a Christian, a graduate of a conservative evangelical seminary, and a wife and mother of two adult children. My experience practicing law in New York City during the 1980s gave me insight just how awful Trump’s presidency would turn out. I am afraid for our country and I am horrified and ashamed by the nakedly raw and fraudulent Faustian Bargain and so called “pro-life” stance of too many white, conservative evangelical Christians. I pray that they will quickly repent, “turn from evil and do good,” and start following the Gospel’s complete pro-life message. Our nation’s future and ultimately our salvation depends on it. ♦
Susan Pace Hamill, a professor at the University of Alabama School of Law and Honors College, has a master’s in theological studies from the Beeson Divinity School of Samford University, Alabama’s leading conservative evangelical seminary. Her scholarship evaluating tax policy under the moral principles of Judeo-Christian ethics has received national and international press coverage including a front-page story in the Wall Street Journal as well as feature stories in the New York Times, Washington Post, and the London Times.
Hamill, Susan Pace. “Tax Policy: A Sieve Separating the Genuine Pro-lifers from the Fakes.” Canopy Forum, July 25, 2022. https://canopyforum.org/2022/07/25/tax-policy-a-sieve-separating-the-genuine-pro-lifers-from-the-fakes/