'Who Would Jesus Tax?' ; Don't Confuse Religion in Politics with the Right Wing - Think of the Abolitionist, Labor, and Civil Rights Movements

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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. …