The Common Good

A Christian Argument for Progressive Taxation

Wednesday morning, at 9 a.m. sharp, I took my tax payment to the local post office. When I handed it to the clerk, she said, "I hate tax day." I replied, "Not me. I don't love parting with the money, but I kinda like it. That check is a bargain -- roads, schools, medical care, social security, and the freedom of living in the greatest country in the world. It is patriotism by checkbook. Why should I hate it?" She replied, "Why, I've never heard anybody say that! It isn't such a bad deal when you put it that way."

No, taxes aren't such a bad deal. Nor are they, as might have been heard at the ersatz "tea parties" around the country, at odds with Christianity. Indeed, tax day is a day that progressives should celebrate -- as we participate in one of the greatest social reforms of the 20th century: the progressive income tax.

Writing in 1916, Professor Vida Scudder, a social gospel theologian (respected in her day and now largely forgotten), argued that:

The hour has come for Christian thought to give definite sanction to the new social ethic that has been developing for the last half century. The check by common will on private greed, the care for public health, the protection of childhood and manhood, the securing of fair leisure from the monotonies of modern labor, form a program hardly to be called radical any longer.

Part of the new social ethic was the idea of a progressive income tax, whereby the richer members of society would pay a greater share to care for those of lesser means. The progressive income tax was passed in 1913, but many Christians groused about it -- a bit like today's conservative Christians holding "tea parties."

Thus, progressive theologians developed a Christian argument for taxation. They believed that a progressive tax would increase the overall morality of society. For example, Scudder pointed out that "the Church, like her Master, is in a way more concerned over the spiritual state of the prosperous than over that of the poor" because the rich "countenance unbrotherly things." In other words, the rich were not likely to practice Christian holiness. "It may be good for the soul of Patrick to subsist on a starvation wage," she says of a hypothetical worker, "but it is very bad for the soul of Henry the mill-owner to pay him that wage." Thus, the spiritual scales needed to somehow be equalized -- by Henry surrendering some portion of his wealth in order to better the lot of his brothers and sisters. "It is spiritual suicide for the possessors of privileges to rest," Scudder argued, "until such privileges become the common lot. This truth is what the Church should hold relentlessly before men's eyes; it is what makes indifference to social readjustments impossible to her shepherding love." A progressive tax was an expression of Christian love.

Scudder pointed out that the income tax

does not attack private property, but merely limits it at a point far above what most people reach, and no Christian mind would surely stoop to the meanness of claiming that it would unduly lessen incentive. It would deliver many men from fearful temptations -- a result for which we are told to pray.

And she went on to remind readers that, "Incidentally, non-Christian moralists are pleading for self-limitation in wealth as the next step in the higher ethics."

The force of Scudder's pro-tax argument was based in Jesus' own teaching:

Now in view of Christ's persistent feeling that it is dangerous to be rich -- a feeling that no subtle exegesis has ever succeeded in explaining away -- one might have expected to see His disciples, His Church, eagerly welcome the plan and press it with enthusiasm.

That, Scudder lamented, was not always the case. Although many progressive Christians understood the spiritual dimensions of taxation, other church people lagged behind. "Again," she insisted, "no Christian can remain indifferent or non-partisan toward movements for the protection of the weak." The church should -- and must -- be on the frontlines of social justice.

Sure, the progressive tax system hasn't always delivered on its promises of social equity, people lie and cheat, and the tax codes need to be reformed. But I left the post office in a celebratory mood, went to Starbucks, and ordered a cup of tea. I raised my Earl Grey in salute to Vida Scudder and Uncle Sam. Happy Progressive Income Tax Day!

Diana Butler BassDiana Butler Bass (www.dianabutlerbass.com) is the author of A People's History of Christianity: The Other Side of the Story.

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