God, Taxes, and ‘Public Reason’

God, Taxes, and ‘Public Reason’

The Republican governor of Alabama, Bob Riley, stunned conservatives last year by pushing through the state legislature a tax reform plan that offered tax relief to the poorest in his state while significantly increasing the burden borne by wealthy individuals and corporations. It is unusual these days for a Republican politician to raise taxes on the privileged. What is truly remarkable in this instance, however, are the reasons Riley gave for his tax plan. He argued that the present tax system, which requires Alabamians with incomes under $13,000 to pay 10.9 percent of their incomes in state and local taxes while those who make over $229,000 pay just 4.1 percent, is un-Christian.

Riley is hardly a disciple of the liberal social gospel movement that in the nineteenth century championed a variety of redistributive and welfarist measures. On the contrary, his political track record, including his stint as a Republican representative from rural central Alabama, marks him as a member of the newly powerful religious right. His commitment to tax reform is a caution against treating religious scruples in politics-even those of a conservative Christian like Riley-as invariably weighted against progressive causes. Indeed, before the fact, it seemed highly possible that the religious rationale for tax reform would provide the necessary margin of victory for Riley’s plan when it went before the voters in September. Unfortunately, as the governor’s supporters later admitted, they did an abysmally poor job of getting their message out. Opponents of the plan-notable among them the leaders of the state’s Christian Coalition-seized on a provision to extend the sales tax to repairs of items such as cars and lawn mowers to depict the reforms as a tax increase on working people. In the end, the Republican anti-tax gospel trumped Riley’s faith-based appeal for tax reform.

It might be thought that liberals would look kindly on Riley’s ill-fated Campaign for Tax Justice; however, there is an influential trend in contemporary liberal political theory that requires us to regard Riley’s biblically inspired case for tax reform with suspicion. Following the late Harvard philosopher John Rawls, many liberal thinkers argue that political discourse generally, or at least the language of politics spoken by public officials in their official capacity, must not invoke reasons for state action derived from what Rawls called “more or less comprehensive” religious or moral doctrines.According to Rawls, a comprehensive doctrine “includes conceptions of what is of value in human life, as well as ideals of personal virtue and character, that are to inform much of our nonpolitical conduct (in the limit our life as a whole).” See Rawls, Political Liberalism (New York: Columbia University Press, 1993), p. 175. Instead, political discourse should consist in appeals to “public reason,” that i...


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