Happy Tax Day: Progressive Taxes and Christian Faith

Last April 15, when I handed my tax payment to the post office 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 a great country. It is patriotism by checkbook, a sort of American tithe. 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."

Taxes aren't such a bad deal. Nor are they, as the Tea Party rabble have claimed throughout the year, at odds with Christianity. Indeed, tax day is a day that progressive people of faith should celebrate, as we participate in one of the greatest social reforms of the twentieth century: the progressive income tax.

In 1916, Wellesley professor Vida Scudder, a social gospel theologian 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 and provide for meaningful social reforms. The progressive income tax was passed, but many conservative Christians complained about it -- a bit like today's Tea Party folks.

Thus, progressive theologians made a Christian case for taxation. They believed that progressive taxes would increase the overall morality of society. For example, Professor Scudder argued 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 unless someone -- or some institution -- prompted them away from sin. "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." The spiritual scales needed to be balanced: Henry needed to share a portion of his wealth to better the lot of his brothers and sisters. "It is spiritual suicide for the possessors of privilege to rest," Scudder continued, "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 expressed Christian accountability and charity.

The income tax, she wrote, "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." She reminded readers that even "non-Christian moralists are pleading for self-limitation in wealth as the next step in the higher ethics."

Scudder appealed to Jesus' teachings: "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, she lamented, was not always the case. Although many progressive Christians understood the spiritual aspect of taxes, other church people didn't get it. "Again," she insisted, "no Christian can remain indifferent or non-partisan toward movements for the protection of the weak." The Church should -- and must -- press for 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. It isn't perfect, but I'm glad for student loan programs, decent roads, national parks, great universities, Medicare, retirement funds, and soldiers' family paychecks. It is hardly radical, but it is moral and decent.

Last year, 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. This year, I think I'll order coffee. But the sentiment is the same: happy progressive tax day!