Beliefnet
Progressive Revival

This morning, at 9:00 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 be heard today 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 twentieth 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 grossed 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, Professor 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!

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