The Truth, Mainly - 06/23/2003

Tax cuts for the rich: How would Jesus vote?
by Leon Satterfield

Jesus Christ was a man that traveled through this land;

A carpenter, true and brave;

Said to the rich, "Give your goods to the poor,"

So they laid Jesus Christ in His grave.

—Woody Guthrie

I congratulate the president for putting his weight behind an Israeli-Palestinian peace plan. I'm pleased that the president has not joined the chorus of religious bigots who insist that Islam is inherently evil. And for altogether selfish reasons, I'm happy about the president's efforts to have Medicare partially cover the cost of prescriptions for geezers.

I say all that because I want to distance myself from the wildest-eyed Bush haters who are getting almost as nasty as the moderate Clinton haters.

But having said it, I'm sorry to have to report that I've been getting strong whiffs of religious hypocrisy from the White House.

I don't wish to brag, but I know what religious hypocrisy smells like. I grew up wallowing in it and rather enjoying it.

It wasn't a bad way to grow up. Every Sunday morning, I'd sit in my First Baptist pew, a beatific look on my face, pretending to ponder deeply what our minister was saying about frying in hell, but really wondering how many hits Dixie Walker might get for the Dodgers in the Sunday afternoon double-header.

And even though I'd been totally immersed in the baptismal tank, I lusted after our preacher's daughter—after whom I knew I should not lust.

And the whole congregation knew that Jesus said we should sell everything we have and give the proceeds to the poor, and thereby lay up treasures in heaven. But prices in our town were never quite right for selling everything.

Thus we were quite content in our hypocrisy. It was, after all, part of the human condition. In Adam's fall, we sinned all. We took comfort in that.

So I was stunned earlier this month to read about how the governor of Alabama appears to be taking his Christianity more seriously than we did. Get this:

Governor Bob Riley—a Republican—has taken on the state's farming and timber lobbies by proposing a tax reform that would shift what the New York Times calls a "significant" portion of state taxes from the poor to the rich.

His rationale for the change, the Times reports, is "framed…in starkly moral terms, arguing that the current Alabama tax system violates biblical teachings because Christians are prohibited from oppressing the poor."

The new plan will be voted on in September, and if it passes, the Times says, "it will be a major victory for poor people. . .. . But win or lose, Alabama's tax-reform crusade is posing a pointed question to the Christian Coalition, Focus on the Family and other groups that seek to import Christian values into national policy: If Jesus were active in politics today, wouldn't he be lobbying for the poor?"

You can see where this is going, can't you? It's about to become another rant against the tax cut.

George W. Bush is the most self-advertised Christian president in my memory. George W. Bush has championed the most regressive tax bill in my memory.

You know the one I mean: the $350 billion tax cut on dividends. Who gets dividends? The very rich, that's who. And if their taxes go down, whose taxes will likely go up?

So how can the president be both a Christian president and a soak-the-poor president at the same time?

That's the question behind a letter Rev. Jim Wallis and a number of other clergy sent to the president a couple of weeks ago. The letter, according to Washington Post columnist E.J. Dionne, told the president that most of the signers "supported your faith-based initiative" and the presidential encouragement of "community groups that help the poor."

But, the letter went on, "the good people who provide such services are feeling overwhelmed by increasing needs and diminished resources. And many are feeling betrayed. . . .Mr. President, the poor are suffering, and without serious changes in the policies of your administration, they will suffer more" because the administration "is cutting resources to the poor while cutting taxes on the rich. . . .."

That kind of disconnect between what the president professes and what the president does wouldn't have bothered me at all when I was a kid sitting in my First Baptist pew. It probably doesn't bother the president either.

But I like to imagine that he sometimes wakes up in a cold sweat at 3 a.m. asking himself questions:

Which presidential candidate would Woody Guthrie's proletarian carpenter, true and brave, make yard signs for? Which one might He leaflet a precinct for? And (gulp!) which one might He vote for in the Big Election in the Sky?


Retired English Professor Leon Satterfield writes to salvage clarity from his confusion. His column appears on alternate Mondays. His e-mail address is:

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