One of the most contentious political issues we face these days is trying to understand how we in the faith community can find legitimate and satisfying ways to publicly express our faith without crossing the line separating church from state. Recent events in Alabama offer a rare opportunity to see this struggle in a fresh light.
Two years ago, Chief Justice Roy Moore of the Alabama Supreme Court erected a 5,300-pound granite replica of the Ten Commandments in the state judicial building. Chief Justice Moore said he wanted to acknowledge God as well as celebrate the role the commandments have played in the development of our legal system. Since then, two federal courts have found that the monument violates the First Amendment’s establishment clause and ordered its removal. The case is headed for the U.S. Supreme Court for final resolution.
Meanwhile, newly elected Republican Gov. Bob Riley, facing a massive budget crisis, has proposed the largest tax increase in Alabama history. His plan calls for an overhaul of Alabama’s antiquated income tax system, which begins assessing income tax on a family of four earning as little as $4,600. Gov. Riley’s plan also calls for moderate reform of Alabama’s property tax, which for decades has been the lowest in the country.
The amazing part of this story is not that a Republican governor is trying to raise taxes, although that alone is newsworthy. The real news is this: Gov. Riley is casting his call for tax reform in terms of a moral crusade. In a letter to Alabama’s clergy the governor writes: “Over the years, I have studied the New Testament and remain convinced that Jesus Christ commands us to love God, to love each other and, finally, to take care of the least among us. Alabama’s tax code has worked against this belief for too long—placing the largest burden on the least among us. I can not stand by and allow that to continue.”
Some critics of the tax plan have argued that the governor’s appeal to faith groups to support his plan is as much a violation of the establishment clause as is Judge Moore’s monument. It’s a fair question to ask. If both the monument and the proposed changes to the state tax code are motivated by religious faith, what is the difference between them from a church-state perspective? The fact is there is a difference, an important difference.
The Ten Commandments monument is entirely self-serving. Judge Moore has stated that his sole purpose is to acknowledge God. Since the monument uses the King James Version of the commandments we must conclude that the God he has in mind is the God of Protestant Christianity. The monument thus serves as state endorsement of a particular faith and thereby breaches the wall of separation.
Gov. Riley’s plan to reform Alabama’s tax structure, on the other hand, does not promote or advance his faith. While it is true the governor is seeking economic justice as a matter of faithfulness, his proposed changes to the tax code will not establish a version of the Christian faith. It is not a particular religion that is being advanced, but rather the common good. After all, it is not an exclusively Christian insight that recognizes that Alabama’s present tax structure unfairly burdens the poor.
Alabama’s struggle becomes a useful object lesson for helping us understand the proper role of faith in the public sphere. Faith groups seeking to have the state endorse their view of religion are in clear violation of the Constitution’s non-establishment clause. However, those whose faith leads them to work for a just society, one that comforts the afflicted and offers hope to the “least of these,” are not in violation of the Constitution. After all, their goal is not to make the state more religious, only more humane.
Admittedly it is something of tightrope, but one which clearly deserves our effort to achieve balance. On one side is the dangerous lure of state-endorsed religion and on the other is the muted voice of prophetic faith. Obviously, there is much to lose no matter which way we may fall.
However, there is also much to gain. Faith groups who are able to find their voice and speak on behalf of the weak and vulnerable of our state may not add any new members to their congregation. Their budgets may not increase or their baptisms. They may not see their faith tenets engraved on some monument and affirmed in the courts of power. In fact, supporting a move to bring about economic justice may not serve to advance a single religious group in Alabama. Only the poor will be served.
But Jesus told us long ago this is the way it should be. In fact, the whole church/state issue might be put to rest if people of faith would adhere to this simple axiom: “For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will save it.”
James L. Evans is pastor of Crosscreek Baptist Church in Pelham, Ala.