Taxes, War, and Religion: Queering the 1040

I don’t remember where I first heard it. It seemed so true—and it is a lie. “There are two things in life you cannot avoid. Death and taxes.” I have not converted. I believe neither in resurrection nor immortality, reincarnation nor other routes to life eternal. I know I cannot avoid that spectre, Death, and I capitalize it for that very reason. Taxes, though? Turns out it was a lie. One can not only avoid them, one can be called to refuse them. Many do. Many good good people. And I say this even though I have also often said I would pay more taxes in order for others to have more rights. I say that, though I am complicit because I do indeed pay my taxes.

Tax Resistance: A Frivolous Position?

Tax resisters have a long and illustrious lineage. Think of the Peace Tax Seven, “UK citizens who are going to the European Court of Human Rights to claim the right for conscientious objectors to have the military part of their taxes diverted to a Peace Fund.” As they know, and others do as well, Quakers have been leaders in tax resistance for a very long time in the UK, globally, and in the United States. So to was that canonical figure, Henry David Thoreau. Along with, oddly, leaders amongst Episcopalians and other denominations. From Vietnam, when Father Lull of the Parkesburg Pennsylvania Church of the Ascension penned a paean to War Tax resistance in a 1975 Christian Century, to 21st-century resisters who write in large print on their 1040s that a portion has been withheld and redirected to peaceful ends, religion and war tax resistance have been entangled for almost as long as war and religion. In 2005, the IRS in the form of a spokesman had this to say:

Asked for comment, IRS media spokesperson, Eric Smith, referred The New Standard to an IRS publication entitled, “The Truth About Frivolous Arguments.” Page 19 of the 56-page document reads: “Some argue that taxpayers may refuse to pay federal income taxes based on their religious or moral beliefs, or objection to the use of taxes to fund certain government programs. These persons mistakenly invoke the First Amendment in support of this frivolous position. The First Amendment does not provide a right to refuse to pay income taxes on religious or moral grounds, or because taxes are used to fund government programs opposed by the taxpayer.” The IRS then cites relevant case law supporting their position.

As the name Thoreau hints, war tax resistance does not begin with the war we came to feel so ambivalently about, but had supporters in relation to WWI and WWII as well. Nor is it frivolous, unless Thoreau is (which might explain something about right-wing perspectives on higher education). Prior to WWII, of course, much of the resistance was rooted in the historic peace churches; in the locales that became the United States, Quakers have led from their 1709 refusal to support a military effort heading to Canada through today. Some, indeed, resist all war.

There are practical consequences, of course, to such resistance. And, one does have to take these into account. Fines. Imprisonment. Inconvenience. A more positive practical consequence may be the need for those of us who support peace—even if we are not tax resisters—to support the Religious Freedom Peace Tax Bill, an effort of the Friends Committee on National Legislation. And, we should all do our research, investigating, for example, the National War Tax resistance Coordinating Committee and their DVS entitled “Death and Taxes.”

All this is definitely food for thought this mid-April even though income taxes are not the only taxes we pay. (Don’t forget the sales, real estate, and school taxes…)

Vote, Vote, Vote

Of course, civil government is not merely entangled with religion when it comes to war and peace and taxes. It is entangled, as well, when it comes to marriage and the taxes associated with state-sponsored heterosexuality. Remember canon law to common law to… today’s law.

So, among the tax resisters today might be many members of gay, lesbian, and other communities. In 2008, for example, Melissa Etheridge publicly stated that she would refuse to pay a portion of her California taxes as a result of Proposition 8’s passage. And that spring, in 2009, there was a raft of protests at various post offices on April 15. This year, others are joining in. (See, for example, this site, which draws on the historic role of tax resisters in the effort to obtain woman suffrage and points to an argument made then by a gay man.) Quakers, who were historic leaders in LGBTQ rights (even I remember their early pamphlets on this topic), remind us that war and LGBT rights are not unrelated. They ask: “Is Opposing the War an LGBT Issue?” The answer, while complex, is “Yes.” (See this pamphlet from prior to the outbreak of the Iraq War.)

Now, I know that a lot of my taxes go exactly where I want them to go—to social programs for those less fortunate than I. I want to support that. Indeed, I would like a higher percentage of my tax dollars to accomplish just that. Juxtaposing these two visuals purporting to represent the U.S. Federal Budget 2009 Fiscal Year total outlays is, though, frightening: the government’s view of the budget shows only 20% devoted to military purposes—a more inclusive and realistic proportion is more than 50%. 

If you want to make your knowledge a bit more local, check out the National Priorities Project. As they say:

With this publication, taxpayers can take stock of how the federal government spent each 2009 income tax dollar: from 26.5 cents for military-related spending to 13.6 cents for military and non-military interest on the debt to 2 cents for education. The publication also shows, in addition to individual income taxes, where the money came from in 2009 to pay for the federal spending.

If you object (or want to express your opinion directly on where that money actually ought to go), an option short of tax resisting is to check out this site and then regularly, repeatedly, and often write your Senator and vote, vote, vote—even in midterm elections.

For me, I am yearning for a world where the amount that now goes to defense would go to education, where all citizens have rights, where taxes go to level the playing field for all. Taxes for justice? How incredibly radical. How un-imaginable.

Tax Day: a celebration of Civil Religion in America? A chance to celebrate dissent? Either way, a day out of the ordinary defining what citizenship means for religious and nonreligious America alike.

henking@hws.edu'

Susan Henking has been President of Shimer College since July 1, 2012. Previously she was Professor of Religious Studies at Hobart and William Smith Colleges in Geneva, NY. In addition to her leadership in higher education, her scholarly work focuses on theories of religion as well as religion in relation to gender and sexuality. She is co-editor, with Gary David Comstock, of Que(e)rying Religion (1997) and, with William Parsons and Diane Jonte Pace, of Mourning Religion( 2008).The views shared here are, of course, neither those of Shimer College nor of Hobart and William Smith Colleges, but solely those of Susan Henking. Both these colleges and Professor Henking value the diversity of ideas and the value of open debate.