Meet The Liberal Tea Partiers

For the second year in a row, an Alabama coalition of churches and advocacy groups was thwarted in its effort to repeal a state sales tax on groceries that amounts to $4 on every $100 food bill. On April 8, Alabama Arise failed to find the two-thirds vote in the legislature needed for the full house to vote on a Fall ballot measure that would repeal the tax—so burdensome to the poor—and replace it with a 1 percent tax hike on the wealthiest 4 percent of the state. 

Although tea party activists win national headlines with their anti-government, anti-tax message, they are not the only tax activists in the trenches these days. Liberals and progressives (including many in mainline Protestant and Roman Catholic churches) are making the case that raising state taxes on the wealthy and large, profitable companies is vital to protecting funding for government programs hit hard by the recession.

Oregon faced a $4 billion hole in 2010—one-quarter of its budget. In a January referendum, a union-led coalition which included some congregations won permanent tax hikes on individuals who make more than $125,000 and families earning over $250,000; corporations will pay anywhere from $150 to as much as $100,000 or more, depending on profitability. As one advocate explained, quoting Luke, “Taxes should be based on ability to pay. A few pennies from a poor woman’s purse cost her more than many pieces of gold from a rich man’s hoard.”

That is the logic of progressive taxation, which works on the idea that your second $50,000 should be taxed at a higher rate than your first. Even in the best of times, states have notoriously regressive tax systems that burden lower-income people. But only 5 out the 30 states that raised taxes last year targeted the wealthy, and the conservative spirit in the land means that sometimes liberal religious activists take what they can get.

The North Carolina Council of Churches is a member of the NC Together coalition that convinced the state legislature last year to raise sales taxes rather than just try to fill the budget hole with service cuts. “It was better to have a regressive tax shared by everyone than lose services,” said Rev. George Reed, the council’s director. This year, the council and statewide coalition is campaigning against corporate tax breaks to help close a $1.5 billion gap in the 2011 budget.

Two-thirds of Alabama Arise are religious organizations. Its defeat on April 8 (despite majority support among Alabamans) means Alabama will continue to be, with Mississippi, one of only two states that burden their poor with a full state sales tax on groceries without any relief for low-income families,* amounting to about $450 per year for a family of four. And it will remain one of three states that allows the wealthy to deduct their federal income tax payments from their state taxes.

Majorities nationwide support raising taxes on the wealthy, despite vigorous campaigns by the Right—including the conservative Christian Family Research Council—who argue against the progressive income tax and other tax systems that demand more from those who can afford it. In 2003, FRC Action hired Tom McClusky from the National Taxpayers Union to help make the case with conservative evangelicals who, polls suggest, were not embracing the Republican Party platform on taxes as much as they might.

I interviewed McClusky three years ago just after his group hired an additional tax specialist and as the group was coaching state-level Family Policy Councils to question the progressive income tax and help make the Bush tax cuts permanent. He used arguments saying regressive tax systems are better for families, and that the federal government should step back from a role in helping the poor.

“We think the options that are out there should be looked at, be it a flat tax or sales tax, just something that makes it simpler on families,” he said. “Money is best in the hands of families, and they know how best to spend it on for their children.”

“Helping out the poor, that’s certainly something that the Bible tells you to do, but it doesn’t tell you to turn to the tax collectors to help the poor. It’s more to turn to yourselves to help the poor… We don’t believe it’s the role of the federal government to find an answer, a one-size fits all answer.”

The Reagan Revolution thirty years ago made tax cuts for the wealthy mainstream, and “starving the state” has been part of the conservative strategy for cutting government programs ever since. Economic conservatives in the Heritage Foundation began reaching out to social conservatives in the 1990s to win support for tax cuts even for the wealthy, and the success of that outreach can be seen not only in McClusky’s work at FRC Action but in Mike Huckabee’s support for a national sales tax, and the antitax politics of Christian conservatives like Sarah Palin and Michelle Bachmann.

Trickle-down economics has trickled down to Christian conservatives, as a September 2009 study by John C. Green, et al, shows. 85% of conservative religious activists support tax cuts to encourage investment and 61% say that those cuts should only go to upper-income people. But they are not only powered by their embrace of right-wing economic theory; as conservative Christians build their own universe of (often all-white) Christian academies and charities, they divest from the idea of being part of a common national enterprise.

Challenging this sentiment in the name of faith are Roman Catholics, Methodists, Episcopalians, and Presbyterians.

“I understand that there’s a strong anti-tax sentiment out there,” says Rev. Reed of the NC Council of Churches, which works not with individual congregations but presbyteries and dioceses.

But we’re not starting from scratch on tax issues. Some of our denominations have statements on tax issues. The Roman Catholics talk about taxes and the common good.

Our perspective is that first of all taxes are okay and we base that on some specific things in the Bible. The story of Jesus ‘rendering to Caeser’ holding a coin in his hand; Joseph storing up grain in the good years for feeding in bad years.

Also, we look to scripture for guidance and see Jesus feeding the hungry, his acts of compassion. In a democracy some of that has to be done working together through government and taxation because the task is so big and affects all of us. We’re doing it for the common good, through taxation and the services taxes support.

Gwen Gray is a member of Immanuel Presbyterian Church in Montgomery, Alabama, which is part of the Arise coalition.

You know, Jesus talked about the poor often. And he talked about the people who were in power, and how their laws and policies affect the very poor and made them poorer or made them less equal. And so it’s very relevant for a ministry in any church to look at how we can lobby to make a difference for the least of our citizens.

About two-thirds of the Alabama coalition’s 150 members are congregations or other religious organizations. Seventeen are Methodist, twelve Episcopalian, nine Presbyterian, and 20 Roman Catholic.

But Tom Duley, president of Alabama Arise’s board, and executive director of Urban Ministries (an inner-city mission of the United Methodist Church in Birmingham) says their job is harder as frequent government scandals leave many assuming that the government is corrupt and inefficient and that any tax increases would be squandered.

“It is a hard struggle. We talk to small groups at churches and civic clubs and other places just trying to get the word out and explain what the actual facts of the matter are,” he said. “Obviously we don’t have any money for media and those sorts of communication avenues so we have to do it one on one, a little bit at a time.”

And while his Christian faith arouses his concern for “the least of these,” “there are people who don’t see it that way and there are Christians who don’t see the government as the rightful or correct vehicle through which those sorts of concerns could be lived out.”

Kimble Forrister, coordinator of Alabama Arise, says some people in the small groups cannot even name what their taxes pay for.

We usually go around the room and have everybody say who you are, where you’re from and what is one thing that your taxes paid for in the last week that benefited you. And sometimes there’s people in the meeting who cannot think of a thing. They cannot think of a single thing that their tax dollars paid for that has an impact on their lives. And you have to say, well, how did you get here? What did you drive on? And then they say, ‘oh yeah, That’s right. Tax dollars pay for roads.’

That sense of alienation from the benefits of government services means some whites support the grocery tax precisely because they think government mostly benefits poor blacks who they see as not paying their fair share.

I think our most compelling argument at the legislature this year is your budget woes are so severe that there’s not really much you have to offer to families in distress, but here’s one vote you can make that will help low-income families and won’t cost the budget a penny because we’re replacing the revenue.

But the effort failed, as the coalition’s outreach to Republican legislators failed. They did not secure any additional Republican support than they had last year, when one GOP legislator supported the grocery tax repeal.

Parties are so divided and progressive tax movements can only succeed where Democrats have healthy majorities in the statehouse—as in Oregon. And with congregations and nonprofits constrained from partisan politicking, they don’t have a say in whether that will be case.

But Arise isn’t giving up. In 2006, they won a great victory after a long struggle when the state raised the threshold for when it begins taxing income, from $4,600 a year to $12,600. That still left the state with lower-middle income people paying 10.5% of their income to the state and localities while the wealthiest one percent pay only 4% of theirs.

Citizens for Tax Justice ranks Alabama as one of the ten worst states in overburdening the poor and middle class. Arise is regrouping and thinking about proposing a grocery tax repeal strategy that is not revenue neutral but actually raises additional revenue from the wealthy as a way to secure the support of teachers and other government workers facing cuts. And, Forrister said, in retrospect maybe they should not have bothered spending so much time trying to secure additional Republican support.

*This line originally implied that only two states tax groceries when in fact only two states tax groceries at the full tax rate with no exceptions for low- and middle-income residents. For more information on state tax of groceries go here. RD regrets the error.