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Politicians, scripture and tax collectors

By Paul M. Weyrich
web posted September 15, 2003

Alabama is in the heart of the Bible Belt. You would think that most of the population would therefore be oriented toward God's message, especially the Christian version of that message. But the way that Alabama Governor Bob Riley looks at things, he sees a state filled with heathens who ignore the word of God.

You see, Governor Riley, who opposed all tax increases while in Congress and who defeated an incumbent governor on a platform of not raising taxes, suddenly reversed course once in office, and advocated a $1.2 billion tax increase. For a state the size of Alabama, with low per capita income, that is a huge tax increase.

Alabama has an interesting system when it comes to increasing taxes. First, the increase must be approved by the state legislature. Since the legislature is heavily Democrat, Riley had little problem with getting the approval of the state House and Senate. Once approved there, the tax increase must be approved by the voters of the state.

Alabama Governor Bob Riley

Riley campaigned hard for his tax increase. In the process he appealed to the religious orientation of most of the state by claiming that Christians had the obligation to support the tax increase because it was actually an income redistribution program which greatly taxed the wealthier residents of the state while providing major tax cuts for the poor. He said that Jesus had always told his followers of their obligation to aid the poor. Here was a big time chance to aid the poor, so Christians, in the view of Governor Riley, were obligated to support the tax increase.

Last week the voters had their say and in an election which produced an unusually high turnout, the citizens of Alabama rejected Gov. Riley's tax increase by more than two to one. In fact 68 per cent of the voters said no.

So is the Bible Belt no more, or does Gov. Riley have his theology wrong. I believe the voters in Alabama knew the Bible better than their governor. Yes, Jesus was always admonishing his followers to care for the poor. Not once, however, did Jesus direct his comments toward the Roman government. His comments were always directed at individuals. Christians are taught that when we meet our Maker, we will be asked to justify what we did with the resources God put at our command. We will be asked as individuals what we did to aid the poor. Our Maker will not ask us if we voted for a tax increase. The statements Jesus made were not aimed at the Provincial Administration.

True, Jesus did tell us to render unto Caesar what is Caesar's, but that was in response to an opponent who was trying to trick Jesus into saying that his followers should overthrow the government. He did say it was legitimate for Rome to collect taxes. And remember, tax collections were a great deal more unjust back then than they are here now. Not only did you have to support the government, but you ended up making the tax collector rich in the process. That is why Zaccheus, the tax collector who became a disciple of Jesus, said he would pay back fourfold anyone he had defrauded.

What was interesting about Gov. Riley's misinterpretation of the Bible is that it drew nothing but praise from those same sources who condemn the mixing of religion and politics. The minute a preacher mentions that the Bible does not permit homosexual marriage, let alone the homosexual lifestyle, or when Catholic priests cite Scripture for the church's view that abortion is a grave sin, all bets are off.

There are many other examples, but when the Scriptures are correctly used it is mixing church and state, and there is hardly a greater sin these days. When they are incorrectly used, as by Gov. Riley, it is just explaining to Christians their obligations as a follower of Jesus.

I have no idea if Governor Riley has learned a theological lesson from what happened in last week's election. But perhaps he has learned a political lesson. Taxpayers do not like tax increases. They don't like them no matter who or which party proposes them. In Riley's case, all demographics opposed the increase. Young and old and in-between. Republicans and Democrats. Strongly religious and reprobates. Rich and poor. That is especially interesting since the whole package was designed to help the poor. They didn't buy it. Many voters felt "had" by Riley. He eked out a 3,000-vote victory in the 2002 election -- tossing out the incumbent governor by telling voters he was the anti-tax candidate. Senator Jeff Sessions was cruising to a solid re-election victory with 58 per cent of the vote. Other statewide Republican candidates for the Supreme Court did well. There is no doubt that Riley's "no new tax" pledge helped him scrape by. Now the voters feel that he has gone back on his word and they are correct.

The "Terminator" GOP candidate for Governor of California might look at Alabama for a bit of guidance. Thanks to his mentor, former Governor Pete Wilson, Arnold Schwarzenegger has refused to sign the "no new taxes" pledge sponsored by Americans for Tax Reform. His campaign is stalled at 25 per cent, and if the election were held today Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante would likely be elected. That's because State Senator Tom McClintock, a solid "no new taxes" candidate who has signed ATR's pledge, remains in the race and is pulling double digits away from Schwarzenegger. I am willing to wager if Schwarzenegger were to ignore Gov. Wilson and take the "no new taxes" pledge, his campaign, which has been stalled at 25 per cent for weeks now, would pick up a good portion of McClintock's vote and he would go on to defeat Bustamante. If he doesn't heed the political lesson from Alabama, California voters may well trade the colorless Gray Davis for the much more colorful Cruz Bustamante, but the policies will remain the same.

It is said of elephants that they never forget anything. Perhaps true. The real question is whether they have learned anything in the first place.

Paul M. Weyrich is Chairman and CEO of the Free Congress Foundation.

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