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Reclaiming the Values Vote

Religious Critiques of Economic Inequality in American History

The celebration, the parsing and analysis, and the prognostications were not long in coming after Doug Jones’s upset victory over the Republican favorite Roy Moore in the Alabama Senate contest. Historian Neil Young has already summarized much of the immediate reaction here on Public Seminar. Twitter soon trended with variations of #thankblackwomen; some of those being thanked pushed back with #followblackwomen. Political pundits drilled down on the numbers and discovered that a significant decline in white turnout combined with a shift in more highly educated whites away from Moore and in the direction of Jones (or the write-in favorite, University of Alabama football coach Nick Saban) also explained the upset victory.

We’ve been through this before, in case anyone has forgotten that feeling in November 2008. More important for the long term than this particular outlier election, featuring as bad of a Republican candidate as central casting possibly could have dreamed up, was what happened with the tax bill in the days following the election. Following some last minute sausage making with Senate holdouts, particularly Senator Bob Corker of Tennessee, the Republicans claimed a victory that represents one of the most significant reallocations of wealth distribution over the last generation.

As has been well documented, the wealthiest percentiles in America have gotten a lot wealthier over the last generation. In his address celebrating his election victory, Trump promised that the forgotten man would be forgotten no more; little did we know that the erstwhile forgotten men were actually pass-through corporations, real estate investors, and just about anyone whose income derives from not actually working for regular wages. Over the last generation, as David Leonhardt has demonstrated, the overall tax burden (not the income tax per se, but the overall tax burden counting the payroll tax for Social Security and Medicare, property taxes, sales taxes, and others) has resulted in a significant increase in tax burdens for most everyone in the middle class and lower, and a large percentage decline in taxation on the wealthier. The tax bill, soon to be signed by the bogusly “populist” President, turbo-charges that process. Inevitable declines in federal and state expenditures for health care and education aren’t going to help; indeed, those declines are part of the Republican plan.

For much of American history, this kind of inequality, beyond accepted norms, called forth some of America’s most memorable rhetoric on religion and politics, rivaled only by that caused by slavery. Jacksonian Democrats invoked religious rhetoric of equality in the 1830s; as did Populists in the 1890s (William Jennings Bryan’s “cross of gold” could be updated here to “cross of pass-through corporations and #corkerkickbacks”), social gospelers for decades, religious supporters (especially Catholic priests of working-class neighborhoods) of the New Deal, Martin Luther King in the 1960s (particularly in his last three years), and more recent voices — notably the great hope of contemporary religious progressives, William Barber and the Moral Mondays movement in North Carolina.

The question that confronts religious progressives is this: what prevents a coalescing of religious progressives with secularist Democrats and policy technocrats on issues of economic inequality, arguably the single most important issue of our day? There have been voices there all along: Jim Wallis and the Sojourners movement come to mind, as do any number of voices from the Jewish progressive community from Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel forward.

In the past, labor, religion, the intellectual class, and middle-class progressives frequently found common cause. This was an essential part of the New Deal Coalition, and of the forces that came together behind the civil rights bills and the creation of Medicare and other programs of the Great Society in the 1960s. Barack Obama appeared, for a time, to be the voice that could bring together a diverse coalition, including mainstream religiously-inclined voters. Obama rhetorically recognized the need to speak to values voters; the question as he saw it was what exactly constituted “values”? Obama’s policies produced some real, if modest, lessening of the wealth gap. But the most notable force that emerged from his presidency was the rise of the tea party, not the triumph of economic progressivism. Meanwhile, the economic crisis and Great Recession of 2007-2009 was a great white whale that devoured economic wealth, particularly among black families.

So the question confronting progressives remains. White “values voters” voted for Trump and repeated that vote for Moore, two of the most amoral candidates one could possibly imagine. Black values voters turned out against both — in particularly large numbers against Moore (thanks in part to a well-organized ground game coordinated by the NAACP and other organizations). As many have pointed out, the insistent identification of “evangelicals” with white voters completely misrepresents the facts on the ground in a state like Alabama, and hinders discussions of religion and politics in contemporary America.

The task of mobilizing against inequality achieved through changes in tax laws is not an easy one. Tax policy is complicated; the recent focus simply on income taxes alone is itself a distortion of the overall distribution of tax burdens in American society. Yet this has always been the case. Populists had to explain fairly esoteric issues of currency valuation to their supporters; Frances Perkins had to pick and choose when to make her pitch for what became the Social Security Act; and Martin Luther King angered mainstream white supporters with his critique of economic inequality (and the Vietnam War) in the later 1960s.

The challenge is not new. And neither is the need for a coalition that draws power from a religious constituency motivated by moral arguments about equality. It was a coalition that mobilized effectively on behalf of the Civil Rights Bill of 1964. It was a coalition that President Obama, despite his successes, failed to capitalize on as abundantly as he could have, particularly in his first term. The radically redistributive effects of the Republican tax plan and coming entitlement “reform” demand an angry and prophetic language of rebuttal and critique, and a moral language of alternative visions. Historically, this has come from religious clarion calls that ask people to judge policies by their deepest values.

Paul Harvey is Distinguished Professor of History at the University of Colorado, Colorado Springs, and the author of several books on race and religion in American history.

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