Abortion is an important moral issue, but not for the reason many pro-life Christians believe, says a University of Alabama law professor and seminary graduate who has spent five years on the sawdust trail preaching the gospel of tax reform.
Susan Pace Hamill, professor of law at the University of Alabama, said a consistent pro-life ethic defends not only life in the womb, but also requires there be adequate resources to provide healthcare and educational opportunities for children after they are born.
Hamill published a groundbreaking paper in 2002 applying principles of Judeo-Christian ethics to Alabama’s tax structure. The paper concluded the state’s tax system is immoral, because it oppresses the poor, and that Christians, in particular, have a moral obligation to reform the system, even if it winds up costing them to pay more in taxes.
The message, Hamill said during a panel discussion following a screening of “Golden Rule Politics,” a new DVD produced by the Baptist Center for Ethics, was about as well received as, “You need a root canal.”
The DVD is a 36-minute documentary that challenges the 25-year intermarriage between the Religious Right and Republican Party with an appeal for “Golden Rule” Christians to reclaim the “rightful role of faith in politics.”
In the video, Hamill delineates between “low sacrifice” issues like stem-cell harvesting, gay marriage and human cloning and “high sacrifice” moral concerns like justice, poverty, healthcare, war and the environment.
“We have become a nation of low-sacrifice issues,” she maintains in the DVD.
“Low sacrifice does not mean theologically unimportant,” Hamill says. “Low sacrifice means the resolution of the issue means very little to you. For example, the stem-cell research issue–if you are not facing a debilitating or life-threatening illness and no one you love is–that is a low-sacrifice issue for you, because either way it doesn’t affect you personally.”
The Bible, in contrast, “clearly requires high sacrifice,” she says. “Jesus Christ did not preach a low-sacrifice gospel.”
At Monday night’s screening and panel discussion on the campus of Samford University in Birmingham, Ala., Hamill offered examples of high-sacrifice moral issues. Fair taxes is one, she said, because it costs a majority of people to pay more in taxes.
The environment is high-sacrifice, she said, “because it requires us to put aside short-term profit for long-term longevity that will surpass our time on earth.”
But her favorite high-sacrifice issue, she said, is abortion.
“They attacked me on this one, and they made a big mistake,” she said of her critics, “because they forced me to focus on it.”
“I used to think taxes and abortion–apples and oranges,” she said. “They’re just trying to change the subject.”
“Then I started thinking about pro-life, because there’s no one of faith that thinks abortion is a good thing,” Hamill said. “And the legal issue, while important–and reasonable minds can disagree, from faith–is only a small part.”
“A lot of rural women in Alabama deliver without ever getting any prenatal care,” she said. “That’s a problem in a pro-life state.”
“A lot of children don’t get basic health care,” she said. “That’s a problem in a pro-life state. Our education system needs more help. That’s a problem in a pro-life state. Pro-life is about high sacrifice, and tax policy is an important ingredient ¦. We’re not going to be able to raise revenues for this reasonable pro-life opportunity, unless we extract it from taxes.”
As a tax-law professor warming a pew in a Methodist Church, Hamill said the sin of greed kept her from seeing inequities in Alabama’s tax system until she used a sabbatical to study theology at Samford’s Beeson School of Divinity.
“I discovered our taxes are extremely unfair to the poor,” she said. “This low-sacrifice lawyer had not even noticed, much less done anything.”
From a Judeo-Christian standpoint, Hamill concluded in the Fall 2002 Alabama Law Review, the state’s tax system is immoral, because it economically oppresses citizens with low incomes, fails to raise enough money to provide adequate social services and denies low-income families minimum opportunities to get a good-enough education to pull themselves out of poverty.
Hamill said Monday night that in a state like Alabama, where the vast majority of citizens profess to be Christians, it is immoral for more affluent citizens to benefit at the expense of the poor. Christians, she argued, ought to be pressuring their politicians to change tax laws so they are fairer.
The problem for many Christians, she said, is, “You can’t make them more fair to the poor without asking those of us who earn more to pay more.”
“The rub is that fairness and justice, as applied to taxation, requires more from the most of us, if your system is out of whack,” she said. “That message is about as well received as ‘You need a root canal next week.'”
The root problem, she said, is greed. “We have to challenge all people of faith to remember that Christ preached a high-sacrifice gospel,” she said. “Yes, all theological issues are important theologically, but if you limit your issues to the ones that cost you little and ignore than ones that cost you a great deal, then you have turned into a Pharisee. You have really missed the boat.”
“Pastors,” she pleaded, “save us from our greed.”
Critics charge that Hamill’s efforts to broaden the moral agenda beyond hot-button issues like abortion and gay marriage divert attention from those concerns.
“First and foremost, there’s lots of disagreement on abortion concerning the law,” she said Monday. “I think most people think it’s a tragedy that needs to be avoided if at all possible,” she said, but “reasonable minds can disagree” about whether it should be illegal.
“There’s even a minority position in the evangelical world that the practice of homosexuality, if monogamous, is fine,” she continued. In engaging those issues, she said, “you have to respect” the fact that there are other people of faith who disagree.
“When you get to the justice issues, the high-sacrifice issues,” she said, “it’s pretty clear” they cannot be disregarded.
“My plea is on the high sacrifice issues that we engage the debate with faith-based principles,” she said.
“The wedge issues seem to create a lot more passion, because it divides people into either you’re in this camp or this camp and there’s no middle ground,” Hamill said.
“Real faith influences and touches every facet of your life.”
Bob Allen is managing editor of EthicsDaily.com.