Divine Right

MONTGOMERY, Ala. -- For the first time since black ministers and some of their white brethren marched arm in arm in the civil-rights era, a group of Christians in the South are championing social and economic justice for the dispossessed as a matter of spiritual imperative. Curiously, or perhaps inevitably, the spawning grounds of this progressive movement are Montgomery and Birmingham, Ala., those fiery stations of the civil-rights cross. But as if determined to defy the most cherished stereotypes and bedrock prejudices of enlightened liberals everywhere, the primary actors in this campaign are the kind of white, conservative, Billy Graham evangelicals to whom Martin Luther King, Jr. addressed his Letter from Birmingham Jail -- a missive that, in its day, achieved a resounding absence of effect.

On Sept. 9, Alabama citizens will vote on a proposal to reform the state's regressive tax code. Whether or not the measure passes -- and both opinion polls and Alabama history suggest it will fail -- the story of how a progressive tax initiative became the subject of a statewide referendum, and how it came to be championed by a heretical faction of the religious right, including a conservative Republican governor, has political ramifications that will reverberate long after the vote itself.

Just outside Birmingham, on a proud hill overlooking a wealthy suburb, is Beeson Divinity School, the evangelical seminary of Samford University. It's here that a perennial of liberal ideology was first grafted to the thick root of conservative theology.

Beeson, which teaches the inerrancy of Scripture, has generally been a Christian Coalition sort of place, a marketplace of ideas where southern-fried conservatism was often the only item on the menu. "We're all conservatives here. We don't have any liberals," says Beeson Dean Timothy George. "We're people who say we believe the Bible is the word of God. We generally agree with Pat Robertson, Jerry Falwell. We're very conservative Christian evangelicals."

But last fall, Susan Pace Hamill, a Beeson theology student, published a master's thesis arguing that "Alabama's tax structure economically oppresses low-income Alabamians and fails to raise adequate revenues."

Hamill, a tax-law professor at the University of Alabama, spent her sabbatical studying Scripture at Beeson. Her 112-page thesis, published in the fall 2002 issue of the Alabama Law Review, is an attack not only on Alabama's regressive tax code -- which requires poor families to pay up to three times the percentage of income in state tax that wealthy families pay -- but on the Christians who permit such an injustice to persist.

In her thesis, Hamill stakes claims more reminiscent of Dorothy Day and the Catholic Worker Party than Pat Robertson and the religious right. Citing ancient precedents of land tenure rights and debt forgiveness, she says the Bible mandates a "minimum opportunity" for the poor. Lest anyone miss the point, she goes on to argue that "minimum opportunity" in contemporary America consists of a decent public education. Lest anyone miss that point, Hamill demonstrates that Alabama public schools fall so woefully short of adequacy that only a drastic increase in funds could fulfill the state's moral obligation.

The novel combination of Hamill's left-wing argument and Beeson's right-wing reputation earned front-page coverage in Alabama newspapers. Her ironclad research, including 21 pages of data tables, won praise from editorial boards. And in a state that raises the least tax revenue per capita, Hamill's thesis -- reprinted as a book titled The Least of These: Fair Taxes and the Moral Duty of Christians -- somehow ended up as a rationale for politicians to imagine and initiate the unthinkable.

In late May, Gov. Bob Riley, a conservative evangelical Republican who'd never supported a tax increase in his life, unveiled a plan to enact the largest tax increase in Alabama history. Riley's plan lays claim to enough revenue to pay off the state's $675 million deficit and still raise hundreds of millions more for public schools and social services. In addition, Riley's $1.2 billion plan substantially shifts the tax burden from poor Alabamians to the wealthy.

"Jesus says one of our missions is to take care of the least among us," Riley told The Birmingham News in May, echoing the same Gospel passage that supplied the title of Hamill's book. "We've got to take care of the poor."

In June, after Riley's controversial plan was passed by a state legislature not previously known for political courage, Alabama seemed to enter not a parallel universe but an inverted one: As tax cuts for high-income earners rain down from Washington and social services are slashed by cash-strapped states everywhere, Alabama -- of all places -- was suddenly racing in the opposite direction.

"It's not just historic," says James Williams Jr., executive director of the Public Affairs Research Council of Alabama. "It's a miracle."

Well, not quite. Whether the miracle comes true will depend on the results of the Sept. 9 referendum. As Hamill documents, more than nine in 10 Alabamians claim to be Christian. But as it does elsewhere, culture lords over religion here. Centuries of Sunday hymns haven't softened Alabama's old-time hatred of taxes, its deep suspicion of government or its bloody history of resisting change. But in a place where plenty of people ask, "What would Jesus do?" a surprising number of religious conservatives have concluded that redistributing wealth is high on His list.

Susan Pace Hamill is an unlikely redeemer. Since 1994, Hamill has lived with her husband and two children in Tuscaloosa, where they moved after she left a job at the IRS in Washington. A former corporate lawyer, she was an inveterate careerist who spent years fussing over her tenure file at the University of Alabama.

Hamill entered Beeson as a mainstream Methodist and a social, political and religious moderate. Why she chose to spend her law-school sabbatical at a conservative evangelical seminary is a bit of a mystery to everyone involved. "You're trying to get to the core psychology of why I did this and I don't think I can answer that very well," Hamill says. "I'm probably the strangest student they've ever had."

A thick-set woman with a frosted crown of hair straining in all directions, Hamill, 42, is smart, confident and loud. When she emphasizes a point, as she does with exhausting frequency, her body has a way of pitching forward like a passenger on the deck of a listing ship. Hamill can fill a car ride with enough talk to glut a supertanker. But her unvarnished candor is endearing and, in the face of a challenge, Hamill doesn't flinch.

She was hoping to leverage her scriptural studies into an article for a prestigious law review. Instead, while reading a newspaper, she noticed for the first time that Alabama taxes family income beginning at $4,600. To the self-described "tax jock," it was a shock both to her sense of fairness and to her pride. "How could I have missed this?" she asks.

Hamill began delving into the tax code along with her Bible studies. Under the tutelage of her Beeson professors -- white, middle-aged, conservative, male evangelicals -- she grew more conservative in her theology. And she became increasingly radicalized about the poor.

"I had come in as the greedy commercial pagan. Until this time I had spent all my professional career on the side of money," Hamill says. "There were times when I was doing [research at Beeson] when I had to stop work because it was just too much. There were tears, despair over the injustice and my part in it."

While the Bible is a famously supple text, allowing multiple, even contradictory exegeses on everything from the role of women to the death penalty, its message on the poor has an almost nagging consistency. The Jesus portrayed in the Gospels has enormous respect and compassion for the poor and little regard for wealth.

Hamill is uneasy about her work's immoderate political implications. "I'm not comfortable with liberation theology," she says. But she couldn't deny what she read in the Book. And with Hamill constantly in their faces about it, neither could her teachers at Beeson. "It wasn't just about reformatting me. I came out of there very different, but I think the same thing happened to them," Hamill says.

"Susan is right on this issue," says Frank Thielman, a New Testament scholar whom Hamill calls one of Beeson's "super-size" conservatives. "The Bible's on the side of the poor. Jesus is on the side of the poor. I don't want to be caught on the other side."

The other side, as this particular dispute is now configured, consists of Christians with views similar to those of the Beeson faculty, only perhaps more intense. They tend to be vehemently anti-abortion and anti-gay and wildly enthusiastic about Alabama Chief Justice Roy Moore's noisy (and unconstitutional) campaign to keep a 2.5-ton block of granite inscribed with the Ten Commandments in the lobby of the Alabama Judicial Department. They tend to be equally passionate in their opposition to taxes, public school spending and efforts to aid the poor through means other than voluntary religious charity.

In March, the Christian Coalition of Alabama moved to crush Hamill's heresy and discredit her among evangelicals. For its purpose, the organization found the perfect tool: a petition in support of Roe v. Wade signed by numerous law professors. Hamill's name was on the list.

In recent decades, fundamentalists and conservative evangelicals have devoted much of their political energy to a handful of emotionally charged issues. Year after year, the fight against abortion leads the list. Clearly hoping to destroy Hamill in conservative Christian circles, the coalition unleashed a wave of e-mails, phone calls and snail mail attacking Hamill as an abortion activist and hypocrite. "Save the children with taxes -- but abort 'em," is how Christian Coalition member Betty Peters, who has a seat on the state school board, framed the issue.

The attack on Hamill put Beeson on the defensive. "The Christian Coalition is a powerful movement in this state," Dean George says. "And I certainly am strongly pro-life."

George called a faculty meeting to discuss Hamill's status. But instead of truckling to the coalition, most of the faculty lined up squarely behind Hamill. To sway the remaining fence-sitters, Hamill's ethics teacher, Wilton Bunch, produced a graph displaying a high correlation between poverty and abortion rates. Hamill may support Roe v. Wade, Bunch said, but by fighting for poor women, she was fighting to dignify life.

Instead of disowning their iconoclastic student, the faculty issued a unanimous resolution supporting Hamill and her work. "How could we not stand up and support her when she was under attack -- unfair attack -- by some of our friends?" George asks. "I think we were able to distinguish her message from that other issue."

The incident tied Beeson irrevocably to Hamill. "They claimed me," Hamill says. "And I claimed them, too. It's a strange bond that no one could have anticipated."

The Beeson resolution also exposed a growing fissure in the state's religious right. "There's this war simmering between the conservative, reasonable evangelicals and the fundamentalists," Hamill says. "There is rancor."

Beeson, whose faculty includes graduates of Harvard, Cambridge and the University of Chicago, confounds the stereotype of Southern evangelicals as pious dolts; but Christian Coalition of Alabama president John Giles is from a different school. "What's good for business is good for the state, and what's good for the state is good for the people," says Giles, his blue eyes as still as shallow ponds after a storm. Giles has found himself in the difficult role of explaining why a plan that would reduce taxes on the poorer half of Alabama families and raise the quality of the state's sinking public schools -- in turn raising prospects for recruiting business to Alabama -- is a threat to family values.

The answer may be as firmly grounded in finance as the question. Among the coalition's financial benefactors are the powerful timber lobby and ALFA, the Alabama Farmers Federation. ALFA is a multi-tentacled conglomerate with interests ranging from agriculture to insurance. It has long been the most potent political force in Montgomery. Both ALFA and big timber are fighting Riley's tax reform plan, which would cost their members millions in higher taxes, and both no doubt appreciate the "pro-family" cover the Christian Coalition of Alabama affords their cause.

Despite abundant support from local and national Republicans enraged by Riley's apostasy, the coalition has had unusual trouble gaining traction on its home field. Not only did the divinity school of the state's largest Southern Baptist university publicly rebuff it, but a female tax-law professor has effectively stolen the group's biblical fire. It's Hamill, now, who is determining what the Bible says about public policy, not the coalition. In fact, the coalition hasn't managed to poke a single hole in Hamill's scriptural arguments.

More startling, in August, Christian Coalition of America president Roberta Combs endorsed Riley's plan, calling it "visionary and courageous." The treason of the governor's office has been equally shocking. Populated by a religious Republican and a staff of conservative Christians with a penchant for Bible study, it was presumed to be a regime friendly to Giles and his pious corporate backers. Instead, the Riley administration has thoroughly betrayed the creed they hold most sacred: no new taxes.

Alabama state finance director Drayton Nabers, Jr, .the former CEO of a Birmingham insurance company, is one of the chief architects of Riley's tax plan. A slight, sinewy, unassuming figure, Nabers, 62, has steely gray hair and intense blue eyes that twinkle kindly, sometimes playfully, from behind wire-rim spectacles. He joined Hamill, who had just come from delivering a speech with her 9-year-old daughter in tow, and me for lunch at a Chinese restaurant in an expensive mall in suburban Birmingham.

An evangelical intellectual who attended Princeton and Yale Law School and clerked for Supreme Court Justice Hugo Black, Nabers handled his chopsticks as deftly as he steered a discussion of public values and Christian principles. Meeting him for the first time, Hamill exhibited an uncharacteristic deference -- in silent tribute perhaps to Nabers' reputation across the state.

"Before you talk about taxes, you've got to talk about social justice and what the role of government should be with respect to achieving social justice," Nabers said. "My concept of justice relates to the libertarian ideal: freeing all people under God to be all they can possibly be."

Nabers was drawing on the work of Russell Kirk, author of The Conservative Mind and a favorite philosopher of the right. But like a race-car driver on a hairpin turn, he doubled back to Reinhold Niebuhr, the favorite theologian of Martin Luther King Jr. And on the short stretch of road between, Nabers accelerated, making a statement that was nothing short of astonishing for a high-ranking government official in the year 2003.

"The poor in Alabama are generally in a form of bondage to poverty," he said. "In a wealthy society, government has the wherewithal to do a lot to free them from that bondage and raise revenues, and with those revenues engage in programs to try to provide a foundation for people to break the bonds of poverty. The most important question on social issues that a Christian can ask is, 'What is best for the poor?' I'm satisfied that question is at the heart of God."

Clearly something is up with conservative evangelicals down South. Because while the poor may be at the heart of God, they have for some time been beyond the fringe of political discourse. For even longer, for many conservative Christians, particularly in the South, the poor have been a distant priority behind the hot topics of abortion, the "homosexual agenda," prayer in school and religious symbolism in the public square.

Like Hamill and the Beeson faculty, Nabers is attempting to redefine the conservative evangelical agenda, promoting a kind of evolution from clenched fist to open palm.

The will to change is not unconscious. "This probably is the first time since civil rights that the biblical message has been employed for the broader dimensions of social justice," Nabers says.

The civil-rights movement is not the model for these white evangelicals. It is the most proximate sin driving their quest for redemption. Because nothing has so thoroughly mocked Christianity in the Deep South, and undermined its moral authority, like race. And the devil still takes his due.

"There are a lot of unrepentant racists in Baptist and Methodist churches in Alabama," says Wayne Flynt, professor of history at Auburn University. "Their feeling is, 'We were right about civil rights in the 1950s and '60s, and everything that has happened since that time confirms it.'"

The Alabama Constitution still contains language providing for separate schools for blacks and whites. Until the fall of 2000, when it was officially overturned by referendum, the state constitution prohibited miscegenation. The vote to overturn was 59 percent to 41 percent; nearly half of whites voted to keep the ban.

Half the poor in Alabama are black. Many live in a swath of rural counties where the poverty rate is around 40 percent, illiteracy is rampant and life expectancy is on a par with villages in El Salvador. Meanwhile, Birmingham and Montgomery have never recovered from white flight to the suburbs.

"We have to acknowledge the fact that the Gospel has a social implication, a social follow-through," says Beeson's Dean George. "Birmingham has history. Birmingham has scars. Birmingham needs redemption."

For 400 years the white Christians of Alabama possessed singular economic, political and police power. But someone else always seemed to have a richer store of moral authority. Even today, the alabaster Greek revival capitol in Montgomery, the birthplace of the Confederacy, is a remarkable spectacle. But it's the not-quite-shabby Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, from which a boyish Martin Luther King Jr. loaded the Christian Gospel into a slingshot, that induces awe and wonder.

Evangelicals say a man is "broken" when he can admit his fault and accept God's forgiveness. It's something akin to what George Wallace experienced when he renounced his racist past -- and the deep bitterness he'd sowed -- and asked Alabama blacks to forgive his sins.

A number of conservative white evangelicals in Alabama -- it's impossible to tell how many -- seem to be arriving at a similar breaking point. Forty years after King wrote his historic letter from jail asking white pastors to condemn racism and step up to the challenge of their faith, a new perspective is evolving.

The Sept. 9 referendum may be too early a test of the new evangelicals' strength. If it succeeds, the word "miracle" will not be too strong a description. Resistance is powerful in Alabama, and change has always been weak. But the vote's very existence is a clear marker on the road to change. For Hamill, Nabers and their spiritual kin, mindful of the silence that greeted King's Birmingham letter, it will also be an opportunity to post a long-overdue reply.

Francis Wilkinson, former national affairs writer at Rolling Stone, is a partner at the Democratic media firm Doak, Carrier, O'Donnell, Wilkinson & Goldman, consultants to campaigns and corporations.