Symbols & Substance in Alabama

Susan Pace Hamill's colleagues on the law faculty at the University of Alabama were puzzled when she decided to spend her hard-earned sabbatical studying the Bible.

Why study Greek at Samford University's evangelical Beeson Divinity School? What was a tax-law specialist who had worked in New York City and Washington, D.C., supposed to do with a Masters in Theological Studies degree?

Hamill wasn't exactly sure herself, but she certainly wasn't trying to start a political crusade.

"If you divide the world into people who are on the side of money and people who are not, then I'm on the side of money," she said. "I'm a corporate lawyer. It's what I do."

Then she read an article about Alabama's income, property and sales tax laws that shook her faith as well as her legal convictions. One statistic cut deep: A family of four had to pay taxes if it earned $4,600 a year, a figure that was light years below the $17,601 poverty line.

Before long before she was writing statements such as this: "Alabamians are, or at least claim to be, a Christian people. ... However, in one glaring case Alabamians have strayed far from the direction that God's moral compass provides. When one examines the suffering and hardship Alabama's tax structure inflicts on the poorest and neediest among us, one cannot fail to see the enormous gap that exists between what God's moral values demand and what we have allowed our state to become."

The typical essay quoted 20-plus Bible verses per page, with special attention given to prodding ministers and wealthy Christians. Hamill added hard statistics and legal scholarship, seeking "10 witnesses and DNA" to build an ironclad case. The bottom line?

"Alabama's tax structure," she wrote, is the "sort of system condemned by the Old Testament Prophets and by Jesus as inconsistent with God's Word."

Hamill called her Beeson thesis "An Argument for Tax Relief Based on Judeo-Christian Ethics" and, after a burst of local news coverage, lots of people started reading it -- including Republican Gov. Bob Riley. This rock-ribbed Southern Baptist conservative proceeded to propose the biggest tax increase in state history, telling Alabamians that "we're supposed to love God, love each other and help take care of the poor."

The $1.2 billion tax package lost on Sept. 9 by a crushing 68 to 32 percent margin. Nevertheless, Hamill believes the cause might rise again. It would certainly help if certain media and political elites took off their ideological blinders.

She isn't the only person who thinks that. Gregg Easterbrook of the New Republic was appalled by the lack of support Riley's crusade received from the proud progressives in the national media. This is especially true in comparison with the oceans of digital ink spilled over a 2.5-ton granite monument in the Alabama Supreme Court rotunda.

Major newspapers and networks, he noted, swarmed over the Ten Commandments story, but ignored the tax-reform effort. It's fair to ask, "Why?"

"Why does the crackpot judge get 24-7 coverage," he asked, "when the noble governor gets almost none? Because the snarling judge and his intolerant followers show Christianity in a bad light; by granting them attention, the media make Christianity look bad. Gov. Riley's crusade to help the poor shows Christianity at its luminous best. Therefore the media ignore Riley."

Hamill isn't that harsh. But she agrees that a symbolic chunk of granite received more than its share of coverage, especially in contrast to the substance of the tax-reform plan, which would have affected paychecks, schools, businesses and grocery bags.

The ultimate question, she concluded, is whether citizens honor the content of the Ten Commandments and the civic principles that flow out of them. That's a big story, too.

"The plan failed," she said. "Does that mean the moral message failed? I hope not. I hope and pray that the movement down here is just getting started. Sometimes grassroots movements take time.