Profile in courage

It’s pretty easy to poke fun at conservative Southern born-again Christian politicians– as I suppose I just did— but when one comes along who takes his beliefs seriously enough to act on them at his political risk, it’s worth taking notice.

The Republican Governor of Alabama, Bob Riley, has stunned his old supporters by backing a statewide referendum to increase the state’s tax revenue by shifting much of the tax burden from the poorest residents to the rich, the big landowners and the coporations. The money would be used to improve schools and other services for which Alabama traditionally has ranked at or near the bottom among the 50 states.

The born-again Baptist governor is telling voters in this Bible Belt state that their tax system, which imposes an effective rate of 3 percent on the wealthiest Alabamians and 12 percent on the poorest, is “immoral” and needs repair. “When I read the New Testament, there are three things we’re asked to do: That’s love God, love each other and take care of the least among us,” Riley said in his office in the antebellum state Capitol.

And he is telling the state’s timber and agricultural interests, who for generations have thrived on Alabama’s low land taxes and cheap labor and who helped elect Riley last November, that they should pay more taxes so that public schools can produce a 21st-century workforce and a modern economy and the state can address other long-standing needs — such as 28,000 inmates now jammed into a prison system built for 12,000 and a state police force at 50 percent capacity, with only six troopers patrolling 67,500 miles of roadway after midnight.

“We have a philosophical difference of opinion,” Riley said of these one-time supporters. “I believe in a fair tax code. They don’t. I believe we have to make investments in education that keep us from being tied for dead last. They don’t. They have had special treatment at least for all of my adult life. And even after this modest increase, they’ll still be paying less than in any of our surrounding sister states.”

Alabama Republican Party Chairman Marty Connors made this revealing comment: “Alabama needs to raise some revenue; there’s no question about that. But this is not a tax increase any longer. This is a massive redistribution of wealth. We are the Republican Party — of Alabama! If a Democrat had proposed this, we would be burning down cities.”

I’m not a Christian or a believer, but I can’t help thinking Governor Riley grasps something in the Gospels that a lot of other professed Christians don’t.