Tuesday, September 02, 2003

Dorothy Day has gone away...

For those of you who don't know, Dorothy Day was a modern-day saint; a devout Christian who came from a life of hedonism in the 1920s to an embrace of the ritual, orthodoxy, and--perhaps most importantly--the social justice and pacifist strains of the Roman Catholic faith. She inspired millions through her example and her magazine, The Catholic Worker. (Read a nice essay reflecting on her life and faith here.) And unfortunately, outside the rare, brave, very occasional Christian, her committed devotion to both social morality and economic justice is not often seen in America today, where the most common political/ideological division is between those who favor a libertarianism of morals, and those who applaud a libertarianism of markets: the possibility of common concern informing both sides of civil society is, at best, a marginal view.

But from the margins emerges Alabama's brave governor, Bob Riley. A former hard-line anti-tax Republican, who won praises from anti-government conservatives during his tenure in the House of Representatives, Riley has seen the Alabama economy for what it is and come to two conclusions: it is insolvent, and it is unjust. Striving to rectify those problems, he has proposed a wide-ranging reform which would shift the state's tax burden away from individuals (including the desperately poor: Alamaba's state income tax currently kicks in when earns a meager $4600 a year), and increase property taxes as necessary to rectify education injustices. No single reform plan is a cure-all obviously, but Riley has done an amazing job in crafting this proposal (among other things, he managed to get Alabama's teachers union to agree to some necessary reforms in tenure in exchange for the increased funds). And he has done all this in the name of the gospel: "Jesus says one of our missions is to take care of the least among us," he states simply, as an explanation for his actions. It deserves wide support, and in a better world would receive it.

Unfortunately, this is not such a world. Rather, instead what we see is conservative Christians, used to supporting Republicans, thrown into confusion and distrust by one of their own actually making the argument that Christianity requires aggressive action to address the plight of the poor; and on the other hand, the remnants of America's last true social justice movement--that is, Martin Luther King's civil rights coalition--ignoring this vital Christian effort on behalf of the poor because, one fears, it is being expressed by a conservative Republican rather than a member of the Democratic civil rights establishment. Between the uphill battle Riley must fight to keep his natural allies on his side, and the lack of support from those who would likely agree with his message were it not for his party affiliation, the odds of Riley's proposal passing the upcoming referendum don't look good. Too bad we don't have a Dorothy Day around, to remind the people of Alabama--and everyone else--that the Christian message isn't divided: on the contrary, the one side will never fully work without the other.