Tax Revolt as a Family Value
How the Christian Right Is Becoming A Free Market Champion
By Richard J. Meagher
"Death Should Not Be a Taxable Event." In August of 2005, this headline appeared on the website of the conservative evangelical Christian organization Focus on the Family. The accompanying article asked Focus members to persuade their Senators to repeal a federal tax on inherited estates.1
Focus on the Family is not the only Christian Right organization to add this tax to its hit list. The Christian Coalition, the Family Research Council (FRC), and other conservative Christian groups condemn the estate tax in radio broadcasts and in newsletter updates; they include it on voter scorecards; and they ask members to encourage their federal representatives, as FRC head Tony Perkins puts it, to "give this onerous tax a proper burial."2
But the estate tax only affects the wealthiest of Americans, and seems to have nothing to do with the social issues, such as abortion or sex education, that normally concern the Christian Right. What would make them lobby for a lower tax rate on the wealthy, especially since almost all estates are exempt from the tax anyway?
The answer is simple. Over the course of the 1990s, the economic conservatives successfully recast the estate tax as a "family" issue, using language that appealed more directly to conservative evangelicals. And the Christian Right, primed by years of describing themselves as a "pro-family movement," and spurred on by a group of intellectuals who put forth a Christian economics of the family, jumped at the bait, becoming staunch supporters of repeal. Once Bush signed a temporary estate tax repeal in 2001, the Christian Right groups joined the fight in earnest to make the repeal of the so-called "death tax" permanent.
The result: closer ties between economic conservatives in the Republican Party and the religious conservatives who make up the Party's voting base. In fact, some conservative activists feel that economic issues like the estate tax may be the key to maintaining a conservative electoral majority in the years to come.
The Economic Conservatives Get Creative
The government levies an estate tax on the value of a person's assets at death, before they are passed on to heirs. A federal tax of this kind has been in force since the early 20th Century. While the tax was originally supposed to target the richest Americans, by the 1990s, thanks to inflation, even families with estates of $600,000 had to consider the tax in their financial planning. Still, few were actually affected. For example, Americans filed only 81,000 estate tax returns in 1995, and only 85% of these estate returns involved a payment.3 Indeed, according to Internal Revenue Service data, the number of taxable estates in each year of the 1990s represented less than 2% of all adult deaths.4
With the estate tax affecting such a small number of Americans, even conservatives did not see outright repeal a viable political option in the 1990s. The Republican Party's 1994 Contract with America only proposed increasing the size of estates eligible to be taxed. When, in 1997, the Republicans backed raising the exemption level to $1 million in assets by 2006, estate tax foes were not happy. Right-wing critics felt it only complicated the tax code for inheritances. The Heritage Foundation argued that the Taxpayer Relief Act of 1997 which proposed the reform "belongs to a class of legislation that warms only the hearts of lobbyists and specialists who must deal with the growing tax labyrinth."5
The criticism of the 1997 reform attempt opened the door for repeal efforts. A number of anti-estate tax groups, led mostly by conservative outsiders and funded by some of the country's wealthiest families, joined with sympathetic members of Congress in an attempt to repeal the tax.6 The biggest players were Patricia Soldano, an estate planner from Orange County, California, who, in the early 1990s, created the Center for the Study of Taxation and the Policy and Taxation Group to lobby against the estate tax; Alabama estate planner Harold Apolinsky, who formed the American Family Business Institute (AFBI) in 1992 for similar lobbying purposes; and Jim Martin, head of the conservative seniors group, the 60Plus Association. It was Martin who made the "death tax" label stick, while Soldano's and Apolinksy's groups met with Washington insiders and directed wealthy constituents to lobby their representatives directly.
Over the course of the 1990s, these conservative anti-tax groups tried to neutralize support for the "death tax" by carefully crafting anecdotes about middle class Americans suffering under its burdens, according to scholars Michael Graetz and Ian Shapiro, authors of a 2005 book on the repeal battle.7 "Stories trumped science," these authors argue, because the statistics used by supporters never matched the power and salience of their opponents' tales of estate tax woe.
The economic conservatives finally tasted success with the election of George W. Bush, who included repeal in his tax proposal. The resulting Economic Growth and Tax Relief Reconciliation Act of 2001 not only gradually increases the exemption level, to $3.5 million in 2009, but reduces and eventually eliminates the tax entirely by the year 2010. However, due to a sunset clause included to avoid Senate rules against expanding the federal deficit, estate tax rates will return in 2011 to their 2000 levels. So while repeal advocates achieved a major victory with the 2001 law, the issue remains very much alive politically.
Washington Insiders and the Appeal to the Christian Right Base
Washington insiders can take as much credit for the 2001 victory as the insurgents from the hinterlands of Orange County and Alabama. A big player in the repeal movement was Grover Norquist, head of the conservative anti-tax lobbying group, Americans for Tax Reform. Norquist holds infamous "Wednesday meetings" where Congressional and Administration officials meet representatives of conservative advocacy groups and think tanks to coordinate policy efforts. Equally significant was the influential conservative think tank, the Heritage Foundation, which jump-started research against the estate tax in the mid-90s with about $200,000 in grants from Apolinksy's AFBI.8
Other secular conservative groups eventually joining in the repeal effort include the libertarian Cato Institute, the 527 association Club for Growth, and the free market advocacy groups Americans for Prosperity and Citizens for a Sound Economy (now named Freedom Works). By early 2001, even Eagle Forum founder and anti-government crusader Phyllis Schlafly was warning readers in her newsletter to "Look Out for Death Tax Deception."9
While these groups' focus on economic issues or decreased government management of the economy made them obvious candidates to join the repeal struggle, they had a limited reach among voters. For repeal to become permanent, the economic conservatives would need the support of the religious conservatives' base.
It should not be surprising that anti-tax advocates sought out the Christian Right's support on an economic issue. Conservatives have built their power in the United States by developing issues in ways that both economic and religious conservatives find compelling. For over a decade, Norquist has labored to build a "Leave Us Alone Coalition" of disgruntled taxpayers, business owners, gun owners, and Western ranchers. In a 1996 speech10 outlining this coalition, Norquist argues that all of these Americans share one goal: "they all want to be left alone by the government." For Norquist, a friend and ally of Ralph Reed when he headed the Christian Coalition, the Christian Right is also part of the mix; Christian conservatives "fight against government interference and spending (financed by their own tax dollars) that insults and attacks their values and their faith." Norquist sees taxes and, to a lesser extent, government regulation as the key issues that can unite conservatives.
Norquist is in hot water for laundering money to Christian Right groups from the scofflaw lobbyist Jack Abramoff.11 But he is likely on to something in his focus on tax policy as a means of recruiting the Christian Right. He tapped into a tiny group of hyperconservative Protestant thinkers whose arguments that economic policies deserve as much attention as social ones have an outsized influence on American evangelicals. Originally led by the late R.J. Rushdoony, Christian Reconstructionists believe that Biblical law can and should be brought into the modern context, and that it provides a basis not just for ethical and private life, but for public life and policy as well. In this view, all governmental policies-laws, court decisions, regulations, etc.-should be directly based upon Biblical law.12 In their effort to broadly apply Biblical principles to civil government, Reconstructionist writers like Gary North also emphasize the importance of private property and free-market capitalism for ensuring the freedom and responsibility of the individual before God. At the same time, they reject government price controls, welfare and other entitlement programs, and any kind of wealth redistribution. According to Reconstructionists, taxation should only be as high as necessary for the maintenance of a libertarian state that allows individuals to act freely, although in accordance with God's moral law.
Whether acknowledged or not, many Christian Right organizations increasingly echo the Reconstructionists in that economic policy matters to them often as much as issues of sexuality. They are probably especially receptive to their influence given the old-time evangelical conviction, rooted in the 19th century, that "laws of God reign over society, their real character beyond appearance...confounding state rational control."13 Some go so far as to revive the idea that the poor could benefit from the "bracing moral discipline" of the market.
With this moralistic bent, Christian Right groups typically focus on those tax issues with a clear moral dimension. In the 1980s, Christian groups often protested the use of tax funds for welfare programs, insisting that these programs created a culture of dependency among the poor. For example, an early mission statement for the Religious Roundtable, an influential evangelical organization of the 1980s, notes that "the Bible nowhere justifies the use of coercive government power to plunder some elements of society and dole out to others."14 But it takes no position on specific taxation. Later, the Christian Coalition made tax issues an important part of its agenda by focusing on family-related policies like the so-called "marriage penalty." And then, after 2001, the Christian Right picked up on the economic conservatives' arguments that the "death tax" was a threat to families.
Let's Talk Family
The economic conservatives began shifting their language in the mid-1990s. You hear it in the work of law professor Edward McCaffery, who called the estate tax a "virtue tax" as early as 1994.15 Since it appears to promote consumption rather than savings, McCaffery argues in a 1999 Cato Institute report, the estate tax discourages hard work. Why work harder if the government simply takes away your extra earnings when you die? As McCaffery notes, the whole of society is affected:
The biggest problem with the death tax is a moral one. The death tax rewards a "die-broke" ethic, whereby the wealthy spend down their wealth on lavish consumption, and discourages economically and socially beneficial intergenerational saving.16So the estate tax is more an issue of morality than economics.
Even more than Cato, the Heritage Foundation can be thanked for much of this shift in opposing the estate tax on moral instead of economic grounds. The change can be seen in the work of Heritage analyst Bill Beach. His first report on the estate tax in 1996 presents almost entirely economic-based reasons for repeal, arguing that taxation interferes with economic liberty and growth.17 Yet his second report on the estate tax, published two years later, has a very different tone. While he offers the same economic arguments, Beach focuses more directly on the effects of the tax upon small business owners and farmers with exemplary values, noting the "great threat" to their enterprises.
The burden of the estate tax, Beach argues here, falls upon "hardworking men and women whose thrift and entrepreneurial spirit expose them to confiscatory tax rates."18 Indeed, repeal champions repeatedly tell anecdotes about small enterprises forced into early sale, bankruptcy and foreclosure, although their claims are often exaggerated.19 The strategic use of this language is not difficult to see; the image of the yeoman farmer and small business entrepreneur are central to American myth-making and tug at the heartstrings of many Americans, not just conservatives. Yet Beach also stresses, however subtly, the strong moral values of thrift and hard work that supposedly motivate these entrepreneurs. This moral vision deepens in the next phase of argument which indelibly links small enterprises with the term "family" - as in "family farms and businesses." The powerful imagery of business and farm is thus united with the equally powerful symbolism of values, morality, and especially the family, that is so important to the Christian Right.
This "family values" imagery spread like wildfire across conservative networks. Presidential candidate John Kerry was "anti-family" for opposing the tax's repeal, charged a 2004 press release from the secular American Conservative Union. The next year a similar ACU release charged that the "widely despised and onerous" estate tax "destroys small family businesses, farms and ranches." Its burden falls on those "who have worked hard all their lives" to pass on their family business.
Other organizations with fewer resources than the ACU simply reprinted another group's press release or interviewed the other group's staff, echoing their language. Thus the small conservative advocacy group, America's Future, simply posted on its website the claims of United Seniors Association's Mary Mahoney who says,"the middle-class farmer or small business owner" shoulders the burden of estate taxes. Republican officials began to use this language as well. Senator George Allen (R-Va.) argued in 2005 that the estate tax hurts "modest Americans who worked hard throughout their lives to save for their families."y More recently, in a blog entry on Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist'sVOL-PAC website, Frist noted that the tax attacks virtue because it "punishes hard work and savings." He then underlined the danger to families by recounting a (possibly apocryphal) tale of a Tennessee clan that had to sell land to pay their estate tax.21
So marrying "small business" with "pro-family" arguments keeps economic conservatives in the fold even while stirring the support of the Christian Right.
Whence Family Values?
The "pro-family" language of the Christian Right only began emerging in the 1970s. That's when evangelical church leaders such as Tim LaHaye, Pat Robertson, and Jerry Falwell became part of a self-identified "pro-family network."22 Still, it was-n't until the 1990s, when Ralph Reed began steering the Christian Coalition towards mainstream political power, that Christian Right leaders began to more explicitly describe themselves as a "pro-family movement." Indeed, today's most influential Christian political groups such as the Family Research Council and Concerned Women for America, occasionally, and subtly, downplay their Christian affiliation in hopes of making broad appeals to "family values." Even the names of the dominant Christian political organizations of the early 1990s and today, the Christian Coalition and the Family Research Council, respectively, reflect this shift. Today more than ever, appeals to "family" can be aimed towards religious conservatives, though couched in language that does not necessarily offend or discriminate.
By the time the newly installed, supposedly pro-family Bush Administration brought the estate tax to the attention of the Christian Right in 2001, it wholeheartedly climbed on board with the "pro-family" reform. Within months, major groups began using pro-family arguments to support estate tax repeal. In a June 2001 article, the Christian magazine World told its readers that social conservatives are happy with the "family-friendly" Bush tax program, referring to both reducing the so-called "marriage penalty" and repealing the death tax. In familiar language, it says that the tax "sometimes forced children to sell the family-owned farms and businesses their parents had spent a lifetime building." Similarly, a 2001 paper by the conservative Catholic group, the American Society for the Defense of Tradition, Family and Property, argued that repealing the estate tax would help grant "material stability to the family." A March 2001 press release from Concerned Women for America notes that Bush's 2002 budget included estate tax repeal among other "pro-family tax cuts." A few months later, a brief report by Focus on the Family celebrated the "good news for families" in the 2001 tax cuts, including the end of the "death tax."23
While the authors rarely linger to explain why estate tax repeal would be "pro-family," it is noteworthy that the Focus article quotes Heritage's Bill Beach in support. The merger of market and religious fundamentalist language was complete.
The most striking example of the Christian embrace of the estate tax as a family issue is a slick, 29-page pamphlet issued by the Family Research Council in the fall of 2001. The report, written by FRC's then-Director of Family Tax Policy Leslie Car-bone, is entitled "Death and Taxes: How Divorcing the Two Benefits the Family."24 Carbone goes all out in her use of the work of economic conservatives, drawing on Bill Beach, the Institute for Policy Innovation, Congress' Joint Economic Committee, the libertarian National Center for Policy Analysis, and even Fortune magazine. Still, she largely adopts their family values rather than economic arguments.
Carbone draws on every argument starting with McCaffery's "virtue tax:" "anything that undermines virtue weakens the family; the estate tax is no exception." The tax discourages hard work, discipline, courage and dependability, and even worse, she argues, by disrupting inheritance, the tax upsets the kinship bonds so essential to families:
By interfering directly with the natural or family order, the death tax works against the family to a greater extent than other forms of taxation. By artificially separating the family along generational lines, it disrupts the extended family... The death tax considerably weakens the role and status of families in American life.By undermining the family, the estate tax attacks the very structure of society itself, Carbone writes. By arguing that taxation interferes with the "natural" order of the family, Carbone sounds the themes put forth by a group of Christian intellectuals based at the Rockford, Illinois, think-tank, the Howard Center for Family, Religion and Society.
Two years after Cardone's report, the FRC's short-lived "academic" journal, Family Policy Review, recruited an article from the Center's president Allan Carlson that intriguingly supports tax giveaways on the basis of family values.25 To Carlson, offering direct government support to poor families with children, "tend[s] to draw governments deeply into the family economy and to substitute state largesse, and intrusion, for parental earnings." Credits and exemptions, on the other hand, "allow the family to keep more of what it earns... Children properly see their parents, rather than the state, as their providers." Thus the government strengthens the natural order of families and marriage in the least intrusive way possible.
The influential FRC draws upon this notion that the natural order of the family is the primary starting point for government policy in both its beltway lobbying and in its education of its conservative Christian base about estate taxes. In taking such a seemingly large portion of a person's estate, the tax implies that the government is more important than the individual. Estates would then exist more for the purposes of government than for the people who own them. For Carbone, the government's only appropriate role is to safeguard the natural order of the family. She argues that,
In order to buffet rather than undermine the natural order, civil government should take pains to "do no harm" to the natural state of society or the natural family order. This principle applies especially to taxation... If through taxation it disrupts the natural economy by creating all sorts of perverse incentives and penalties that favor certain people or punish others, the government becomes part of the problem-a contributor to social and family breakdown- rather than part of the solution-an instrument of justice.
Other groups may not be as directly influenced by this line of argument as the FRC, but the estate tax issue eventually becomes absorbed as an essentially unquestioned part of the larger Christian Right agenda. Certainly, the Family Research Council remains a leader. It lists permanent estate tax repeal as one of three policy priorities in the area of "Economics and Taxes"; promotes tax repeal as a "pro-family issue" on its voter scorecards; and reports on the issue in its updates to members.26 The greatly weakened Christian Coalition has followed suit, promoting the estate tax repeal in its list of priorities and on its 2004 Presidential voter scorecard. Far from being a pro forma nod to the agenda of its economically conservative allies, the Christian's Right's intellectuals, at least, seem to be sincerely promoting the convergence of their two movements on this economic issue.
One Big Happy (Conservative) Family
Despite this broad right-wing coalition, it is not clear whether they will succeed in permanently repealing the estate tax. So far Senate Democrats have managed to stall their efforts in the halls of Congress. Still, even if they fail, conservatives have won an even larger victory by building greater ties and coordination among the Christian Right and market conservatives, as well as the GOP. Notwithstanding the tensions that emerged in the fall 2006 elections, these powerful conservative sectors are forging common ground. The catchy title of Focus on the Family's 2005 web article-"Death Should Not Be a Taxable Event"- is often used as a rallying cry by Republican politicians, including Senators John Thune, Bill Frist, and George Allen.27 And recently the Family Research Council featured AFBI's Dick Patten on its weekly radio program to discuss repeal legislation. Neither Rep. Mike Pence - the show's guest host - nor Patten explicitly talked about religion; instead, they used the language of family and morality to speak to religious listeners about an economic issue. It's "morally wrong" to take the "after-tax resources of American families" when a family member dies, said Pence.
The movement's grassroots may not all embrace the idea of tax cuts as a family issue, or entirely see government regulation of the economy as interrupting the natural order within which individuals commune with God. But their education continues, as Christian Right organizations are now connected in a kind of feedback loop with other conservative groups and GOP officials.
And issues like the estate tax will continue to help bind these groups together. As Stephen Moore, former head of the Club for Growth notes, "Low taxes are the central linchpin of conservatism... It's possible to disagree about abortion, gay rights or the proper level of military spending, but we can't disagree about our one unifying message as conservatives."28 By re-casting tax and economic issues as family matters, conservatives are making this agreement easier to find.
Richard J. Meagher, a doctoral student at the Graduate Center, City University of New York, is researching the alliance between economic and religious conservatives.
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