U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Faith In Taxes

I am happy to be a part of this blog and therefore need to apologize for the lack of posts over the last few months. With my family, I have been living abroad for the past 10 months in Copenhagen as part of a Fulbright. I taught and wrote at the Center for the Study of the Americas at the Copenhagen Business School and lived in the very delightful commune or district of Frederiksberg. And like many other Americans who get a taste of Scandinavian life, I was impressed by the quality of life most people in Denmark enjoy. The universal health care, public transportation, excellent pre-school care, and incredibly well-maintained bicycle lanes were simply made available to us for free. Of course, those services come with a price for the Danes in a tax rate that hovers between 50-60%. Well-nigh outrageous by American standards, or so friends and family exclaimed. And yet, I think I could learn to like taxes.
I had the rather strange experience of participating in a film made by a well-known Danish director for the national tax agency. It seemed that the agency was going through a period of re-organization and the morale of employees was a bit low as many had to shift positions and take on new tasks. The Danish government thought a film about the great good the tax agency does might boost spirits by showing the rather significant role taxes play in giving meaning to being Danish.
We might chuckle at this, ah-ha that was what Soren Kierkegaard had in mind! Man’s search for meaning is found in his tax bill.
Well, in a way, the Danes do seem to embrace a somewhat existential approach to taxes: paying them is a leap of faith but this faith is not blind; like Americans, Danes complain about their taxes as well. But they do so in a way Kierkegaard might have appreciated. Their faith in the taxes does not translate into an absolute faith in the government–they don’t leave the world up to their elected (and non-elected) officials. Danes constantly critique the results of the tax system but don’t doubt that it needs to exist more or less at the present level of taxation. In this way, they profess a faith in taxes that provides the kind of civil religious unity that Americans get from their faith in abstraction notions of freedom and liberty. Maybe they are Hamiltonian in this way–creating a nation through the burden of taxation.
I went to Copenhagen to work on a book about civil religion and war in post-1945 America. I gave quite a few talks about the general role religion plays in American life and politics, especially in regard to framing and understanding the nation’s role international affairs. What I came back with, though, was a new appreciation for faith in things that seem decidedly mundane. While my colleagues, students, and audiences rarely professed faith in an organized religion or an otherworldly God or even in great national myths (Danes joke that they are a country made by great military defeats), they often spoke profoundly about the stuff that binds generations of Danish folk together.
Danes have faith in taxes because their taxes support the welfare state–an entity that has a dual nature similar to the role served by the U.S. Constitution and the creed it embodies. While the Danish welfare system has not existed as long or with the kind of abstract power of the American Constitution, it has provided a surprisingly vibrant way for Danes to understand, debate and assess the dimensions of the common good. Quite unfortunately, the welfare state has also become something to guard, especially against what the Danish Right call the ‘new immigrants.’
Nevertheless, as I get deeper into the field of public theology and civil religion, I am intrigued by what might be gained by comparing two types of existential faiths that on the suface appear to be very different. To that end, I recommend a group of Danish scholars who have begun a transatlantic project on beliefs and offer some preliminary notes and questions about this matter: Peter Andersen, Peter Gundelach, and Peter Luchau, “Religion in Europe and the United States: Assumptions, survey evidence, and some suggestions,” Nordic Journal of Religion and Society (2008) 21 (1): 61-74.
As Americans enter into what will surely be a hot debate over universal health care, it might be of some benefit to consider how Danes (and others) have developed a faith in something as mundane as a tax system without losing their soul to the state it created.

5 Thoughts on this Post

  1. I’d love to hear more about your experience! Did the economic downturn make anyone nervous about the future of the welfare state?

  2. I, too, would love to hear more about your experience. I was on a Fulbright in Leipzig, Germany, during 2007-2008. It was an absolutely wonderful experience!

    Anyway, your post made me think of this recent observation by the political scientist Stephen Walt:

    One of the great triumphs of Reagan-era conservatism was to convince Americans that paying taxes so that the government could spend the money at home was foolish and wrong, but paying taxes so that the government could spend the money defending other people around the world was patriotic. Ever since Reagan, in short, neoconservatives supported paying taxes to promote a U.S.-dominated world order, while denouncing anyone who wanted to spend the money on roads, bridges, schools, parks, and health care for Americans as a “tax and spend liberal.” But if I’m right about the emerging fiscal environment, that situation may be about to change. (h/t Robert Farley at LGM)

    Since you’ve obviously been considering these issues at some length, I’d love to hear your take on this!

  3. Lauren and Ben, thanks for both your comments and interest. This past year was quite a amazing experience, if only because it gave us a chance to live among folks that see taxes as moral in the same way that many folks here in Indiana see them as immoral. Just before we left for Copenhagen we witnessed public outrage in Indy over a rise in property taxes. But the schools continue to decline and the streets fall apart and, of course, there are NO bike lanes. We get to Copenhagen and things look and run pretty darn good.

    The financial crisis has had some effect on Danes, but mostly as warnings to be cautious in their own investments and in how the government regulates the financial sector. Unemployment is still so low it is almost statistically insignificant and the banks have been pretty steady, though a few got hit (but did not collapse) by crises in Germany and the UK. Overall, the welfare state is not yet near the kind of crisis that has gripped France, Germany, or the UK.

    A situation I am really interesting in is the inability of most Danes to deal with people who express, publicly as well as personally, genuine religious faith. So the ‘problem’ that new immigrant pose is about faith, the faith that these different groups bring with them and the challenges they pose to the Danish faith in how the welfare system operates.

  4. Raymond,
    I’m curious about your use of civil religion as an organizing and analytic concept. I know that it has been much-celebrated and much-discussed, but it has never done much for me. I can’t quite figure out what it means since everything seems to fall under its purview, and I’ve never been sure why it is useful. At bottom, it seems to connote some shared national or regional consensus, but beyond that, I’m mystified. What about the concept do you find of interest and how do you distinguish civil religion from plain-old religion, or nationalism, or just culture?

  5. Yes, David, you are correct to be mystified. I have friends who have placed money on the fact that I will not capture a specimen that can be definitively identified as ‘civil religion.’ However, I am interested in it mostly as a metaphor. I use the components of civil religion–transcendent faith in a national creed that potentially judges as well as affirms the origins of the nation–as a way to talk about what people think happens when you mix politics, religion, and foreign affairs.

    In the work I am doing on war, I use civil religion to suggest that Bellah was on to something, just not something normative. There was a notion that came undone during Vietnam and its aftermath and there was a project to rebuild that notion with Reagan and religious figures such as Richard John Neuhaus. But I will not claim to define civil religion as anything more than a way to describe a process that seems at work at particular moments and in specific ways in American life.

    That is why I am interested in how the Danes see themselves and their nation through the welfare system. There is a faith invested here, and I know that people have suggested reasons for it, but no one has done a good comparison of what seem to be two systems–one secular and other religious–that function is similar ways.

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