Speech delivered at the Council of Georgist Organizations, Baltimore, August 2018
I am a person who came to Henry George because of and through my Christian heritage. And I thought it might me helpful to some here to recount the path I took, because it just might be that some of you find yourselves on a similar pilgrimage.
I majored in Mathematics and minored in Physics and Economics in college but entering my senior year I decided to pursue theology. So I attended the Candler School of Theology at Emory University in Atlanta and was ordained in the United Methodist Church. I served a pastorate but also continued with my studies and after a few years was awarded a PhD in religious studies from Emory University.
Now, as most of you well know, Christianity is like a large river with many currents and sometimes shifting banks. There are approximately 2.3 billion Christians in the world, associated with more than 30,000 denominations. Adherents hold to a vast array of beliefs and practices. And a number of these are deep water. (Others are off in the shallows. And keeping to the analogy, we must admit also that occasionally, what purports to be Christianity has overflowed the river’s banks and is really off in the marshes.)
One deep current in Christianity is the affirmation of certain core beliefs. Thus, many churches will specify a “confession of faith,” or adherents will recite a creedal statement. And because we are gathered here to discuss Henry George, let me say a little more about how most of the historical creeds begin with a short affirmation of God as Father and creator of heavens and earth. Now, the creedal statements are actually short-hand reminders of our foundational beliefs. “I believe in God, the Father almighty, creator of heaven and earth.” In the fuller version, the creed reminds Christians that everything that God created was good; that there exists a brotherhood and sisterhood among all humans that traces back to God’s creation. The affirmation that God created reminds believers that God made us stewards of creation, responsible for the world’s creatures, gardens, all forms of life, the earth itself. God entrusted creation into our care for our generation and future generations. Christians are reminded that God created us in His image and likeness, providing us with rational minds able to comprehend creation and be creative in our own right, able to love in some measure as God loves, able to discern justice and practice mercy.
Now, as I entered my theological training two of the deep-water currents in Christianity had a special grip on me—and still do, I must admit. One was the concept of Christianity as a philosophy of living, a commitment to certain values and the adoption of a way of living that leads to a peace beyond peace, deep-seated happiness or sense of place, what I think St Augustine must have been referring to in the Confessions when he wrote that “our heart is restless until it finds rest in Thee.” And later on, reading certain passages in Henry George’s writings, I sensed that he was a fellow pilgrim in that respect.
Let me paraphrase a passage from St Paul’s letter to the people at Colossae: “Put to death . . . impurity, loss of temper, evil desire, and greed. . . . [G]et rid of such things as anger, wrath, malice, slander, and abusive language from your mouth. . . . Clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience. Bear with one another and, if anyone has a complaint against another, forgive each other; just as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. Above all clothe yourselves with love which binds everything together in perfect harmony” (Colossians 3:5, 8, 12-14.)
Henry George and I share a Wesleyan heritage. Wesley held that Christians should always be moving toward a more perfect love. That sentiment is recaptured in this saying attributed to him:
“Do all the good you can,
By all the means you can,
In all the ways you can,
In all the places you can,
At all the times you can,
To all the people you can,
As long as ever you can.”
And I have to say, that while George was writing Progress and Poverty and his other books, while he was traveling and speaking regarding the Irish situation, while he was running for public office – up to his dying days – he was doing good. His work drove him, gave him a greater purpose, and filled his life.
The second deep-water current that was especially attractive to me (and maybe even more so to Henry George) was the Social Gospel, or more generally “social responsibility.” “What does the Lord require of you?” the prophet Micah asked. “To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God” (Micah 6:8). Sin doesn’t only pertain to individuals. The structures of society can be demonic: Slavery, racial hatred, misogyny, child and sexual abuse, war, violence, dehumanization, corporate greed, the destruction of the environment, profligate affluence in-the-midst-of desperate poverty—and the list goes on and on. The Christian myth, that deep story by which adherents live, claims that after creating the garden of Eden God placed us as caretakers of his creation. And as I said earlier, we’ve been entrusted with making certain that God’s world is a healthy place for all inhabitants, including future generations. This social aspect of the gospel calls for our direct involvement with the world. Social responsibility is a strong current in the Christian river.
“Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” On earth: that was a refrain from one of George’s speeches. The here and now is important. What you and I do is important. Here is the passage that George cited at the beginning of Social Problems. “There will come a judgment day,” Jesus said. “And on that day, the King will say to some ‘Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.’ And when the righteous ask the king, when did we do these things, he will answer, ‘Truly I tell you, when you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.’” (Mt 25: 31-40)
Now, about my friend Bob Andelson: As a young professor at Auburn University, I had the good fortune of becoming friends with a colleague in the Philosophy Department, a man ordained in the Congregationalist Church, a person with both a meticulous mind and a poetic bend. Bob had the custom near the end of each academic year of inviting students and others to a lecture that he would give explaining the thought of Henry George. Although I had studied some economics, I had never heard of Henry George. But out of respect for my friend, I went to Bob’s lecture. And it opened my eyes. It was like seeing the other image in a Gestalt picture. I had always taken the Western European views of property ownership for granted, and then suddenly . . . Bah! I saw something completely different, fresh. Of course, my understanding at that point was rudimentary. But once seen, I couldn’t look at the old concept of land ownership without seeing something entirely new that had actually been there all the time.
Laborers depended on land and all of nature’s storehouse. Through their labor, farmers, metallurgist, machinists, drillers, chemists, and those who created and fabricated things multiplied the usefulness and/or beauty of what already existed. And the benefits from their production filtered down through all society, making it possible through the surplus created for professors like me to make a living offering a service. Access to natural resources was necessary. Private ownership of land and natural resources limited access to what was necessary for all. Thus, our system of heavily taxing products, income from labor, and improvements to property and lightly taxing the ownership of land and natural resources was upside down.
In his lecture, Bob never mentioned anything directly about religion or the Divine, but the theological scaffolding of Henry George’s thought was plain to see. And Bob himself helped me greatly with that by soon placing copies of George’s lectures on “Moses,” “Thou Shall Not Steal,” and “Thy Kingdom Come on Earth” in my hands, the same lectures included in our recent volume III of George’s annotated works.
And then after reading Progress and Poverty and (if memory doesn’t fail me) when attending a Georgist conference at Oglethorpe University in Atlanta where I delivered a first formal paper on George’s connections with Liberation Theology before this very group, I heard Bob speak on Psalm 24:1, “The Earth is the Lord’s.” It was a marvelous lecture, or sermon, that is printed in the 2001 Supplement of The American Journal of Economics and Sociology.
Bob’s lecture began with the reminder that
Land value taxation is not just a fiscal measure (although it is a fiscal measure, and a sound one); not just a method of urban redevelopment (although it is a method of urban redevelopment, and an effective one); not just a means of stimulating business (although it is a means of stimulating business, and a wholesome one); not just an answer to unemployment (although it is an answer to unemployment, and a powerful one); not just a way to better housing (although it is a way to better housing, and a proven one); not just an approach to rational land use (although it is a approach to rational land us, and non-bureaucratic one). It is all of those things, but it is also something infinitely more: it is the affirmation, prosaic though it be, of a fundamental spiritual principle—that “the earth is the Lord’s, and the fulness thereof.”
And then, using that beginning of Psalm 24 as a refrain, Bob pointed out in clear language (as our friend was apt to do) some of the theological undergirding of George’s thought: How the belief that the Earth is the Lord’s was an affirmation 1) that God is not removed from the earth, but concerned with “the tangible, with the mundane, with what goes on in the factory, in the courthouse, in the exchange.” In that sense, God is eminently materialistic. 2) That the Earth is the Lord’s mean’s that the material universe has been provided as storehouse of natural opportunity for all people and is not to be monopolized or despoiled or treated as speculative merchandise, but is rather to be used reverently, and conserved dutifully, and , above all, maintained as a source from which every person, by the application of his or her labor, might be sustained in decent comfort. 3) It means that every person has the right to the produce of the earth. Ultimately, how can a person be “unhindered in the fulfilment of duty to God” if denied access to the raw materials without which there can be no wealth and denied the full ownership of the person’s own labor and earnings? 4) That the Earth is the Lord’s indicates that the same God who established the just authority of governments, also ordained a just source of revenue. The tax on land values is the most just and equal of all taxes. “It is the taking by the community, for the use of the community, of that which is the creation of the community.” (P&P)
Along with my friend Bob Andelson, I co-wrote a book From Wasteland to Promised Land, that perhaps some here have read. As time went on, I’ve enjoyed the pleasure of writing several articles exploring George’s religious convictions and the theological nuances in his writings. And most recently, I had the enjoyable task or working with Dr. Francis Peddle and Dr. Alex Lough on the 3rd volume of the Annotated Works of Henry George. My part concerned the preparation of George’s Social Problems that is included in that third volume. And in the introductory article to Social Problems and in some of the annotations, I very much enjoyed tracing George’s deep influence on the development of the Social Gospel, especially as he influenced the thought of Walter Rauschenbusch, early twentieth-century. I encourage those interested in the development of American Theology to read that introduction.
For myself, and speaking from a theological perspective now, Henry George has provided me with a much fuller understanding of creation, and especially the rational aspects of creation, than I had before. He has provided me with a deeper understanding of the insidious nature of structural sin and how much it is intertwined in our society with what to most appears as a benign view of land and resource ownership. I am much more conscious now than before being introduced to George of my responsibility to be an artisan of a new humanity, a co-creator along with God of a more just society.
And finally, and I’ll close with this comment, Henry George with his land (or natural resource) value taxation has provided me with insight into a practical way of making this world more just, of taking seriously what I often pray along with brother and sister Christians, “thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” In seminary I was introduced to the great social encyclicals, and what I am about to say is equally true of the social justice communications from my own denomination. As well thought-out as many of the tenets of these statements were, their application always boiled down to persuading sinful, often depraved people to do what was just. Persuading individuals, converting one at a time. . . . That is a tall order, isn’t it?
George, however, struck me (and I hope you) as so practical: land value taxation. In From Wasteland to Promised Land, Bob Andelson and I described the processes involved in levying taxes on land values:
The mechanics are simple, in theory and in practice. . . . Land assessments, in accord with the best accepted professional standards are determined by the market—what people are willingly paying for land. No owner or tenant is expropriated or evicted. No limit is placed on the quantity of land one may hold, as long as the annual tax is paid. As under most property tax systems, tenure is at risk only if tax delinquencies occur. Landowners are not compensated for the loss of their prior practice of taking the lion’s share of socially created values; but neither are they obliged to reimburse the public for previous gains at society’s expense.
Once laws are enacted to carry out this approach, no technical or administrative barriers block the full collection of land rent in states where the tax on land is now low of nonexistent. To avoid economic disruption and minimize opposition, a system of land-value taxation may be instituted gradually. (Andelson and Dawsey, Wasteland:89-90)
By appropriating for itself land values via taxation, society both takes back from the individual what rightly belongs to all of the community and puts in place a strong economic incentive for land users to keep the land profitable.