I grew up in a Seventh-day Adventist home. For those unfamiliar with the denomination, it grew out of the same explosion of religious fervor that gave birth to Mormonism and I believe the Baptists, and was characterized by its conviction that all of its doctrines were firmly based on scripture. Ellen G. White, one of the church founders, was–and is–widely regarded as a prophet in Adventist circles.
With its conviction that it holds “God’s final message for these last days,” that as “the remnant” Adventists will experience extreme persecution, and its “olde-tyme religion” focus it is perhaps natural that Adventism is heavily populated by social conservatives, as well as religious conservatives.
When I was growing up Good Adventists used the works of Ellen White to develop their child-rearing practices, but which portions of Ellen White got the most weight varied from home to home. In our home, one of the biggest issues was Knees.
Ours weren’t supposed to show. This was because Ellen White had said that women’s dresses should come “half way between the knee and the ankle.”
“Count yourselves lucky,” our mother said when we objected. “Your dad wants you to actually wear them there, but I talked him into just having them cover your knees.”
And so, while the rest of the world in which we lived sported neat frocks that hit them just an inch or so above the knees, our dresses came below our knees. Because that was Modest. Because that was what Ellen White (aka “The Spirit of Prophecy”) said. In vain did we question why knees were obscene. In vain did we beg to look just a little more like our classmates. Our knees remained firmly covered.
It wasn’t until years later that I learned that when Ellen White was establishing the Adventist Dress Code in the 1800’s her strictures were considered bizarre, and women who wore them were subjected to the same sort of ostracism and humiliation that we girls experienced. But in her day the issue was not Modesty, but Health. Ellen White advocated for shorter dresses–and in fact for pantaloons–that allowed women to move more freely, and kept dresses from dragging the filth and manure from the streets inside and spreading disease.
As far as I have been able to gather, one of Ellen White’s central concerns as she wrote about fashion was women’s health. She maintained that clothing should be appropriate to the weather, simple and loose enough to promote easy movement, and short enough to avoid the unnecessary spread of germs. All that makes sense.
But when my parents were citing her strictures on fashion–following the same rules–their justification was not the promotion of health, but Modesty. And so it was that lived a key part of our life following an outmoded set of rules (that in fact inhibited free movement and health) for a reason that had nothing to do with the reason those rules were originally imposed. In our case, the rules about Modesty were so stringently enforced because the family was rife with child molesters, and in those days, in the circles in which we moved, the best way to address that sort of problem was to keep the kiddies from looking Alluring. Keep them Modest. You know. Unattractive. Like Good Christian Girls should look.
And so it was that a set of guidelines originally put in place to solve a real problem became a weapon in a struggle of a very different nature.
All of which puts me in mind of Grover Norquist, and pledges, and the GOP, and the issue of taxes.
Like the Seventh-day Adventist child-rearing tenets of my childhood, our tax structure was established to meet the needs of a world that no longer exists. And yet we have a whole segment of our population who continue to demand that those old systems designed to work for a smaller population with different demographics and different values and vastly different financial demands–the halfway between the knee and the ankle hemlines–are more than adequate to meet the needs of our nation. Indeed, they are seeking to move those hemlines down, down, down so they are once again dragging through the manure in the streets. Not only must no new taxes be imposed, but those in place must be cut, ever cut, and never, ever, reinstated.
Like the hemlines of my childhood, the outmoded tax structures are most firmly supported by those who don’t have to suffer from them. My father, who dressed exactly like all the other men at his job and in our church, was the lead advocate for hemlines in our house. He could talk about the need for Modesty, he could praise us for looking like Good Christian Girls and thereby earning the scorn of the children we would have liked to have for friends because that scorn never touched him. It’s easy to make rules that don’t touch us personally.
It is perhaps no accident that the people who promote the outmoded tax systems most vociferously are those for whom they work well–the very wealthy, and their bought and paid for legislators.
I’m a grown-up; I can dress how I like. My taxes are, I believe, mostly pretty fair for my income. So what’s the point of all this? There are two, actually.
The first point is that great harm can be done by blindly enforcing outmoded rules. The rules of my childhood contributed to the lonely, painful world in which I grew up. Had my local Adventist system–and my family–decided to espouse the underlying principles of health that led to Ellen White writing those words in the first place, my world would have been a far more comfortable, logical place. Instead of seeking the theological meaning of Knees, I might have been dressed in simple, age-appropriate clothing that promoted active involvement with my world and the people in it.
Likewise, if, instead of blindly enforcing a no-tax ban the likes of Grover Norquist, his pledgees, and his minions chose to take a look at the needs of a nation to function as a healthy whole and then sought to fill those needs responsibly and fairly, accounting for the increased needs of increased populations, they might do great good.
The second point is that the Adventist system as I knew it used what any reasonable person would understand to be an outmoded rule as a weapon in a hidden war. The true reason for enforcing hemlines in such a draconian fashion was to protect child molesters–to “not place temptation in their path,” to make sure that all of us girl children understood that if we found ourselves subjected to unwelcome advances it was our own fault, we had “tempted a man beyond what he could bear.” Instead of protecting children from predators, the system existed to protect the predators, both from children, and from themselves.
I see something similar at play in the debate in Congress today. Those pledges aren’t about teaching government to spend more reasonably. Nor are they about protecting “the middle classes” (the theoretical beneficiary of all this tax cutting). Like our hemlines, those pledges are about protecting a hidden population, those who truly benefit from the way that taxes are structured. When cuts happen, the invariable first cuts are to funds used to equalize the playing field, to provide a health and standard of living baseline–a safety net to keep those who struggle the hardest from slipping through the cracks.
Of course there will be those who work the system, just as there were girls among us who rolled their skirts. But using that fact as justification for stealing the safety net from those who have not misused the system is just plain wrong. And to do so when the wealthiest remain protected from any sort of meaningful contribution adds insult to injury.
So what’s the answer? Certainly it’s not in half-measures, any more than my mother’s solution that our dresses “only” cover our knees was a solution to the issue of pedophilia with which we were grappling. Cutting safety net programs and reducing already-unfair taxes on the very rich is no more effective a solution.
Maybe the answer for taxes is the same as the answer should have been for hemlines all those years ago. Maybe that answer begins with discarding a set of rules that no longer reflect the reality in which we life, and building a new code that meets our needs today. Maybe it continues with asking questions.
1. Who are we as a nation?
2. How much money do we have?
3. Where does it come from?
4. How can we provide for the emergencies that we will surely face, both as citizens, and as a nation?
5. What are our financial resources?
6. Where do they lie?
7. How can we work it so that everyone contributes, but that no one is asked to contribute disproportionately?
8. How can we spend what we have more effectively?
And perhaps most important:
9. Who are we really protecting by taking this action?
And maybe it ends with–well, maybe it never ends. Maybe the answer is less in creating a new set of rules than it is in finding a new way to think about what we are doing, as people, and as a nation. How do we solve problems? How do we meet the financial needs we share as a people? How do we take the principles that helped to shape us as a nation, and use those principles not as a set of rules to protect the powerful, or to demand that all others think and act like we do, but to carefully, rigorously, and responsibly shape ourselves into a nation that reflects not only who we were, but who we are now, and who we dream of becoming.