'Render Unto Caesar . . .': Religion/Ethics, Expertise, and the Historical Underpinnings of the Modern American Tax System

48 Pages Posted: 23 Feb 2009 Last revised: 1 Jul 2013


A variety of scholars and commentators have been recently exploring the connections between religion and current U.S. tax policy. The relationship between religion and American taxation, however, runs much deeper than our present period. Indeed, it is no coincidence that roughly a century ago the foundations of our current tax system were taking shape at the height of the religious and ethical fervor known as the Social Gospel movement. At that time, religious and ethical sentiments played a central, though ambivalent, role in fiscal reform. This Article investigates the influence of religious and ethical values on the tax reform struggles of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. By examining the writings and actions of leading Progressive Era political economists, ministers, and moral leaders, this essay contends that a group of ethically inclined academic professionals, operating as pivotal intermediaries between state and society, ambivalently undermined the religious support for a new fiscal order by secularizing and domesticating tax reform. Though many of the key political economists behind tax reform were imbued with moral and ethical sentiments, they ultimately privileged science over religion. Consequently, these professional social scientists reoriented religious and ethical approaches toward tax reform, and in the process they set the boundaries of acceptable social analysis. In their cautious application of religiously-motivated ideas about public finance, they ultimately did as much to temper-as to advance-fiscal reform. This article was part of a conference on "Tax Law in a Liberal Democracy: Exploring the Relation between Taxation and Good Governance" sponsored by the Loyola University Chicago Law Journal.

Keywords: Tax policy, U.S. history, history of economic, religious, and legal thought, ethics, expertise, Social Gospel, and Progressive Era economics

JEL Classification: B10, B13, B15, K34, N41

Suggested Citation

Mehrotra, Ajay K., 'Render Unto Caesar . . .': Religion/Ethics, Expertise, and the Historical Underpinnings of the Modern American Tax System. Loyola University Chicago Law Journal, Vol. 40, 2009, Indiana Legal Studies Research Paper No. 125, Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=1345398

Ajay K. Mehrotra (Contact Author)

American Bar Foundation ( email )

750 N. Lake Shore Drive
Chicago, IL 60611
United States

Northwestern Pritzker School of Law ( email )

375 E. Chicago Ave
Chicago, IL 60611
United States

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