The Bush administration tax policy falls short of justice standards taught by Judaism and Christianity by benefiting the wealthy, shifting the share of the tax burden to the middle and lower classes and forcing budget cuts in programs that provide a safety net for the poor.
That’s the analysis of University of Alabama law professor Susan Pace Hamill, in an upcoming article in the Winter 2006 issue of Virginia Tax Review. Three years ago Hamill, based on her study while earning a theology degree at Baptist-affiliated Samford University, led an unsuccessful campaign to reform Alabama’s regressive tax system as violating moral principles of Judeo-Christian ethics.
Hamill views regressive or “flat” tax models, which shift tax burdens off of the wealthy and on to the lower and middle class, as “conclusively immoral.”
She advocates instead a “moderately progressive tax model”–one that exempts persons at the lowest levels of income from taxation, places modest burdens on those in lower ranges and the middle class and puts the greatest burden on those at higher income levels. The highest tax rate bracket, she says, must be “reasonable,” probably no more than 50 percent.
Against that model, Hamill says, President Bush’s first-term tax cuts–which significantly lowered the tax share of the wealthiest Americans while increasing the tax burden of all other income groups except those at the bottom–“cannot be condemned outright as immoral” but “raise serious red flags” about potentially violating Judeo-Christian teachings about justice and wealth.
Even more troublesome than reducing the tax burden borne by the wealthiest Americans, she says, the president’s tax cuts prompted spending cuts in many areas that most often affect the poor.
Lower-income Americans, she says, “are bearing the brunt of the substantial tax savings enjoyed by the wealthiest Americans in the form of having much less access to minimum subsistence, decent healthcare and housing as well education and job training.”
While the separation of church and state makes it illegal for political leaders to impose their religion on others, Hamill says, Christians and Jews who hold office have not only a constitutional right but a moral obligation to draw on biblical standards of justice and teaching on wealth when framing the nation’s tax policy.
That is true “even when this requires them to take tax policy positions contrary to their own personal self-interest or the financial interest of those making the largest donations to their political campaigns.”
Despite statements that faith drives all of President Bush’s policy decisions, Hamill says he has never addressed how his first-term tax cuts measure up against Christian values.
Rather than basing tax policy in Christianity, she says, the long-term goals and moral values driving the Bush administration’s tax policy reflect an atheistic model termed “objectivist ethics.”
Articulated by Americans for Tax Reform president Grover Norquist, objectivist ethics views each person acting in his or her rational self-interest and believes government should not function beyond what is needed to protect individual life, liberty and private property.
Though supported by many leaders in the religious right, she says objectivist ethics “represents a form of atheism, because the human person is substituted for a supreme deity.”
“Within the framework of objectivist ethics individuals owe no moral obligations to endure greater sacrifices for anyone else’s benefit, because only each individual’s own self-interest has any moral relevance,” she says.
As the person holding the highest elected office in the United States, and as a Christian, Hamill says, “President Bush has greater moral obligations than any other political figure to resist public policy reflecting objectivist ethics.”
In pushing through his tax cuts despite the need for additional revenues following Hurricane Katrina, Bush “failed to morally evaluate the substantial favoring of the wealthy at the expense the poor and middle classes by the standards of Judeo-Christian ethics, and, instead implicitly gave in to the atheistic temptations of objectivist ethics.”
She also faults the president for allowing himself and his most important advisers in the White House to be unduly influenced by Norquist, “a person who without question has adopted objectivist ethics as his moral compass.”
“Finally and perhaps of the greatest concern,” she continues, “President Bush has surrounded himself with high-profile religious leaders whose discussion of tax policy also exudes the atheistic values of objectivist ethics.”
By failing to treat tax policy as one of the most serious crises facing America today and allowing the president to “give in to the temptation of objectivist ethics in his handling of tax policy,” she says, “these religious leaders are guilty of the worst violations of the moral obligations of their Christian faith.”
Given that nearly 80 percent of Americans claim to adhere to Christianity or Judaism in some form, Hamill says, the lack of faith-based reflection in tax debate “is a symptom that religion as a viable and authentic conviction with a principled moral compass is in deep trouble.”
The practice of Christianity in particular, she says, “has become a low-sacrifice operation.”
“What passes for faith-based ethics, beyond matters of personal piety, has become centered on a few highly emotional and theologically divisive issues that for most people involve little or no direct personal sacrifice.”
Without minimizing the importance of issues like posting the Ten Commandments in government bills or whether abortion, euthanasia and stem-cell research should or should not be legal, she says, “refusing to embrace the high level of sacrifice required by tax policy reflecting genuine Judeo-Christian values inappropriately uses these issues as a low-sacrifice decoy to avoid the high-sacrifice elements of genuine faith-based ethics.”
While assertions offered by President Bush and others claim tax cuts and flat-tax models will enhance economic growth, the theory known as “supply side” or “trickle-down” economics has not been proven to work, Hamill said.
Even if there were scientific proof that supply side economics worked, she said, that alone would not morally justify reducing the tax burden on the rich, because “under Judeo-Christian principles, reliable information cannot serve as a substitute for moral analysis.”
Bob Allen is managing editor of EthicsDaily.com.