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Tuesday, December 25, 2007

NY Times Profiles Susan Pace Hamill's Work on the Impact of the Bible on Tax Policy

Interesting article in today's New York Times:  Professor Cites Bible in Faulting Tax Policies, by David Cay Johnston:

At a time when some voters are asking how the religious views of candidates will shape their policies, a professor’s discovery of how little tax the biggest landowners in her state paid to finance the government has prompted some other legal scholars to scour religious texts to explore the moral basis of tax and spending policies.

The professor, Susan Pace Hamill, is an expert at tax avoidance for small businesses and teaches at the University of Alabama Law School. She also holds a degree in divinity from a conservative evangelical seminary, where her master’s thesis explored how Alabama’s tax-and-spend policies comport with the Bible.

Professor Hamill says that since Judeo-Christian ethics “is the moral compass chosen by most Americans” it is vital that these policies be compared with the texts on which they are based. Another professor says she is the first to address this head on, inspiring work by others.

Her findings, embraced by some believers and denounced by others, has also stirred research everywhere from Arizona State to New York University into the connection between religious teachings and government fiscal practices.

Her latest effort is a book, As Certain as Death (Carolina Academic Press, 2007), that seeks to document how the 50 states, in contravention of her view of biblical injunctions, do more to burden the poor and relieve the rich than vice versa.

In lectures and papers, Professor Hamill has expanded on her theme, drawing objections from some critics who say that the religious obligation to care for the poor is a matter of personal morality, not public policy.

Professor Hamill asserted that 18 states seriously violate biblical principles in the way they tax and spend. She calls Alabama, Florida, Louisiana, Nevada, South Dakota, Texas “the sinful six” because they require the poor to pay a much larger share of their income than the rich while doing little to help the poor improve their lot. The worst violator, in her view, is her own state of Alabama, which taxes its poor more than twice as heavily as its rich, while holding a tight rein on education spending. ...

Professor Hamill, by her reading of the New Testament, concludes that at least a mildly progressive tax system is required so that the rich make some sacrifice for the poor. She cites the statement by Jesus that “unto whomsoever much is given, of him shall be much required, and to whom men have committed much, of him they will ask the more.”

Some of her critics, however, say that the tithes described in the Old Testament show that a flat tax, in which everyone pays the same share of their income to government, should be seen as the biblical standard. ...

Some of Professor Hamill’s critics, in letters and e-mail to her and others, argue that she just wants to soak the rich, wrapping what they called her socialistic views in biblical cloth.

Until Professor Hamill focused on fiscal policies in light of Judeo-Christian moral principles, most scholarly work on religion and taxes was largely devoted to the issue of tax evasion. That was prompted, in part, by a 1992 updating of the Catholic catechism that listed tax evasion as a sin and by enforcement actions aimed at pacifists who refused to pay war taxes.

Professor Hamill said her research found that just one state, Minnesota, came within reach of the principles she identified, because its tax system is only slightly regressive and it spends heavily on helping the poor, especially through public education.

(Hat Tip:  Daniel Sokol.)

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