Monday, June 23, 2008

Tax Reform as a Religious Issue

Susan Pace Hamill, a member of Tuscaloosa’s Trinity United Methodist church and a professor at the University of Alabama Law School (also a graduate of Samford’s Beeson Divinity School) has become the conscience of our state on matters of taxation. I’m proud of the work that Susan is doing in this area.

And she has done so with an approach deeply rooted in the notion that Jesus judges us on the basis of how we treat “the least of these among us.”

Professor Hamill says that many of our state’s laws do more to burden the poor and relieve the rich than vice versa. She cites the worst states (her “sinful six”) as Alabama, Florida, Louisiana, Nevada, South Dakota, and Texas.

She believes, as do I, that part of kingdom work is pushing for economic justice, particularly for poor working families. Tax revenues are essential to fund the reasonable opportunity for a decent life for all made in the image of God.

She quotes a well-known verse (Luke 12:48) “To whom much is given, much is required.”
I agree. Our resources as a church and as a state are a means to “spread scriptural holiness across the land” as Mr. Wesley taught us. Reform of our tax policy is one important part of our work for the Kingdom.

Our state legislature’s recent failure to remove the state portion of the grocery tax disappointed me as I hope it did you. I pray that the upcoming special session of the legislature will pass the Tax Fairness Amendment. This amendment would end the $550 million state income tax deduction for federal taxes, remove the 4% state portion of the grocery tax, and expand personal exemptions and the standard deduction raising the income tax threshold to $20,000 from the current shockingly low $12,600 for a family of four.

I commend Susan Pace Hamill’s work to you, particularly her book AS CERTAIN AS DEATH (Carolina Academic Press, 2007) and hope you will join me in praying for and working toward a more just and equitable tax system for our state. A good way to involve yourselves and your church in these matters is to work with and support Alabama Arise, a coalition of 155 faith-based and community groups (www.alarise.org) a number of whose leaders (such as Mark Berte) are active United Methodists. Alabama Arise has all the facts and figures of the Alabama tax problem and is working hard to change things.

We can do better. With God’s help, we shall.

Will Willimon

7 comments:

J Andersen said...

Also, looking at the larger national picture I believe the FairTax plan would lead to greater economic justice throughout the United States.

http://www.fairtax.org

http://www.fairtax.org/site/PageServer?pagename=about_faq_answers#49

LVTfan said...

J. Anderson, the so-called FairTax would make things far worse for the poor and the middle class.

If that is what you would call economic justice, you might be correct. But I can't see that in a country where 1% of us have 33% of the wealth, and the next 4% of us have 23% of the wealth, that placing taxes on sales would improve things for the other 95% of us.

Yes, tax reform is vitally important. But we must not move from taxing one wrong tax base -- wages -- to utilizing another -- sales.

Rather, we must shift to exactly what Alabama's power structure has for 150 or more years been seeking to prevent: the taxation of land value.

The earth is the Lord's, and therefore the economic value of the land -- known in economics as "rent" -- is rightly the property of the community.

Leaving it to collect in landlords' pockets has led to wealth concentration, joblessness, slavery, industrial slavery, lack of opportunity, and sprawl, to mention just a few of rent privatization's ill effects.

We can do better. We can use the one tax which promotes better land use, motivates the private sector to create jobs, increases wages, creates housing near the center of things, not dozens of miles from the downtown.

Land value taxation.

Just what Alabama's most powerful, the inheritors of God's earth, don't want to hear. But they aren't God's eldest sons, and they should not be inheriting the earth's rent. It is rightly the way to fund all the services that communities provide more effectively than the private sector does.

Don't tax wages. Don't tax sales. Don't even tax buildings. Just land -- the natural creation, and the value the community adds by its presence. That is rightly common property.

See http://www.wealthandwant.com, http://www.answersanswers.com/, and http://lvtfan.typepad.com/ for more about these ideas.

Professor Hamill is one of my heroes, but she doesn't yet see the full scope of what taxing land could do for Alabama and for social and economic justice.

B'ham Billy said...

I think we could get a lot more done with tithe reform.

preacherman said...

Wonderful post.
It was very interesting and informative. I appreciate you sharing this with us. I pray God bless you as you serve Him.

Bob B said...

Thank you for taking a stand for the least of these. It is one thing to do so as an individual, but is entirely different as a representative of our church. I am encouraged and inspired. I hope your courage trickles down to the pulpits across the conference.

jackburden said...

Well said, Bishop. Professor Hamill has done the Lord's work in highlighting the tax reform (and constitutional reform) issue, and although it has been tough sledding, there are signs that Alabama is ready to embrace a more just form of taxation.

On a related note, Bishop, I just completed your most recent book, Who Will Be Saved? I know it was a very good book on theology because I found myself nodding vigorously at many times, and shaking my head vigorously at others! Anyway, in the section on "Atonement" in the final chapter, you touch on the theme of "corporate sin" and seem to contrast it with what you perceive to be the West's modern focus on personal redemption. I guess my question is three-fold:

1) How would you define "corporate sin"? Is an unjust tax system, like that we have in Alabama, an example? Isn't the most obvious modern example the current regime of abortion-on-demand (not to mention taxpayer funding of such a regime)?

2) To my way of thinking, whatever "corporate sin" is, it can't really be separated from personal sin. Isn't "corporate sin" the natural result of countless personal offenses against God? Or should we think of "corporate sin" as something that is made of different stuff?

3) I guess I find myself troubled by the implication that gospel message that emphasizes personal redemption is flawed. I would think that personal redemption is the first step toward mobilizing Christians in doing the kind of kingdom work that a more expansive (and correct, in my view) understanding of salvation demands. In other words, it seems to me that the problem is not with a Gospel that includes -- even emphasizes -- personal redemption -- but instead, with a Gospel that would stop at personal redemption (i.e., justification) without also emphasizing perfection (i.e., sanctification). Am I wrong, right, or deeply confused?

Again, just a lay Methodist here, so take it easy on me. But I would be very interested to see a post by you addressing the concept of corporate sin, and the tension that seems to exist sometimes between a Gospel that emphasizes corporate sin and "kingdom work" and a Gospel that focuses on personal redemption.

foxofbama said...

Dr. Willimon:
I think I can say this without getting anybody in trouble, but had great lunch with our mutual friend in Upstate SC last week, the son of Nixon's barber.
That said, I just had an email exchange with a Reforming Methodist who did graduate work at UBama on these matters lamenting what I took to be your complacency since Alarise October 05 on these matters.
My apologies. Delighted to see you are back with a trumpet in the cause.
Possibly more troubling is the Recent (late June, I think) PBS Moyers journal advocacy of the January Charlotte Observer series (the Cruelest Cut) on OSHA and the Poultry processing business.
Hoping some of the savvy Methodists on staff and in the congregations at Highlands UMC and the Downtown Methodist Church there in Bham will take up the cause and confront UMC layman US Senator Sessions with the matter.
Likewise, scholarships for Hispanic HS Graduates in Alabama no matter their status--grads of high chracter and academic promise--should be on the issues plate as good Methodists engage one of their own as Sessions seeks another term in the US Senate.
I don't have the answers; just trying to join Moyers and others of conscience and good will to bring these matters unflinching to the table like I have to believe Marney and Martin and Will Campbell, even Jesus, would expect us to.
God Bless.
And do take a look at the recent Fitzgerald article in New Yorker on the new headset of evangelicals in the political calculus--Joel Hunter of Orlando, Northland, et. al--and Doctorow's piece in the Nation Mag on the right wing as Melville's Great White Whale