Bush tax cuts face Biblical challenge in Alabama

 A looming financial crisis in Alabama's state government has sparked an improbable debate about how Christians should treat the poor, the Times reported at the weekend. To the consternation of White House officials who are promoting their strategy of tax cuts as an engine for economic revival, Alabama's Republican governor, a devout Christian who has been described as Bush's spiritual soulmate, has parted ways with the president. Governor Bob Riley believes that the rich are morally obliged to pay more tax, not less. An impending state referendum on a .2 billion tax reform package has transformed a dry economic debate into a biblical clash over a simple but potentially explosive question: if Jesus lived in Alabama, would he vote for Bush? The debate is all the more remarkable because Democrats have been left on the sidelines while one group of conservative Christian Republicans toughs it out with another. The dispute springs from the harsh social and political realities of one of America's poorest states. Renowned in the past for its racial turmoil, the state has lately become notorious for the inequalities of its tax system and the pitiful state of its rural-based economy. The Christian tide began to turn when Susan Pace Hamill took a sabbatical. A law professor at Alabama University, she was a tax specialist who decided to spend a year at a Methodist seminary. "I went there with no clear idea other than that my areas needed ethics," Hamill said last week. "Then I started to notice the injustice under my nose." Hamill caused a statewide stir when she published a thesis arguing for tax reform based on Judaeo-Christian ethics. "I found that 71% of Alabama's land was owned by timber companies which paid less than 2% of the property taxes," she said. "Meanwhile, the income tax level reached deep into poverty." Her arguments struck a chord in the state capital, where a weakening economy had left Riley facing a shortfall of at least 0m in next year's budget. The only answer, he concluded, was the largest tax increase in Alabama's history. While Bush speaks frequently of his Christian faith and his belief that welfare services should be offered by church groups and not by government, Riley adopted Hamill's view that no government should oppress or deny the poor. "Jesus says one of our missions is to take care of the least among us," the governor said last month. "We've got to take care of the poor." Riley's proposed reforms would lift tax thresholds. He would also curtail the property exemptions enjoyed by big landowners. His aides claim that 50% of Alabama taxpayers would end up paying less; only the wealthy would pay more. However, in Bush's America any mention of increased taxes is tantamount to treason. Hamill, who calls herself an unabashed capitalist, has been vilified as an abortion-loving Marxist. "She's saying if we don't vote for a tax increase we are all in sin," said John Giles of the Christian Coalition of Alabama, a lobbying group. Wary of criticising a governor who claims to have Jesus on his side, Riley's fellow Republicans are challenging him on theological grounds. "You won't find anywhere in the scriptures that it is the government's responsibility to take care of the poor," said Giles. "It is the church's responsibility." Source: Ekklesia

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