What does biblical archaeology have to do with the tax cut proposal currently being debated in the U.S. Senate? More than you might think.

When archaeologists dig into the ruins of ancient Israel, they find periods when the houses were about the same size, and the unearthed artifacts of life show a relative equality among the people--no great economic distance between the top and bottom of the society. During those times, the biblical prophets were silent--they had nothing to say. No voice of an Isaiah, Amos, or Jeremiah was heard speaking to the demands of justice.

But the diggings also uncover other periods when there were huge houses and little hovels, and the objects of life reveal great disparities. Not surprisingly, it was during those times when the prophets were most outspoken, denouncing the great gaps in wealth and the neglect of the poor. The Bible doesn't condemn prosperity; it just insists it be shared.

Somehow, it has become impermissible to ask how President Bush's tax cut proposal might benefit the wealthiest Americans or neglect the poorest. Such talk gets quickly dismissed as "class warfare." Sorry--it's not. It's a legitimate topic of biblical religion. Especially since Bush has spoken so positively about "faith-based initiatives," you would think the White House might pay a little more attention to the content of that faith.

For example, the president has proposed doubling the child credit from $500 to $1,000, a family-friendly idea that most religious groups support. But under his tax cut plan, families who are working, but making so little they don't pay income tax, will receive no help. All these families pay taxes--payroll tax, sales tax, energy tax--but get nothing from the tax cut.

Many religious groups are supporting efforts to make the proposed child tax credit refundable, like the Earned Income Tax Credit, which also benefits low-income families. A fully refundable credit would benefit 16 million children currently left out and lift 2 million of them out of poverty. Every family in America would then benefit from the Bush tax proposal. There is a proposal being considered by the Congress that would allow some low-income families to claim a partial credit.

Many Republicans, however, are objecting even to this and say they will try to remove it.

And the president so far has not supported the faith-backed recommendation to help the poorest families. Many religious groups are wondering why. This week, a delegation of religious leaders will meet with the Senate and House leadership to save the refundable child tax credit.

Similarly, the Bush tax cut proposal would completely repeal the estate tax--which Republicans like to call the "death tax." But the estate tax is a long-standing mechanism, originally introduced by Republicans like Teddy Roosevelt, to reduce growing concentrations of wealth and power. It's one way of partially leveling the playing field. Leading philanthropists have urged that the estate tax be preserved, fearing it would eliminate billions of dollars in charitable contributions. The head of the White House Office on Faith-Based and Community Initiatives has worried that repeal would undercut charitable giving at a time when his office is trying to encourage it. If the Bush administration wants to support the important role of faith-based and other nonprofits in our society, why would they want to repeal one of the major incentives for giving to them?

Estate-tax repeal would also further increase the gap between rich and poor--not a good idea from a religious point of view. Six hundred religious leaders have signed a petition suggesting that the estate tax be reformed to more fully protect small businesses and family farmers, but that it should not be simply repealed. Abolishing the estate tax would undermine charitable giving and offend justice at the same time. Again, religious groups wonder why.

A tax cut that tilts so heavily toward the people who need it least, and leaves out the people who need it most, hardly passes the test of the biblical prophets. Does the president really think that such important matters as budget and tax cut priorities are exempt from the scrutiny of the faith perspectives he praises? Does he believe a White House faith-based initiative can adequately substitute for policies that will have a much larger impact on our ability to alleviate poverty?

The president can certainly shape the final outcome of these crucial tax policy debates. It is one way he could demonstrate that he is a compassionate conservative, not just a conservative.

Many faith communities are watching this critical debate closely. How it turns out may shape our ultimate response to Bush's faith-based initiative much more than any debates over church and state. The very rich would greatly profit from a repeal of the estate tax, but the prophet Isaiah speaks critically of "you who join house to house, who add field to field." The top 1% of the nation's citizens would reap a disproportionate amount of the benefits from the Bush tax cut proposal, while low-income families receive virtually nothing.

But the prophet Amos says, "Alas, for those who lie on beds of ivory and lounge on their couches...who sing idle songs." An accumulation of wealth that allows some people to live in luxury while others are left behind was unacceptable to the prophets and should be to us. That's not "class warfare"--it's simply biblical religion.

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