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Federal Income Tax Research Papers

The Religious Origins of American’s Progressive Income Tax

February 4, 2018
Church picture by Photo by Matt McLean on Unsplash

Religion played a significant role in establishing the progressive nature of the first peacetime income tax in the United States. In a new paper, University of Houston business professor Joshua Cutler examines the origins of the 1894 U.S. income tax and the use of religion to shape how the tax was distributed.


“I examine the enactment of the first peacetime income tax in the United States in 1894 to investigate the original sources of the income tax’s popularity and moral legitimacy. I find that congressional proponents repeatedly and explicitly argued that a progressive income tax was a biblical tax that best conformed to Judeo-Christian teachings on economics and fundraising.

I discuss the history of American religious fundraising practices, including the trend leading up to 1894 that advocated for proportionate giving of income as the best method of giving. I document that congressional income tax supporters drew on the language and ideas of these religious fundraising movements, in addition to direct recourse to biblical authority. Income tax supporters also used religiously-rooted ideas to argue for progressive tax rates, especially the idea that income earned through labor and used to supply basic needs has special moral value, while higher levels of “unearned” income were devalued and viewed with suspicion. For their part, income tax opponents used biblical ideas about equality, thrift and industry, as well as biblical injunctions against covetousness and theft, to argue against progressive income taxes.

The 1894 income tax offers a valuable case study on the important and unappreciated role that religion can exercise in the public square, especially with respect to taxation and economic policy. Religion can play a moderating and motivating role that cuts across the political spectrum and builds consensus.”

More: Joshua Culter, “The Religious Roots of the Progressive Income Tax in America.” (January 22, 2018).

Photo: Matt McLean.

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