Time Magazine wasted no time in calling for the end of tax exemptions for religious institutions, with writer Mark Oppenheimer firing the initial salvo. Oppenheimer writes the “beliefs” column for The New York Times, in which he studies religious matters with the alacrity of a medical examiner performing an autopsy: God is dead, let’s find out what killed Him.
I have a different view on the subject, that God’s not dead, but attempts to kill Him surely result in self-impalement on His extremely sharp sword. Churches don’t need tax-exempt status for God’s sake, but for society’s sake, and I offer a counterproposal, which I’ll detail further down this post.
Oppenheimer claims he has a Ph.D. in American religious history—I say “claimed” because nobody has bothered to create a Wikipedia entry for him to prove it—and his favorite subject to write about is himself.
You won’t find Oppenheimer’s columns in Christianity Today, or Charisma, or First Things, or any such religious blogs that deal with serious Biblical scholarship. You will find him on The Believer, Salon, Slate, Mother Jones, and The Nation, where the ghouls all gleefully dissect Christianity in vivisection to see how best to kill it.
Calling out clergy who have “mid-six-figure salaries” and churches and synagogues which “sit on exceedingly valuable tracts of land (walk up and down Fifth Avenue to see what I mean)” he seeks to remove those eyesores from the public view and cull the herd—so to speak—of the religious organizations that don’t pass muster.
Of course, if churches had to pay property tax, many of the oldest, inner-city-based churches that serve the poor would be forced from their buildings, unable to pay the tax after residing in their locations for decades, even centuries. No matter. This is a brave new world, with a shiny Supreme Court mandate to clean up Dodge and run those pesky preachers out of town.
But Oppenheimer’s main beef with religious exemptions is that it’s not worth protecting religious institutions from attack based on Biblical teaching against homosexuality. He freely admits that the fears of this persecution are valid, and that Sen. Mike Lee’s First Amendment Defense Act is one solution to the problem.
But I don’t think Sen. Lee is crazy. In the 1983 Bob Jones University case, the court ruled that a school could lose tax-exempt status if its policies violated “fundamental national public policy.” So far, the Bob Jones reasoning hasn’t been extended to other kinds of discrimination, but someday it could be. I’m a gay-rights supporter who was elated by Friday’s Supreme Court decision — but I honor Sen. Lee’s fears.
I don’t, however, like his solution. And he’s not going to like mine. Rather than try to rescue tax-exempt status for organizations that dissent from settled public policy on matters of race or sexuality, we need to take a more radical step. It’s time to abolish, or greatly diminish, their tax-exempt statuses.
At least Oppenheimer is honest.
Most liberals would rather pretend there’s no problem at all, no conflict of interest, then quietly support lawsuits against churches, lobbying efforts within the IRS, and secret agreements, like the one the IRS entered into with the Freedom From Religion Foundation to monitor statements made by pastors during sermons. Then, when these lawsuits hit the federal court system, the liberals can claim “see, the church had it coming, those haters.”
Correctly accusing the IRS poor stewardship of “what is a religion,” Oppenheimer’s (and others like him) solution is to simply remove the exemption, period. That way, the Church of Scientology, which should never, ever have had an exemption, loses its tax benefit, along with the Catholic Church, and every church in every city in America.
We know what this would lead to.
Biblically literate congregations would largely continue to give just like they always have, so some churches would not suffer (much). But churches that cater to the “three song and a 12-minute sermon” crowd would be devastated. Entire denominations would be decimated, especially ones that cater to inner-city black communities.
In some ways, just like the Supreme Court decision that prompted this long-awaited shot in the culture war, removing tax deductions for religious organizations would be doing Christians a favor: separating the wheat from the chaff, and empowering those who remain in their strengthened faith.
Oppenheimer would certainly hate my proposal: let’s make all charitable giving tax-deductible, with one exception: political donations.
Making all non-political giving tax-deductible accomplishes two goals: it takes the IRS out of the role of deciding what is a religion, and it encourages people to give to charities, no matter what they do. If people want to give to Tom Cruise and David Miscavige’s private yacht club, let them. If people want their cash to go to the First Church of Cannabis in Indiana, no problem.
Let’s give everyone the benefit of the doubt, including awful people like Westboro Baptist Church (which is neither a church nor Baptist in the sense of a denominational affiliation), or the KKK, or the Black Panthers—or Planned Parenthood, which Oppenheimer is willing to give up to the tax gods in exchange for making God’s money Caesar’s.
Instead of all these byzantine rules about not promoting candidates from the pulpit, everyone could say whatever they wanted, with one caveat: money given to a campaign or promoting a single candidate or party is taxable, whether it comes from an individual, a church, or a charity.
It’s very simple: if a church wants to support a candidate from the pulpit, that’s free speech. If a church wants to hand out flyers and put up billboards, that’s taxable, and very easy to track. The printer and the billboard company need only fill out some IRS form for those politically-related transactions, and voilà, it’s taxable. To make it even easier, have the vendor collect it as a “political non-deductible” tax from everyone.
Give to a campaign? You pay an extra tax at the time you give (or the campaign deducts it from the amount accepted). Then at tax-time, you fill out a form and claim the political tax as a deduction, like you do with taxes paid to states and municipalities—only churches don’t pay federal taxes so they have no way to take the deduction.
Oppenheimer’s proposal is only valuable if the end goal isn’t protection of free speech and religion, but a government takeover of both—along with all charitable giving, like the Europeans have done.
The First Amendment protects both free speech and religious rights. The best way to deal with that is to have the government get their nose out of both.
(image source: Shutterstock)