Monday, May 4, 2020

Extolling Exemptions

As you may know if you’ve been following along with my “Potter’s Process” series, I am currently working to plant a new church in the Greensburg, PA area. One of the biggest sticking points, though really not an area of immediate need, has been making a decision on whether and when to pursue non-profit and tax-exempt status. The biggest issues are that it is costly to get and I could really use some expert help (which would cost more). To a lesser extent, there are some theological issues involved (I say “lesser” only because I am beginning to approach the conclusion they are not problematic).

While working on this, though, it has continually come to my attention that there is an effort underway to eliminate tax exemption for churches. The highest-profile example of this came from former Democratic Presidential candidate “Beto” O’Rourke. Last October, O’Rourke said that churches who refuse to celebrate aberrant sexual behavior should have their exemptions revoked. To have reached the stage where a mainstream politician could say it is a sign of its growing importance among the left.

In spite of my own uncertainty on its necessity in my particular case, I still feel it is important to defend the tax exemption of churches. There is a logic behind it that we need to know so that our opponents will not be allowed to simply have their own way.

Appealing to Tradition

The first and weakest defense is that it is traditional. Secularists will often say that it is a violation of the 1st Amendment for churches to have a special status under the law. Since they make that accusation, it is important to be able to say that the very Framers of the Constitution did not see a violation.

Still, it’s shaky ground. Tradition on its own is not a true argument because people in the past got things wrong just as often as we do. The problem is in how easily progressives go about dismantling traditions in favor of their contemporary conception of the goods of society. They would do well to review G.K. Chesterton’s famous metaphor of the fence:

[Consider] a fence or gate erected across a road. The more modern type of reformer goes gaily up to it and says, “I don’t see the use of this; let us clear it away.” To which the more intelligent type of reformer will do well to answer: “If you don’t see the use of it, I certainly won’t let you clear it away. Go away and think. Then, when you can come back and tell me that you do see the use of it, I may allow you to destroy it.”

Traditional things are not inherently useful. However, at some point in the past, enough people thought they were useful enough to enshrine them. Before judging them for it, we need to do the work of understanding why. Otherwise, we might wind up tearing down the fence that keeps the wolves at bay.

Standing for Freedom

If tradition itself is the weakest defense, the strongest is in the reason the tradition initially came to be. Most cultures throughout history have excluded religious institutions from taxation, but they largely did so because taxes were actually paid in order to support the churches. That has not been true of the United States because that actually would be a violation of the 1st Amendment’s prohibition against the establishment of religion. But America has still never taxed churches because doing so would quickly turn into a prohibition of the free exercise of religion.

It is a matter of liberty. As Chief Justice John Marshall said in McCulloch v. Maryland, “The power to tax involves the power to destroy.” Governments with the power to tax churches could make those taxes so burdensome as to make the churches inoperable. In order to afford them, churches could have their beliefs dictated to them by the state. There would then no longer be freedom of religion. Tax exemption exists to recognize this reality and to defend the rights of believers to challenge temporal authority rather than having to conform to its whims.

Some leftists might complain that this is an unfounded fear, but O’Rourke’s comments put the lie to that. They do not want to tax churches out of a sense of fairness. They want to do it in order to punish churches for not submitting to secular ethics. That is really all the reason we need to keep demanding tax exemption.

The Work of Churches

It might be the only one we need, but it isn’t the last one. Another is the social value of churches. Many atheists say they have none. That is, quite simply, ridiculous. Christianity teaches that people ought to love one another (Matt. 22:39); have a strong work ethic (2 Thess. 3:10); avoid sins like theft, murder, adultery, and lying (Mark 10:19); that they should be good citizens (Rom. 13:1–7); and that they should be hopeful (1 Pet. 1:3–5) and joyful (John 15:11). You can disagree with the salient points of Christianity, but its propensity for making people better is indisputable.

The state has an interest in fostering citizens such as churches make. On top of that, the state is not as well placed as the churches to make them. Therefore, it is entirely reasonable for the government to encourage churches rather than opposing them. One of the ways to do that is by not burdening them with taxation.

Profits and Motives

Finally, there is the argument for tax exemption that is probably the most practical even if it is not the most powerful. It holds true of all non-profit institutions, not just churches. The concept of taxation is closely linked to profit. Governments cannot add to the economy by spending. That is redistribution rather than actual wealth creation. In the same way, non-profits do not add to the economy. They do not return investments or create capital. All they do is take previously created wealth and put it toward higher ends than economic ones. And, of course, their earnings are offered to them voluntarily by those who wish to see the ends pursued.

Eliminating tax exemption would make charity far more difficult. Without profit, it would be much harder to cover the costs of operation. And without deductions, people might be less inclined to give to charitable causes. That is not the only or the highest factor in charitable giving, of course. But it certainly is one, and removing it would certainly result in a drop in such giving. That would occur across the board, not just to churches. Nor can churches be singled out for the loss of tax exemption. The opponents of Christianity seem not to know how far-reaching their efforts would be if successful, or how much damage they could do to their friends who also rely on non-profit status. If leftist organizations want to give it up, they are more than welcome to do so. But it is obtuse to suggest they can do so at no cost, and evil to suggest that their choice should be imposed on all others.

Once we actually know the case for the tax-exemption of churches, we can see that it is on very firm ground. It is not merely traditional, but flows from reasons that gave the tradition great strength. The secularist innovators are the ones without a leg to stand on. Their goal is not equitable taxation. It is the silencing of voices that they do not wish to hear. To give in to them is to submit to vile totalitarianism, however mild its form may initially appear. We have rights. We must stand for them, and know why, if we wish to keep them.

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