Taxing churches. Common sense, or an affront to God? The topic comes up periodically as religious organizations struggle with a more sectarian society who has become ever more critical of churches and their role in society. Our issue has just as much to do with the $71 billion in taxable revenue from donations and property holdings as it does with our perception of the role of churches in our society.
U.S. churches are now costing taxpayers $71 billion a year https://t.co/0aCFnxXhLL
— Brasilmagic (@Brasilmagic) June 7, 2017
Religious organizations play a vital role in America. But how has this changed since 1776? The image of the lowly God fearing preacher out on the river with his congregation on the frontiers of America represents an episode of nostalgia for a religious purity that no longer exists. Just last weekend, mega-churches brought in over $5 billion. Yes, billion. Where does this money go?
You don’t have to see the million dollar homes owned by the televangelists’ preachers to know something has gone awry with faith in America. But, does this mean we want government intervention, via taxation, within the free exercise of religion? What effect could government overreach into churches have on the maintaining of communities of faith, all so we can feel better knowing the fraudulent-private plane-mansion-owning-Bently-driving-ministers are paying their fair share?
It’s not the millionaire preachers I worry about in this scenario. We all can see that the poor grandma slowly suffocating from emphysema has a free will choice when she buys into the prosperity gospel. What is the prosperity gospel, you ask? John Oliver summarizes it best in this segment:
This clip illustrates the dark side of certain types of spiritual exploitation. However, is taxation ok just because we don’t like the few assholes out there? If we’re being selective, how do we choose the way they are taxed? Do we tax donations or property taxes? If you’ve already paid income taxes, shouldn’t you be able to donate that money tax-free? Do we tax all their holdings or just luxury items like private planes, global trips, and limousines? Do we have a department at the IRS who’s goal it is to legitimize certain beliefs to decide which tax applies?
Government over reach into religion, even if a simple asset tax was applied, would require paperwork, time, and money from religious groups that are normally small and relatively impoverished. Or are they as hard pressed for cash as we think? Considering that the average preacher in America makes $92,538 per anum makes one wonder where all those doctrines about charity and giving actually apply? Did Jesus accept money?
As you can tell from my writing, the very idea of taxing churches comes from the approach that churches largely function as a business, and that business isn’t necessarily faith. Discussions about church taxation tend to be arguments by the less faithful who harken back to the televangelists seen in the Phil Collins video from the 1990’s.
Christianity as a racket by televangelists are what is largely fueling the idea that churches are about money, not faith. Megachurches with their lavish 5-star buildings, rock bands, private planes, and million dollar preachers may be examples of the departure from the true faith of those humble 12 following their penniless leader 2000 years ago. But do we, as a society, get to judge all of the faithful servants of a supernatural consciousness? And herein lies the problem.
— Dr.David Pendergrass (@DrDPendergrass) August 1, 2017
Who gets to decide? Who judges who? And what about the churches that are actually filled with the faithful. I’ve got friends on facebook from back home who are traveling the world as missionaries helping the poor and building homes in third world nations. These guys are my hero’s, and they don’t deserve to be taxed.
And what about smaller religions like Wicca and the emerging come back of the Nordic faiths? Anthropologists have, in their examinations of societies, discovered that increasing complexity in social structures leads to a greater identity with polytheism- which helps to explain the rise in these types of faiths in more recent times. As we grow into a more complex world, one could argue that a revival of older pantheistic religions will begin to re-emerge at a much greater pace; not only because of increasing social complexity but because of the dwindling ability (or interest) of Christians to burn such people at the stake.
Faith in America is changing and growing. More and more American’s are identifying with the label, “spiritual but not religious”. Why this is happening, what it means, and how we foster a stronger spiritual identity as a nation is going to be determined by how we- as a society- approach these changes with our institutions. Taxation could hinder this kind of growth.
Take the case of Germany who, in 2015, increased their church tax from 8% to 9%. Upon the news, 400,000 people left the Protestant church while 200,000 left Catholicism. Church taxation in Germany took the form of a small tax on the income of individuals who proclaim a faith to the state. The tax is then added as an income tax to those who profess a religion and the money is sent to the churches to support them. They also charge a fee for leaving a church.
In theory, it makes sense to support the churches this way. On the other hand, such experiments in early America caused a great deal of bitter argument which is why it was abandoned by colonial legislatures long before 1776. Interestingly, it was mostly the clergy who supported such a tax which went to pay their salary. Early American experimentation with government and religion didn’t go well which is why we have a separation of church and state.
On such example of religious-government intermingling came in Plymouth Colony circa 1630. The colonists decided that the commandment, Thou shall honor thy mother and father, to mean “obey the government” who is the obvious parental custodian of the citizenry. Yes, there were executions for disobeying the government and things spiraled downhill from there.
In Germany, the Catholic Church punishes people who go off the government tax rolls by denying them communion, confession, and other important rites. Can you imagine a Priest on this side of the pond denying a Catholic last rites? Not in a million years! Just another example about how the enlightenment values upon which the US was founded have encouraged more positive institutional religious growth, with the exceptions I highlighted above.
Should we tax churches? Absolutely not! We need to maintain free market ideals in matters of spirituality. Taxation limits growth in every sector and if we’re to continue to be a shining city on a hill, we need to ensure that freedom of religion, whatever direction it takes, is free to prosper. We’ll just have accepted the freeloaders who exploit the system for the greater good of American society.