Religion and Politics—A Taxing Issue

June 10, 2009

Debate about the exact meaning of the Establishment Clause will probably endure as long as this nation endures. However, even many of those who have a narrow interpretation of the EC’s restrictions on government aid to religion would agree that the government can’t directly subsidize religious institutions. Yes, billions do flow to churches and religiously affiliated institutions, but the money flows indirectly (e.g., parents use a voucher to pay for parochial school tuition) or there is some purported secular justification for the government handout (e.g., the money supports a faith-based charity but only insofar as it provides secular services). I find these rationales unpersuasive, but at least they pay lip-service to the notion that state and church should be kept separate.

How about the exemption that religious bodies enjoy from income and property taxes? The traditional rationale provided for this exemption is that other nonprofits that meet certain criteria enjoy this exemption. Churches are nonprofit institutions, so why shouldn’t they enjoy this exemption as well?

To begin, other nonprofits that enjoy this exemption provide services to the community. Organizations such as Red Cross, Oxfam, Amnesty International —and, yes, the Center for Inquiry—support disaster relief, feed the hungry, provide educational services, and so forth. What do churches do? (I’m not referring to charitable activities associated with churches, but the churches themselves.) Get people to pray? To worship? To accept claims based on blind faith? Are these activities the government should support?

But the situation is even worse than government support of activities of dubious value. The fact is that churches, mosques, and temples often abuse their status as nonprofits. Nonprofits are not supposed to engage in partisan political activity, but, to paraphrase Teddy Roosevelt, a pulpit is a bully pulpit. Priests, ministers, imams, and other spiritual leaders not infrequently yield to the temptation to use their perceived status as spokespersons for God to instruct their flock on the “correct” way to vote. And if you think it’s only conservative clergy who abuse their privileges, think again, as   this recent article in the Washington Post indicates.

IRS doesn’t have the time, resources, or will to investigate each incursion into the political realm by clergy, so it’s the exceptional case in which a religious body is even threatened with a loss of a tax exemption. Meanwhile, your tax dollars not only support worship of imagined beings but the use of religion as a vehicle of effective political manipulation. “God is with us” is a powerful slogan, in the contemporary Middle East or the contemporary United States—just as it was in Nazi Germany. (This motto was inscribed on the belt buckle of German soldiers.)

Clergy should have the right to express themselves as they see fit—but not on my dime.