Image credit: John Keogh (Flickr: jvk)

Should We Be Taxing Churches?

Image credit: John Keogh (Flickr: jvk)
“Market Square” by John Keogh

Slate blogger Matthew Yglesias argues today that “We Should Be Taxing Churches.” Yglesias is uncomfortable with the way the tax code discriminates between churches that engage in “electioneering” and those which choose to refrain from endorsing political candidates. Rather, he suggests, all churches should be taxed regardless of their degree of political involvement.

Others have observed that Matt Yglesias is a notorious troll and that the sole reason Slate employs him is to increase their page views. But kids gotta eat, and I’m not judging. Yet it wouldn’t have hurt him to sprinkle a bit of nuance into his column to at least mask the rank odor of bigotry.

Even a confirmed atheist such as Alain de Botton would be able to tell Yglesias (whose surname, ironically, is derived from the Spanish word for church) that churches and other religious institutions provide non-trivial benefits to society, and tax breaks are one way to reward socially-beneficial behavior, like feeding the hungry, placing orphans in families, building community resilience, sheltering the homeless, or helping addicts get sober. Yet the only benefits of religion Yglesias can think of are those my church’s annual giving statement euphemistically calls “intangible spiritual benefits”:

“Whichever faith you think is the one true faith, it’s undeniable that the majority of this church-spending is going to support false doctrines. Under the circumstances, tax subsidies for religion are highly inefficient.”

This is all missing the point, since tax breaks for churches were never supposed to reflect official endorsement of a particular set of religious doctrines. If even the notorious sci-fi cult of Scientology enjoys freedom from taxation, perhaps official pluralism has gone too far, but certainly no reasonable person would accuse the government of religious bias in that case.

The Common Good

In this country, churches are only one type of a wide range of different kinds of non-profit institutions favored with tax-exempt status. If I wish to start a society for conserving and raising awareness of local wildlife, or for introducing young people to the music of Johannes Brahms, or for making quilts to auction on behalf of autism research, I can get tax-exempt status for any of those activities. If I support the local Shakespearean troupe or food pantry, or join a fraternal lodge, I can deduct my contributions from my personal income taxes because they are considered to be supporting the common good in some way or another.

Now this common good is a very broad thing, and churches connect to it in many ways. First, from the religious perspective, churches provide something that is important for human beings to live the good life: a connection to the divine source of all being through which they can more fully know themselves and live charitably toward other people. We are not talking about how or whether this happens, but that religious people claim that it happens. In fact, to claim that it does not happen is to make a moral and religious judgment which is outside of the ability of the state to make.

Establishment of Religion

The U.S. Constitution stipulates that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion.” This is why there is no American Church as there is an Anglican Church. In the context of American history, where the desire for religious freedom played a major role even in the establishment of the early colonies, this means that unlike England or other nations with a privileged state church, the principle of pluralism applies. Congress does not seek to favor one sect over another in matters of policy. Likewise, government does not arbitrate in matters of dogma. Baptists and Presbyterians may be deadlocked on the question of infant baptism; the President may choose to attend one church or another but will not attempt to influence the churches in resolving their dispute. A local congregation may be divided over some trivial issue like what color of carpet to put in the sanctuary; the Town Council may be annoyed but will not attempt to influence their decision. Non-interference with religion is in our political DNA.

As “We” Consider: A Thought Experiment

Press photo of Matthew Yglesias
Matthew Yglesias (courtesy Slate)

Since Mr. Yglesias uses the pronoun “we” in his title, I charitably assume that he means “we” as in the national body politic, not just some small but powerful elite class such as, for instance, Slate‘s readership. Although as a whole the body politic might not permit itself an official opinion on matters of religious doctrine, its various members might be able to testify to the real benefits that various institutions, including religious ones, contribute to the common weal.

There is a good kind of political agnosticism at work here. Pluralism means that any number of religious claims might be true, although in public deliberations “we” recuse ourselves from the question and grant them the benefit of doubt.

Now, it is notoriously difficult to truly draw the hypothetical “veil of ignorance” when discussing something as near to one’s heart as religious experience, or the absence thereof, and Mr. Yglesias has not successfully done it, I think. He has not been able to grant religious institutions the benefit of the doubt regarding their contributions to the common good. Let us then attempt an opposite, equally godlike and impossible hypothetical. Let us suppose that instead of being incapable of knowing the truth, “we” have actually discovered which group is the “true” church. For the sake of argument, let us suppose it is my church, the Episcopal Church, since Episcopalians would never make any such claim about ourselves. Let us say that this knowledge has been hidden even from the elect, but that as keepers of the public weal “we” have seen the clouds open and beheld Becket and Cranmer at the right hand of God.

What then? Should “we” promote this “true” church alone, and revoke the non-taxed status of other churches and religions? Should we assume that Baptists and Catholics, Hindus, Buddhists, and Muslims provide no public good worth encouraging?

In choosing to tax these religious groups, we would be making a moral judgment. And since we have not received any such special revelation, by revoking the tax-exempt status of religious institutions we would be making the moral judgment that, unlike art galleries, symphony orchestras, or labor unions, religious institutions provide no sort of public good.

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THOMAS HOLGRAVE is a conservative but not necessarily a hipster. He is the publisher of The Hipster Conservative. He has never read a comic book he liked. He is an occasional theologian who has been known to become quite exercised over questions of Puritan doctrine and practice. Not much else is known about him.

5 thoughts on “Should We Be Taxing Churches?”

  1. Do you think the same goods (and maybe even more substantial ones) could have been gained by the establishment of a (catholic) religion like the historic Episcopal church, provided that other religions were tolerated?

  2. I’m not really sure, but the way to find out would be to take an analytical look at the history of how this has been managed in various places (England, for instance) and whether such a preferential-yet-tolerant policy effectively promoted public goods to the same extent that the American pluralist system does. There is also a very significant question about what is the public good. We shouldn’t just assume everyone agrees about the answer to that question.

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