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.

How is sociology like theoretical physics?

Honore Daumier, Family on the Barricades, 1848
Honore Daumier, 1848

Mark Regnerus, the sociologist who developed and carried out the New Family Structures Study at the University of Texas at Austin, writes that the question of whether same-sex ‘marriage’ will “…cause harm to opposite-sex marriage” is “empirically unanswerable any time soon.” Since legally-privileged same-sex unions have only just become a feature of the moral, legal, and political landscape in various American and European states, it will take a long time to collect empirical sociological data on how re-structuring the marriage institution impacts families. Perhaps we will have to wait a generation or so to claim “scientific” knowledge of these effects. Regnerus writes:

But the question itself is empirically unanswerable any time soon. We are arguably years away from gathering quality longitudinal, nationally representative data on the matter. And even then, assessing — let alone agreeing upon — causation will remain difficult. Same-sex marriage may, after all, be a later-stage symptom of the general deinstitutionalization of marriage rather than, as many assert, a cause of it. So the question remains less an empirical one than a theoretical one at present.

And yet we can build plausible hypotheses about the broader influence of same-sex marriage by looking around the neighborhood — that is, at what we already know about gay and straight relationships, about what’s happening to marriage, the mating market, and how institutions change.

In other words, if sociology were merely a matter of long-term studies, social policy would always be a case of shooting first and asking questions thirty years later. This is often how political sausage is made. Lobbyists and activists pressure politicians to pass or change a law, the change is enacted in a hurry, and, years later in some cases, we discover the terrible long-term effects of, for instance, pressuring banks into granting balloon rate mortgages to unqualified homebuyers.

Regnerus himself, the author of a large study on adulthood outcomes among children raised in various types of “non-traditional” families, prompted many supporters of marriage redefinition to lose their shit when his study’s results suggested that rates of social pathologies among children raised in non-traditional family structures were higher than among those raised in stable mother-father homes. Yet he admits that his research is not definitive in the empirical sense and more work is necessary. The question he raises here is whether sociologists need to wait for huge, long-term empirical data sets to say anything worth saying about an issue — especially an issue as important as whether we ought to make fundamental changes to the institution of marriage.

It seems to me that we might fairly compare the relationship between long-term studies and the “[a]ssociations, probabilities, and educated guesses” of short-term sociological opinion to the relationship between experimental and theoretical physics. Theoretical physics consists in jacking around doing who-knows-what while living with your odd buddies in a really huge apartment constructing hypotheses about how the universe works by bringing together previously-observed phenomena, theoretical paradigms, mathematical logic, and intuition. Experimental physics then attempts to design and carry out controlled experiments to test these hypotheses. Often theoretical physicists intuitively discover a truth before there are instruments precise enough to test it. Albert Einstein developed his theory of special relativity by attempting to reconcile seemingly contradictory observations of gravitational and electromagnetic field behavior. Mathematics and intuition both played essential roles in guiding him to surprising conclusions, subsequently proven by experiment. His theories provided the incentive for a vast amount of subsequent technical innovation and discovery over the past century.

“Social science” is not a science in the same way that physics is a science. But like physics, it seeks to interpret and predict phenomena and construct theories to explain observed phenomena. And like theoretical physics, social science does not merely rely on huge sets of observed long-term data. It can draw on the tools of observation, intuition, and analogy to seek out new insights. It can dialogue with philosophy, ethics and theology to better understand its subject, the human person. And enabled by this broader conception of its work, such a science can help us navigate the difficult social problems that can’t wait thirty years for a solution.

Pink Shoes

…aren’t just worn by opponents of health clinic sanitation. Subvert the mass-produced fake zeitgeist by posting these images on your social media outlet of choice. Use hashtags like #pinksneakers, #sb5, #hb2, #txlege, and #standwithtexaswomen.

Pink sneakers are diverse! All pink sneakers deserve equal dignity!

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Thomas Friedman’s Dog Whistle

Thomas Friedman seems a fool, nay, worse than a fool. He argues in Tuesday’s column that it is necessary for the government to be able to data-mine all of our digital information in order to prevent terrorism. The alternative to this, he says, would be to “give government a license to look at anyone, any e-mail, any phone call, anywhere, anytime.” Now this is a bit of misdirection, since these things are precisely what NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden claims that he, as an agent of the government, had the ability to do. We recognize that there is a technical distinction between these two approaches to surveillance, namely, that data mining all of your electronic activities with fast computers is much more efficient and comprehensive than having human operators reading every damn email you send. What both of these surveillance methods have in common is that the government has the ability to access your electronic activities routinely, without a warrant, giving the lie to any notion of privacy or Fourth Amendment rights.

There apparently does not exist, for Mr. Friedman, any third alternative of the government not being able to stick its nose in your business without a warrant.

Mr. Snowden has done us a favor in telling us what government officials, who are accountable to us, had failed to disclose: that (1) this is already happening, and (2) it is massively mismanaged, so that people like Mr. Snowden can (if they want) access all your personal data.

Mr. Snowden has been called a traitor by Mr. Friedman, David Brooks, and other apologists of the totalitarian surveillance state, not for endangering American agents or selling weapons to our enemies, but for revealing the mere fact that the government has been spying on U.S. citizens without their knowledge or consent.

Omniscience is a god-power. To argue that a government ought to have omniscience within its grasp is necessarily to presume that said government is also omni-benevolent and wise–or else to support tyranny. Not even the best government is incorrupt. Mr. Friedman, incredibly, seems to argue that an omniscient government would be able to leverage its vast knowledge to prevent attacks. Yet the Boston Marathon bombing, which he gives as an example, was perpetrated under this very information-saturated regime. No technology will completely protect us.

Thus, the evidence chosen to show the need for a surveillance state invalidates the proposition. The discerning reader may discover the real message of Friedman’s column in its carefully-worded closing:

“Imagine how many real restrictions to our beautiful open society we would tolerate if there were another attack on the scale of 9/11. Pardon me if I blow that whistle.”

God’s Favorite Footballer

The greatest single argument for atheism in the modern age is the Tim Tebow Fan.

I have never enjoyed watching football. Yet I am not here to offer justification for my distaste for professional sports, but rather for one particular professional athlete’s supporter: namely, the dreaded creature known as the Tim Tebow Fan.

The question on everyone’s minds is, naturally: Why do hipstercons emit such disdain for the glorified miracle worker, Tebow, and his devoted fans? To wit: it is the thought that yesterday, while many humans were starved, butchered, crushed, oppressed–and none of them were my personal enemies, dammit!–God took time out of his busy schedule to help the Broncos win victory through the arm of his anointed servant, Tim Tebow.

Surely the works of the LORD are wondrous and mighty; by his servant Tebow he hath wrought victory for the Broncos in overtime.

For the LORD hath raised Tebow up, and proclaimed him chosen among all football players.

Tebow fans merit such condemnation because they neglect to consider the problem of evil. Evil exists, and it often prospers. Good exists, and is often crushed. Pointing to the good Christian’s success as an example of God’s favor (thus demonstrating God’s existence, etc.) is sure to backfire: indeed, self-identified Christians who revel in Tebow’s success should probably refer back to the Gospels that they and their favorite athlete profess to believe in. When asked about the victims of a collapsing tower, and if those crushed under the weight of circumstance were being punished by God, Christ did not only dispel this notion, he told his followers that if they did not repent, they too would surely perish. Cease looking for God’s favor in mere chance; instead, tend to your own souls.

The failure of Tebow fans to recognize the problem of evil and chance is doubly annoying because the stakes are so very low: a mere football game, an entertainment, is enough to divine the favor of the gods, it seems. Divination hasn’t gone anywhere; we still cast lots to find the gods’ favor. Only now, we use a football.

And he rose from his knee in the endzone, and lo, the heavens were opened unto him, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a Super Bowl trophy, and lighting upon him:

And lo, a voice from heaven, saying, This is my beloved Tebow, in whom I am well pleased.

Then was he led up to the ESPN studio, to be interviewed of sports journalists.

Tebow 3:16-4:1

In short, why is it wrong to be a Tebow fan? Because, when your theology cannot stand up to the nuanced distinction of a Saturday Night Live skit, you have forfeited your right to ask that question.

Response to Star Parker: The Two Rons

Picture of Ron Paul and Ronald Reagan talking
Ron Paul and Ronald Reagan chat during Reagan's presidential campaign.

Star Parker is a conservative commentator we hipster conservatives generally appreciate. We believe she agrees with us that America’s biggest problems can’t be fixed at the ballot box, but require change to happen in America’s hearts, households, communities, and churches. So we were disappointed when she recently slammed some of our fellow young conservatives for supporting that perennial Republican presidential candidate and libertarian crank, Ron Paul.

What’s Star got against conservative young people? First, she says, “increasing numbers of my campus hosts ask that I not talk about ‘values.’ Leave out the stuff about marriage, family and abortion, please, and just talk about the economy. The materialism and moral relativism that created our left-wing culture is now infecting our youth on the right.”

Having met many young GOPers, we’d place them in two categories. There are those who are exactly as Star describes: modern materialist libertarian libertines. But there are also those who are not any of these things; who share Star’s and our deep concerns over America’s moral condition. And many in this second category, perhaps more than in the first, support Ron Paul.

It may be true that Ron Paul lacks the conservative bona fides of an acceptable Republican candidate. Yet Star’s three characteristics of Reagan-era conservatism–“Individual freedom, respect for constitutional limitations on government and traditional values”–hew pretty close to Mr. Paul’s constitutional-conservative, pro-individual, pro-life platform.

Star’s subtitle gets to the heart of her objection: “The Ron Paul youth have little interest in a Reagan-like ‘shining city on a hill’ message, or talk about a threatening ‘evil empire’ abroad.”

On economic liberty, national debt, and even family values, Ron Paul stacks up pretty well to other likely Republican nominees. Which is to say, it’s slim pickings this cycle. What truly disqualifies him in Star’s estimation is his rejection of aggressive American foreign involvement. For her, it is a belief in American exceptionalism and invocation of an “evil empire” abroad that make a true conservative.

We agree with Star that America’s problems are primarily moral ones. Even the so-called economic issues (unemployment, education, taxes, government spending, national debt, personal indebtedness, welfare, corporate welfare, and health care) are actually moral issues with a significant economic dimension. But we disagree with the idea that America’s moral character is best displayed by an aggressive drive to bring democracy to the world. Reagan had the Soviets to compare us to: what do we have today? Radical Islam and rogue regimes–i.e., the terrorists Reagan and other presidents funded when we were fighting the Soviets. Perhaps Reagan should not represent the apogee of consistent conservatism.

Young conservatives should care more about moral issues in American politics. But we must also consider whether America remains or ever was the Shining City on a Hill that Reagan imagined. For instance, how can we continue to denounce Communism and all kinds of tyranny while maintaining despotic China as our most-favored trading partner and chief creditor? If we’re serious about knocking out radical Islam, why do we continue to import oil from Saudi Arabia, where women are brutally repressed, gays are flogged or killed, and Christian converts are decapitated? Where is our moral superiority now?

Ron Paul’s variety of classical liberalism is similar to Reagan’s. Both have major problems and for many of the same reasons. Neither is a good foundation for conservative politics today, but American conservatism has much bigger problems than a few young conservatives who support Ron Paul.

–Holgrave