Why aren’t churches taxed? This seems like a legitimate question.
The First Amendment says this:
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.
We often only pay attention to the negative aspect here, that government shall make no provision for a state religion, that the state and the church shall remain separate. But the positive is just as important, that the people shall be “free” to exercise religion or, interestingly as an attached clause, the freedom of speech. No where does it enunciate or establish the acceptable content of either religion or free speech, yet it extends it protection. “Free” is an essential and necessary stipulation in this case. It establishes that in fact churches have always been exempt from taxes; taxes being a method of state control.
Second, the observation that with the rise of the religious right, Christianity has become more politically vocal and active than ever before. This is actually an historical anachronism and is the product of a misunderstanding or functioning historic reductionism. The reality is that with application of the 501c3 tax status, Christianity has been dramatically muzzled for the last fifty years or so. It is only in recent times, where both the Republican establishment and conservative segments of Evangelicalism have essentially endeavoured to co-opt one another, that we have seen the reconstitution of a vocal religious lobby.
Further, I would go so far as to assert that the conception of disestablishment that our forebears operated by was dramatically alien to our modern understanding. For example, in Delaware a public oath affirming the doctrine of the Trinity was required. As well, Massachusetts and South Carolina both had state supported churches. And in New York Catholics were forbidden from holding public office from 1777 til 1806. On top of that, many states required a state license to preach. If we look back carefully enough I think that we will find that in matters of Faith, the rights of the state governments trumped Federal rights in the minds of early Americans, the provision in the U.S. Constitution existing to prevent a National Church, not the integration of local governments with ecclesiastical bodies. The more modern presentation of the separation of church and state (which I personally subscribe to as both a political and theological necessity) as a more clearly demarcated boundary was, I think in quite the minority. The present view we owe, as a secular ideology to Thomas Jefferson and predominately to James Madison, whose position was as much, if not more, influenced by theological convictions as philosophical ones. And though I decry political activism from the pulpit, the church must not be suppressed or the threat of legal reprisal when they speak upon issues which are reflective of the content of their theological systems. Though I would contend that political activism is essentially the purview and civic obligation of the citizen grounded upon Natural Law, not the Gospel, yet I assert that as an educated reflection than the representation of authorized dogmatism.
As to the question of the Church being a charity, to depict it as just another charity is to fundamentally lack a grasp of the duties of ecclesiastical officers and the spirituality of the Church. The purpose of the Church is to preach the Gospel, make disciples and to baptize, not to debate party politics from the pulpit nor to bind the conscience of its members with unauthorized electoral commissions. Any attempt to attest to the worth of a political party or ideology is simply an illegitimate shibboleth.
Finally, we need to dispense with the Marxist definition of religion as the opiate of the masses. The truth is that people, when bombarded by the despair generating systematic derangement of the senses that is life, will use anything they can latch onto to dissociate themselves from reality. For some, that is indeed religion, for others drugs, sex, exercise, you name it, we can use it to escape the suffocating reality of life.
To tax religion is to subordinate the conscience the autocratic notions of civil bureaucracy. It must be maintained as a separate institution not beholden to the secular, civil commitments of a government that administers a culturally and ideologically diverse society. And the potential for syncretic appropriation is a door that swings both ways. Religion is the exercise of a free conscience, no different in that regard from political speech or artistic expression.
I’ll end with a few excerpts from James Madison’s Memorial and Remonstrance Against Religious Assessments written to the state of Virginia in response to “A Bill establishing a provision for Teachers of the Christian Religion”.
2. Because Religion be exempt from the authority of the Society at large, still less can it be subject to that of the Legislative Body. The latter are but the creatures and vicegerents of the former. Their jurisdiction is both derivative and limited: it is limited with regard to the co-ordinate departments, more necessarily is it limited with regard to the constituents.
The preservation of a free Government requires not merely, that the metes and bounds which separate each department of power be invariably maintained; but more especially that neither of them be suffered to overleap the great Barrier which defends the rights of the people. The Rulers who are guilty of such an encroachment, exceed the commission from which they derive their authority, and are Tyrants. The People who submit to it are governed by laws made neither by themselves nor b y an authority derived from them, and are slaves.
Who does not see that the same authority which can establish Christianity, in exclusion of all other Religions, may establish with the same ease any particular sect of Christians, in exclusion of all other Sects? that the same authority which can force a citizen to contribute three pence only of his property for the support of any one establishment, may force him to conform to any other establishment in all cases whatsoever?
15. Because finally, “the equal right of every citizen to the free exercise of his Religion according to the dictates of conscience” is held by the same tenure with all our other rights.
If we recur to its origin, it is equally the gift of nature; if we weigh its importance, it cannot be less dear to us; if we consult the “Declaration of those rights which pertain to the good people of Virginia, as the basis and foundation of Government,” it is enumerated with equal solemnity, or rather studied emphasis.
Either then, we must say, that the Will of the Legislature is the only measure of their authority; and that in the plenitude of this authority, they may sweep away all our fundamental rights; or, that they are bound to leave this particular right untouched and sacred:
Either we must say, that they may control the freedom of the press, may abolish the Trial by Jury, may swallow up the Executive and Judiciary Powers of the State; nay that they may despoil us of our very right of suffrage, and erect themselves into an independent and hereditary Assembly or, we must say, that they have no authority to enact into the law the Bill under consideration.