Christianity Today has a jaw-dropping cover-story arguing against tax-exempt status for churches. Paul Matzko of the Cato Institute authors the piece and concludes:
It might not be such a bad thing to lose tax-exempt status. We should consider, at the very least, the cost of maintaining this kind of cultural privilege. The true church of God, after all, is not reliant on its special status in the tax code. We can walk by faith and not by government largess. (p. 49)
It's disappointing that this piece appears in a magazine of "evangelical conviction." It's a thesis that is way out of touch with rank-and-file evangelical attitudes about tax-exemption. Indeed, the effect of such a policy would be draconian for many churches and houses of worship.
The reality is that a loss of tax-exempt status would mean that many churches and seminaries would simply have to close their doors. Property taxes alone would put many out of business. Donors would give far less than they are giving now. Churches that reside on valuable properties in urban locations would be immediately vulnerable. Eventually, so would everyone else. This is not something that evangelicals generally support.
Nor do they support the idea that modern defenses of tax exemptions are somehow comparable to sinful defenses of racism. Yet that is what this article suggests:
Many Christians have forgotten that appeals to religious liberty were once a crucial buttress for Jim Crow segregation. But the rhetoric that conservative Christians used in the early 1980s is very similar to the rhetoric used today, albeit directed at same-sex marriage rather than interracial dating… Many young evangelicals say they are fine with same-sex civil marriage. Conservatives who fear they will be in the minority on the issue may well echo Bob Jones III's complaints about being marooned on "little islands." The tide is already coming in. (pp. 46-47)
The article is deeply flawed in other ways. It treats tax-exemptions as a government subsidy—as if not paying taxes equals the government giving money to churches. From the article:
It is not unreasonable for the irreligious to see tax exemptions as a massive government subsidy for religion… Why then would it be okay to use government power to force everybody in a community to financially contribute to churches? (p. 48)
Really? The reasoning is farcical, especially in light of the history of the founding of our republic. And that is the biggest problem with the article. It fundamentally misunderstands why we have tax-exemptions in the first place. We don't have tax exemptions because of perceived benefits that churches offer to a community. We have tax exemptions because of the "free exercise" guarantee in the First Amendment. Russell Moore has a good short discussion of this in the video below:
Notre Dame law professor Richard Garnett argues similarly:
Many of the recent calls to tax churches rest on the premise that churches owe at least some of their resources to political authorities — to governments — who can decide whether or not to collect and use those resources for their own purposes. In this view, exempting churches from taxation is seen as somehow subsidizing religion. But it is a mistake to equate "not taxing" with "subsidizing," even if in some sense the effect is the same. Governments do not refrain from taxing religious institutions merely because it is politically convenient or socially acceptable to support them. They do and should continue to refrain from taxing churches because their power over them is limited, because "church" and "state" are distinct and because religious freedom is fundamentally important.
Indeed it is "fundamentally important." We are talking about a principle that is rooted in the founding of our constitutional system of government. Tax exemptions are a key way to ensure the "free exercise" guarantee of the first amendment. Are we really going to scrap all this because of the rise of the "nones"?
For these reasons (and others), it is completely wrong in principle and in consequence to support ending tax exemptions for houses of worship. The argument in Christianity Today couldn't be more mistaken on this point.
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Denny Burk is Professor of Biblical Studies at Boyce College, associate pastor at Kenwood Baptist Church, and president of the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood. He blogs at DennyBurk.com.