Response to a Proposal to Eliminate Tax-Exempt Status for Churches

Mark Oppenheimer, columnist of the biweekly "Beliefs" column for The New York Times, recently fired the next shot against Christians and churches in his article "Now's the Time To End Tax Exemptions for Religious Institutions." The elimination of tax-exempt status for churches is the obvious next "radical step" (his words, not mine) by the same minority of activists that use the courts and executive fiat to achieve what they cannot legislatively.

Oppenheimer correctly accounts a brief history of tax-exempt status: "The federal revenue acts of 1909, 1913, and 1917 exempted nonprofits from the corporate excise and income taxes at the same time that they allowed people to deduct charitable contributions from their incomes. In other words, they gave tax-free status to the income of, and to the income donated to, nonprofits. Since then, state and local laws nearly everywhere have exempted nonprofits from all, or most, property tax and state income tax."

Oppenheimer also describes some of the weaknesses of such a system. One problem is that the IRS has become the default arbiter in deciding what's a religion. Another issue is the abuses of the system by certain megachurch pastors, televangelists, and Church of Scientology leader David Miscavige. A third deals with property tax exemptions, which automatically forces homeowners and businesses to pay more. He concludes, "In short, the exemption-and-deduction regime has grown into a pointless, incoherent agglomeration of nonsensical loopholes, which can allow rich organizations to horde plentiful assets in the midst of poverty."

The points Oppenheimer makes are worth discussion, but I have issues with the possible motive, the philosophical grounds, the logical consistency, and the potential outcomes of his suggestion.

Regarding motive, Oppenheimer states, "I'm a gay-rights supporter who was elated by Friday's Supreme Court decision [to extend the state's recognition of marriage to homosexual partners]." In other words, he is connecting state-sanctioned same-sex marriage to a discussion of tax-exempt status for churches. The two subjects are not, in their essence, the least bit related...unless you are an activist seeking to punish those that disagree with the state. Taxation of the undesirables is the first step. Government-sanctioned boycotts will follow. Perhaps then we will be branded, placed in ghettos, or shipped off to "re-education camps." An overreaction? Perhaps, but maybe we should ask Lutheran pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer what the cost is for dissenting against a government who wants to silence your opinion.

Why use the Supreme Court decision to push for taxation of churches? Why now? With the communicative power of social media, the influential forces of a relative few can have widespread effects. Witness all the corporations and celebrities making a mass overnight exodus of the Confederate Flag. All the businesses and people putting as much distance as possible between themselves and Donald Trump. It matters not what the issue is. If a topic becomes hot, social media is the way to force your beliefs into the mainstream quickly. Perhaps Oppenheimer would like his views to be adopted by the same "If-I'm-offended-it-must-be-changed" crowd. They apparently know how to get things done.

The philosophical grounds of Oppenheimer's ideas are both interesting and troubling. He says that "the government shouldn't be subsidizing religion and non-profits." This is the statement of a statist/socialist/communist (take your pick, I don't know which in this case). They believe, "All income, property, and even humans belong to the state. The state graciously allows you to keep some of it. Bow down to the state. Acquiesce. And if you disagree, keep your views to yourself. If you don't, we'll use the power of the sword to tax and punish you." As someone who values God-given individual rights and the Constitution's promise to protect them, this idea of "subsidizing religion" rings hollow.

Oppenheimer's suggestion is not logically consistent. On the one hand, he bemoans the idea of accountants at the IRS defining religion. But then he wants to allow certain non-profits ("hospitals, in particular, are an indispensable, and noncontroversial, public good") to maintain tax-exempt status. So he wants to tax Catholic churches but not the hospitals Catholic churches run? He says that "localities could always carve out sensible property-tax exceptions for nonprofits their communities need." Such as Catholic Charities? Or a Baptist-run community center? What about churches that open their gym to the public, or provide a nursery for single moms, or have a tutoring program for kids? Who is going to decide what is "sensible" and "noncontroversial?" Accountants at the IRS? No, for obvious reasons. All must be approved by gay-rights activists, an oligarchy in Washington, or perhaps by Oppenheimer himself.

The potential outcomes of Oppenheimer's suggestion would be harmful. He suggests having the state take an even wider role in the reduction of poverty. This would, in his opinion, theoretically cover the shortfall that would come to religious institutions. There are too many problems with this idea to address adequately here, but at the core is this issue: When the state is looked upon as the solution to my problems, then I neither have to account for myself nor seek neighborly assistance from those who love and care for me. The state neither loves nor cares, and the state does a poor job in helping me lift myself to a place where I can fulfill my dreams. Churches, on the other hand, have been doing that for two millennia.

There's still the legitimate issues that Oppenheimer raises. If tax-exemptions for religious institutions seem unfair, don't strip them away. Change the way the government receives taxes. Eliminate the income tax and replace it with a tax system that "punishes" people not for making income, but for spending it. The more people are encouraged to save, the more money charities of all sorts will have for the common good.

Unless there is a massive shift in public thinking, however, religious institutions will likely lose this battle. As our critics like to remind us, evangelical Christians are on the wrong side of history. But I would like to remind our critics of an important point raised by Russell Moore: We started on the wrong side of history. On one side was the massive Roman empire, and on the other was a cross. But now Rome is dead and Jesus is alive. So in the end, it does not matter how secularists want to punish us: taxation, imprisonment, or death. We know how the story will conclude, for we've read the end of the Book.