Christianity Today, long a periodical interested in the state of Christianity in America and beyond, chose as its first “The Hidden Cost of Tax Exemption.” Noted historian Paul Matzko makes a case for why American churches may be better off by refusing the “governmental largesse” of tax exemption.of the new year an article entitled,
In truth, however, rather than make churches more ideologically faithful, the loss of tax exemption for churches would invade upon church autonomy and curb religious liberty.
The article portrays America as populated by those who “view churches as basically parasitical.” Pastors live large off the largesse that comes from tax exemption, feeding on the benefits their churches drain from their host community without returning much, if any, noticeable benefit. Tax exemption is appealing, according to this cover story, because of a historical desire of churches to propagate racism, as well as to further discrimination against the LGBTQ community.
This of course comes, we read, through another temptation: Political power. Ever since President Lyndon Johnson, churches have been hellbent on unshackling themselves from the government’s control in order to maintain political dominance. In short, the article suggests that tax exemption has led to the American church abandoning the sanctifying effects of the Gospel for the enticing sins of greed, gluttony, racism, and bigotry.
Any hope that the article would temper its criticisms against the intangible good churches supply is quickly dashed because, we are told, the exemption “is not available in any way to the irreligious” and may instead be “a massive government subsidy for religion.” Ecclesiastical charitable acts could, after all, be covered by others because “the tax-exempt status of churches isn’t a requirement for people of faith to do good works.”
It is a dim, if not cynical, view of the American church. Whether churches in Sod, West Virginia caring for a community bedeviled by an opioid crisis or churches in Gas City, Indiana caring for struggling farmers feel they have access to “political power” or “cultural privilege,” either now or in the past, appears immaterial. Reading the article, one almost feels the need to cheer on churches to voluntarily relinquish tax exemption and assuage their moral culpability.
Tax exemption is no mere privilege bestowed by a beneficent government upon a lesser entity it controls. It is a recognition that churches — and all houses of worship — maintain an independent autonomy to pursue their duty to a higher authority than government. That is what the exemption recognizes.
As James Madison famously said in his “Memorial and Remonstrance” of 1785, “what is here a right towards men, is a duty towards the Creator.” Government may not interfere with that duty of man toward his Creator, but is instituted among men to protect the exercise of that duty of man toward his Creator.
That is why it is illegal for the city of Houston, Texas to use its power of eminent domain to seize property owned byin order to move in businesses that can then become taxable engines to fill the coffers of city hall. It is also why the city of Holly Springs, Mississippi cannot limit access to its town square to those who look like the rest of the community, rather than the growing black congregation, .
Yet, according to this cover story: “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 largesse.”
It must hurt the average pastor in America to read this article. Do we really think that the pastors of those churches in the Fifth Ward and Holly Springs are not members of the “true church of God” because they are exempt from taxation? Do churches — and other houses of worship — really maintain their grip on “cultural privilege” because they crave the government’s “largesse” more than religious fidelity?
The “true church of God” is less a target to be taxed or a parasite to be crushed and more a quiet blessing upon a world in need of the peace they preach and acts of service they humbly perform. A local gathering of religious believers should be viewed as a human right of religious association and free exercise worthy of protection, rather than a potential stream of revenue.
Jeremy Dys () is Special Counsel for Litigation and Communications for First Liberty Institute, a non-profit law firm dedicated to defending religious freedom for all Americans. Read more at .