Taxing Churches (and other Charitable Non-Profits) is Un-American
Religion & Liberty Online

Taxing Churches (and other Charitable Non-Profits) is Un-American

Poverty Rate Rises To 15 Year HighWithin 48 hours of the Supreme Court issuing its diktat on same-sex marriage, there were already calls for religious organizations that oppose gay marriage to lose their tax-exempt status. But Mark Oppenheimer goes even further. The writer of a regular column on religion for the New York Times argues in Time magazine that “the Supreme Court’s ruling on gay marriage makes it clearer than ever that the government shouldn’t be subsidizing religion and non-profits.”

There is a lot that could be said about this proposal, but one fact needs to be stated clearly: it is un-American.

In the past I’ve had discussions with Oppenheimer on other issues. I don’t often agree with him, but I like him personally. He seems to advocate what he truly believes. I don’t think he is attempting to simply gain attention with a provocative article; I think he considers his proposal to be good for America. I say all this to make it clear that I am not using the term “un-American” as an invective against a despised political opponent. In fact, I don’t use that term as an insult at all, but merely as an accurate description of an idea that is fundamentally at odds with American principles. Taxing churches and other charitable non-profits implies that the people exist to serve the government, rather than the government for the people. That is about as un-American as it gets.

In his article, Oppenheimer provides some unconvincing rationales for his proposal. But the underlying premise is that the government should be the primary, if not the sole, provider of services handled by charities and other non-profits:

Defenders of tax exemptions and deductions argues that if we got rid of them charitable giving would drop. It surely would, although how much, we can’t say. But of course government revenue would go up, and that money could be used to, say, house the homeless and feed the hungry. We’d have fewer church soup kitchens — but countries that truly care about poverty don’t rely on churches to run soup kitchens.

It would almost be understandable if someone who lived in, say, rural South Dakota were to make this claim. But how can anyone who lives in New York—and writes for the New York Times—think that government has been effective and housing the homeless and feeding the hungry? Is he completely unaware that many of the poor in his city, who already get government funding for food, still turn to charity-run soup kitchens and homeless shelters? Is he unaware that city provides funds to these non-profits precisely because they are more effective than the city government at providing such services?

Unfortunately, Oppenheimer is not alone. Many other liberals in America truly do pine for a utopian, Soviet-style solution where we just send a portion of our paycheck to the government and bureaucrats then handle all our societal needs for education, science, religion, etc. Perhaps they are unaware that even countries that “truly care about poverty” enough to spend a third of their GDP on welfare—countries like France (33 percent), Denmark (30.8 percent) and Belgium (30.7 percent)—“rely on churches to run soup kitchens.” Are those countries simply not spending enough money on welfare?

The idea that government bureaucrats know best how to spend your money to take care of you and your neighbor is deeply un-American. Even before the founding of the country, Americans recognized that joining together in non-governmental organizations was necessary to aid our fellow man. If a faction had attempted to use the government’s destructive power of taxation to undermine these efforts it would have been enough set off the American Revolution.

Also, it’s well past time we put to bed the nonsense that by not taxing churches government is “subsidizing” religion. A subsidy is a direct pecuniary aid furnished by a government to a private industrial undertaking, a charity organization, etc. If government was subsidizing religions through non-taxation that would be a form of religious “establishment.” Yet as the Supreme Court noted in Walz vs. Tax Commission of the City of New York (1970), “for the men who wrote the Religion Clauses of the First Amendment the ‘establishment’ of a religion connoted sponsorship, financial support, and active involvement of the sovereign in religious activity.”

Where the authors of the Constitution simply too dumb to know that by not taxing churches they were providing financial support? Of course not.

As the Walz decision points out, “The legislative purpose of a property tax exemption is neither the advancement nor the inhibition of religion; it is neither sponsorship nor hostility.” And as the decision adds,

The grant of a tax exemption is not sponsorship since the government does not transfer part of its revenue to churches but simply abstains from demanding that the church support the state. No one has ever suggested that tax exemption has converted libraries, art galleries, or hospitals into arms of the state or put employees ‘on the public payroll.’

Unfortunately, times have changed. Many people today seem to think that by not being taxed churches, libraries, and art galleries are taking money out of the pocket of the government. But this is a backwards, and un-American, belief. The government doesn’t “subsidize” charitable non-profits; charitable non-profits subsidize society.

Joe Carter

Joe Carter is a Senior Editor at the Acton Institute. Joe also serves as an editor at the The Gospel Coalition, a communications specialist for the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, and as an adjunct professor of journalism at Patrick Henry College. He is the editor of the NIV Lifehacks Bible and co-author of How to Argue like Jesus: Learning Persuasion from History's Greatest Communicator (Crossway).