A Weapon Against the Churches: Mark Oppenheimer Wants the Government to Tax Them
Just as soon as same-sex “marriage” is made legal at the federal level, the cultural contest shifts. Over the weekend, Mark Oppenheimer published a column in TIME calling for the abolition of tax-exempt status for conservative churches. Oppenheimer, a respected New York Times columnist — he writes the paper’s “Beliefs” column — put it that straightforwardly:
Rather than try to rescue tax-exempt status for organizations that dissent from settled public policy on matters of race or sexuality, we need to take a more radical step. It’s time to abolish, or greatly diminish, their tax-exempt statuses.
If religious institutions crash and burn, the government can just step in and take their place. Giving to these institutions would drop, he concedes:
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.
The Scientologists will be out of business — and the crowd roared with approval!
On the other hand, the IRS famously caved and awarded the Church of Scientology tax-exempt status. Never mind that Scientology is secretive, or that it charges for its courses; or that its leader, David Miscavige, lives like a pasha. Indeed, many clergy have mid-six-figure salaries — many university presidents, seven-figure salaries — and the IRS doesn’t trouble their tax-exempt status.
Sure, he says, a few congregations might have to close up shop — which is mildly unfortunate — but should ecclesial tax-exemption be taken away, several major problems of American society will magically resolve. This is some plan!
What Should We Think About This?
First, we should see that this argument represents a cultural revolution — one that will irrevocably damage our nation. America has been a famously religion-friendly society. In terms that mystified visitors, this country has long made vital piety a constituent part of the body politic. Here’s Alexis de Tocqueville in Democracy in America, published in 1835:
Religion in America takes no direct part in the government of society, but it must be regarded as the first of their political institutions; for if it does not impart a taste for freedom, it facilitates the use of it.
This climate has fostered untold societal benefits, but secularists like Oppenheimer see it differently. In their view, there is no difference between the First Baptist Church of East Machias, Maine and jihadist Islam. It’s all of a piece, says the distrustful onlooker, shaking his head ruefully. Religion kills people, and it harms those it doesn’t kill. Time to get rid of it. If you have a chance to blame the religious, you have to take it, right? (Never mind the farcical data. It just sounds right.)
Second, we need to remind others that religious groups strengthen communities and do so in ways no other social institution is able to do. Let me draw from my own church in Louisville. The teaching and preaching from Scripture calls them to be responsible and honest and virtuous in Christ. We stand for the rightness of government and the need to honor our leaders. We help each other be good citizens and good neighbors.
We believe in worshipping God to the full, and also in loving our neighbor to the max (see Matthew 22:35-39). Because of this commitment, we preach at the local nursing home to lonely old people. We sponsor efforts to adopt children from desperate circumstances. We go to the local abortion clinic and seek to rescue babies and their mothers from desperate situations. We help young women have their babies and then start new lives. We give sacrificially, and some of this money helps people in our congregation and some of it goes to help the poor beyond the church.
Individually, we serve our neighbors in all sorts of ways. Just as importantly, we deal with people one on one the way government can never do. These ministries cost us a great deal in terms of time and exertion, but we do them as Christians gathered together in that church to serve God.
This is just one local church. Multiply this tens of thousands of times over and you have a small sense of all that churches do for society. As studies have made clear, religious people give a great deal of money to their congregations, and this giving enables their congregations to serve their communities. Being tax exempt allows the churches to use more of this money for others. All this will fade away should Oppenheimer’s grand secular strategy come to fruition.
Third, we should call Oppenheimer’s arguments what they are: societally destructive. He seems to think that churches losing their privileged positions will be just peachy for society, because the government will then step in and execute the same work with extreme competency. His faith in big government is touching, but naive. Consider how the Great Society programs have fared. The government often does a much worse job of distributing funds and targeting local needs than community-specific outfits that must give local account for their operations.
Fourth, we should challenge Oppenheimer on the way he makes his case. He dislikes Scientology. He’s fit-to-be-tied that the group was given a tax-exemption as a religion. But Scientology is quite different from the vast spectrum of American churches. Oppenheimer has used a tiny group at the margins to deny an obvious truth about the myriad groups at the center. Oppenheimer would nuke a thriving continent to vanquish an unwanted mouse.
He also notes the awkwardness of the IRS determining what is and isn’t a church. But instead of dealing with that problem, he doubles down on it, and encourages exponentially greater government involvement to regulate congregations. A most vexing solution, this. His comments on Yale and universities are in truth a screen to hide his real target: churches, particularly those “that dissent from settled public policy on matters of race or sexuality.”
Here we behold the Oppenheimer Project with unveiled face. It isn’t really about redirecting a few odd dollars and cents currently going to religious nutjobs. It’s about smashing into oblivion those who dare to resist the late stages of the sexual revolution. They no longer deserve to thrive, or perhaps even exist, in this country.
Oppenheimer’s proposal, if enacted, will reshape America. It will affect very few fat cats — no one is ever going to take Yale’s tax exemption away from it! — and will crash like a great thudding battering ram into scores of assemblies led by poorly-paid, overworked, stubbornly others-centered Christian leaders. The average congregational size in America, according to one estimate, is 89 people. Few heads of such assemblies can afford to have just one job, let alone live like the “pashas” Oppenheimer bravely rises to dethrone.
Should this tectonic scheme come to pass, local churches will face forbidding tax bills and will have to pay incredible portions of money to the government (local and federal) to simply exist. They will redirect heaps of funds away from public outreach and communal uplift in just one direction: the gaping maw of the ever-enlarging American Bureaucracy. The soup kitchens, VBS programs, nursing home ministries, counseling services, adoption agencies and thousand other undertakings of countless congregations will suffer, and in many cases close up shop.
But do not fear, little flock: your mother, great government herself, will be very glad to collect your money and take up this work. Mark Oppenheimer says so.
The Oppenheimer Project seems, on its face, thoughtful and analytical. In truth, it operates by an embarrassingly materialist mindset — Hey, there’s a lot of taxable property out there! Let’s just grab it, guys! — and it willfully blinds itself to the untold benefits of religion. This proposal — and others like it — is not a tweak to the American engine. It is a rending of the American fabric.
I am thankful for the panoply of religious groups that have flourished in this country, from the Moravians to the Baptists to the Catholics to the New York Times priestly class. This is no perfect place, and being such a religion-friendly society definitely raises some difficult issues for us all. But our nation benefits enormously from the work of churches that their tax-exemptions aid — work that will not be done by anyone else, and certainly not by the government.
The Oppenheimer Project is no trifling suggestion. Like a certain scientific outfit of the mid-1940s, its consequences could well prove atomic.
For more on Oppenheimer and the threat to churches, see his follow-up article on his blog Thoughtlife, Why Does TIME Want to Drop the Hammer on Churches?.