"Rendering unto Caesar": The Tax Code and Religion's Special Status
The tolerance shown to all religions in this country is laudable. It is suggest a “big tent” philosophy and generates commerce in the market of ideas. However, the freedoms inherent here are derivatives of the First Amendment. Religion is a speech act as well as an act of assembly. But so is the act of giving any speech on any topic to any assembled group. To be sure, religion plays a significant role in American life and culture, however it is not more special or more protected than, say, rights of the free press, or, for that matter, the right of atheists to hold assemblies in designated buildings. However, over time, religion has received “extra” rights not enjoyed by the other constituents of the First Amendment. Specifically, religious organizations do not have to pay taxes on the profits. Presumably this is because of the automatic assumption that any religion is essentially a non-profit concern. And perhaps there is an argument to be made that individual religious organizations do perform charitable work and should therefore be afforded non-profit status. But could we not also say that a free press performs a service for the community and should therefore be considered a kind of charity? (Especially nowadays, in light of decreased circulation.) What about a political blogger or the local garage band playing at the Kappa Kappa Gamma mixer? The latter two examples may seem to be absurd, but it does suggest ways in which religion has managed to carve a special place for itself beyond its codification within the constitution. We don’t think about the taxation exemption for religion, because the 501c3 status of churches has been with us for so long (1954).
Some American religious leaders have gone so far as to claim that 501c3 is actually unnecessary and that churches in the US are under no obligation to pay taxes in any case. They read the First Amendment’s “free exercise” clause (“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”) meaning that church organization cannot collect taxes from the institution. But this is a willful conflation of the concept of “religion” and the concept of “church.” “Church” is a business concern with real estate, a management structure, and clients. When the collection plate is passed around, the money that is donated is legal tender. Again, it is very probable that the vast majority of church could be construed as chartable. But if the money is going evangelization campaigns and luxuries for the minister it would be a trick of credulity to accept those expenditures as charitable.
This special consideration has emboldened religion, specifically Evangelical Christianity in the US, to seek increasingly larger portions of the franchise. In addition, the strange bedfellowing of the Born Again movement with Goldwater conservatives in the seventies created a powerful and highly successful block within the Republican party. It is a block that would seem foreign and bizarre to the likes of Dewey, Eisenhower, Nixon, and Rockerfeller and an anathema to old time religious zealots who eschewed politics as too worldly. (One should be reminded that Jimmy Carter is Born Again.) Leave it to the actor, Ronald Reagan to take into his vacuous psyche this political chimera and make it a plausible ruling philosophy. Thus we have witnessed thirty years church and state flirtation. While this has meant relatively little in terms of real political change (no prayer in school; abortion is still available, and despite occasional gains in many back waters, Creationism is not taught in public schools), it has created a culture of acceptable, mainstreamed fanaticism. We can see this in the Christian Right’s dubious embrace of Zionism. By purporting to support Israel unconditionally, the far-Right has actually appropriated holocaust guilt to make the claim that they are under attack; that Christianity must be protected against the forces of secularism in America. After all, wasn’t Nazism a secular movement? In casting themselves as the victims of intolerance, the Christian right has attempted to make themselves impervious to criticism. After all, if you are critical of the State of Israel and its treatment of Palestinians, then you are naturally an anti-Semite. And since WE (the Christian Right) believe in Israel’s cause, you are therefore anti-Christian as well. You are intolerant! Assuming underdog status when you are actually in the ascendency is a powerful way of having your rhetorical cake and eating it too.