Ever since John Oliver's piece on evangelists, and the satirical founding of his church "Our Lady of Perpetual Exemption," a new debate has begun to boil over, long simmering in the melting pot of America. Now, with renewed pressure on the IRS to tax religious institutions, after decades of ignoring violations, I'm torn on this new debate in a way that might surprise most people who read this blog. The problem is, simply put, if you tax these religious institutions, you are offering them an open invitation into formal politics. I am an Atheist, and I do not want the government to tax religious institutions.
Taxing an entity means they're paying for the operations of the government, and by law, need to be represented in that government. We actually fought a revolution over that point, "taxation without representation," back in 1776. It's why we exist as a country and aren't now part of the British Commonwealth. If you tax churches, they must be represented, officially, and that's a problem.
"Separation of Church and State" has long been a hallmark of our secular culture; though, it's never been strictly enforced. The original wording that Thomas Jefferson used when explaining the government's position to 19th Century Baptists was:
Believing with you that religion is a matter which lies solely between Man & his God, that he owes account to none other for his faith or his worship, that the legitimate powers of government reach actions only, & not opinions, I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should 'make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,' thus building a wall of separation between Church and State.Basically, there would never be a national church, and no laws could be passed, including tax laws, that would interfere with people's right to worship, as long as opinion does not become action, political or otherwise. "You stay out of government, and we won't oppress you with taxes or legislation because you will have no representation in government." Obviously the modern world would laugh at that with all the evangelicals in office writing bills with a religious slant, but the wisdom of the founders of this country was long-reaching.
The argument to tax these institutions now is that "They're already in politics." This is valid and sure, there are some breaches of "separation," but it was the THREAT of taxes and government interference that mostly kept the churches at bay or forced them to take roundabout routes to influence politics, lest they be seen as political organizations rather than religious ones. Should we levy taxes on these religious institutions, we'll pierce that veil, and any semblance of separation left will vanish. Imagine what churches and religions will do once given the green light to legally raise funds for candidates. They will order their congregations to vote in a certain way, since they would no longer have to qualify for or keep to the rules that would grant them religious exemptions. The tax would become the price for admission to the political arena, and they would gladly pay it to incorporate and function as for-profit organizations or political action committees. If you remember Prop 8 in California, you'd remember the effect that the LDS church had in getting gay marriage banned, after they instructed all of their members how to vote and bussed them in from around the state. In the end, they managed to get their way in one of the most liberal, pro LGBTQ, states in the union. If they can do that there, just ONE sect of christianity, imagine what they could do on the national stage.
We pierced the corporate veil, as well, not too long ago, by officially allowing corporations to donate as much money as they want. They already did anyway, but took roundabout routes and jumped through legal hoops to get their money into the hands of their politicians. Not all of them did this, and not to the extent that they do now, given that it's completely legal. The same will happen with churches, but worse. Businesses and corporations don't own the souls of their members, and they have to pay them. Churches take their people's money and have an unusual power over their income and the actions that they take. This should scare a secular society for, should they become political, these institutions would wield immense power. Those who wish to end the special status of churches and tax them, are not taking into account the influence, REAL influence, over the governments of the world that religion has had all throughout history. There was a reason the people who wrote the Constitution wanted to keep government entirely separate from religion. Should they intermingle too much, they can never be separated. Living in the 1770s, they knew firsthand the power religion had in Europe. I don't think we want or need a high priest overshadowing a puppet government like they have in modern theocracies, like Iran.
Lastly, and what could turn out to be the most dangerous problem with taxing churches, is that all across the South there are ALOT, and I mean ALOT, of small churches. One on every block, sometimes directly across the street from one another. Little white buildings with a congregation of 20 or so, who all donate enough weekly to keep the pastor eating and living just above the poverty line. Tax them, and these smaller churches won't be able to support their pastors, and they will close. This would leave us with, HUGE, for-profit entities suddenly getting a massive influx of new members, refugees of the smaller churches, who couldn't afford the taxes. Their power would become absolute.
I stand with John Oliver when he says evangelists are money-grubbing, victimizing entities, but we shouldn't OFFICIALLY allow that into politics. The dam may be leaking, but let's not dynamite it because we're getting a little wet.