Why Religious Tax Exemption Helps Politicians More Than Churches

King Louis VIII bows in submission to the Archbishop of Reims at his coronation, circa 1223 AD.
Painted in the 1450s, kept in the National Library of France

Lately there has been an awful lot of talk about religion and politics, and by that I mean, not in a good way. A lot of this centres around same-sex 'marriage' and religious liberty. In the midst of all this ruckus I hear left-wing voices shout 'end religious tax exemption!' Some have even gotten so bold as to put conditions on it, by saying if churches won't support same-sex 'marriage' they should have their tax exemption removed. In the face of such threats and ultimatums, I have to laugh. Mainly because if these people actually got what they wanted, it would be the end of them, politically speaking. Their political momentum would come to a grinding halt. When they decry religious tax exemption, what they are unwittingly advocating is the victory of religion over politics. Be careful what you wish for.

The irony to this is that such cries are meant to be a threat. When they're made, those who make them hope to silence their religious opposition. The idea is that fear of losing tax exempt status will result in religious institutions cowering into silence about whatever social issue is causing the ruckus in the first place. Why do they think this? Because it's worked in the past, and actually, it's worked fairly well. Most of the time, when Christians (for example) are confronted with the argument that tax exemption should be revoked for their churches, they back down, and in that very cowering we see the power the religious tax exemption holds over churches and religious people.

You see, so long as the tax exemption status exists, for religious institutions in America, politicians and political hacks hold this power over them. However, if it actually is removed, everything changes. As soon as it's gone, all bets are off. Religious institutions will no longer be compelled to restrain themselves on any political issue, party or candidate. Religious leaders will be able to speak freely on all of them, without fear of losing anything, because you see, they've already lost their tax exempt status. So they have nothing left to lose. Removing the tax exempt status would effectively make religion the most powerful political influence in the United States. Churches would be free to endorse particular candidates for elections by name, and particular parties for voting blocks. In fact, it goes further than that. Not only could they endorse certain candidates and parties, but they could also condemn them too. I'm not just talking about the typical negative campaigning one sees on television these days. I'm talking about the hell, fire, and brimstone preached from pulpits all over the country, in which pastors warn their congregations of national perdition, and the loss of salvation, if they vote for certain candidates. No longer fearing any loss of tax-exempt revenue, and subject to no election laws (because they won't need to spend a dime on advertisements), they'll have a captive audience in their pews every Sunday, and they'll drive the fear of God right into their voting habits. There won't be a darn thing anybody can do about it, because you see, it's all just 'freedom of religion' and historically (as well as legally) speaking, the ONE AND ONLY THING that has so far kept religion out of politics, is that little 501(c)(3) status on their annual tax forms. If you think religion is too involved in the political process now, go ahead and revoke that religious tax exemption. You haven't seen anything yet!

Then of course there is that little tool churches have, which up to this point has been kept relatively quiet, but you can bet it will be trumpeted from the rooftops just as soon as religious tax exemption is revoked. It's that little thing called 'excommunication'. Some churches call it 'disfellowship' but whatever the name, the result it the same. It is a penalty that religions use for members who refuse to repent of sin, after being repeatedly warned, and thus bring scandal upon the church due to their obstinate refusal. It is a punishment reserved only for the most egregious offenders of religion. Would it surprise you to know that many of America's federal politicians have received such a sentence, or something equivalent, from their various religious affiliations? Yes, that's right. Many of America's federal politicians, along with a good number of state and city politicians as well, actually cannot legally receive holy communion in their own churches, because they've either been formally or informally excommunicated. I bet you didn't know that. But do you know why you didn't know that? The reason why you probably didn't know that is because most churches keep it private, or at least very low key. The politician is notified, usually by a phone call or private letter, that he/she has been excommunicated, and this matter is just kept between the politician and his/her religious organisation. It's done this way primarily for two reasons. First, churches usually don't want to publicly humiliate those who have been excommunicated. This is primarily because the goal of excommunication is to shock the person being excommunicated into repentance, thus ending the scandal, so they can be received back into the church with open arms. Second, when it comes to politicians, there is another reason. It has to do with that little 501(c)(3) status again. You see, informing everyone in a church that some particular politician has been excommunicated, could possibly be misinterpreted as electioneering or campaigning for his opponent, especially if this has been done during or near an election cycle. So once again, churches keep it quiet. However, if you get rid of the tax exempt status for churches, all of this will end. Churches will be free to openly declare which politicians have been excommunicated, even during an election cycle, depending on the level of scandal they are bringing upon a church, and the prerogative of the religious leader in charge. Again, nobody will be able to do anything about it, because it is after all just freedom of religion. It's covered under the 1st Amendment in the Bill of Rights, and now that there is no longer a tax exemption for religious institutions, its open season on political parties and politicians. So you see, the biggest beneficiaries of the 501(c)(3) religious tax exempt status are not really churches. They are rather politicians and political parties, because you see, allowing churches to keep that status, in exchange for their silence on candidates and parties, helps certain candidates and parties remain politically viable.

I find the whole thing both ironic and amusing really. While revoking tax exemption for a particular denomination, or all religions in general, would cause a temporary mess, churches would recover. If you think tax exemption is the only thing keeping people going to church, well, you're in for a surprise. I for one would continue giving money to my Church, regardless of its tax exempt status, and I think most religious people feel the same way. The only thing it would accomplish is to make us angry at the government for no longer letting us write off that money. I wouldn't be angry at my Church, my priest, or my God. I would be angry at the government, and especially the politicians responsible for this. I suspect most religious people would feel the same. So I say to all of my politically left-leaning friends, if you're really serious about revoking tax exempt status for my church (or any church), than go ahead and bring it. You'll cause a little trouble for us in the short-term, but in the long-term you'll be putting yourselves out of business. Like I said, if you think religion is too involved in government now, go ahead and revoke tax exemption for churches. You haven't seen anything yet.

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Shane Schaetzel is a published author and columnist for Christian print magazines and online publications. He is a freelance writer and the creator of 'FullyChristian.Com -- The random musings of a Catholic in the Ozarks.'

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