Churches should have no fear of losing their tax-exempt status
Churches should not operate out of reliance upon any structural authority, even when they accept the benefits of those authorities
Last week during the CNN and Human Rights Campaign’s LGBTQ town hall, former Rep. Beto O’Rourke answered affirmatively when asked if churches and other religious institutions that oppose same-sex marriage should lose their status as non-profits.
The response from conservative religious leaders was some mix of surprise and “I told you so.” Some saw this as the natural progression of LGBTQ advocacy, while others thought it was an example of the left desiring to place religious liberty on the back-burner.
Many were quick to point out that O’Rourke is not (and likely won’t be) the Democratic Party’s nominee for president, other candidates rejected the idea, and people pointed out that it would almost certainly be unconstitutional for a church to be held to a theological test to attain 501(c)(3) status. Even the O’Rourke campaign later clarified (or, backtracked, if you prefer) to say that the candidate was referring to discrimination.
However, once the dust settled, questions and hypotheticals still remained for me: What if churches and other religious organizations didn’t have tax-exempt status? Wouldn’t that make them less beholden to the government? Would they take more opportunities to witness in the political realm?
I talked with Michael Wear, chief strategist with The And Campaign and former faith outreach advisor to President Barack Obama’s 2012 re-election campaign, who pointed out that the only red line restriction for churches are that of endorsement or opposition of a candidate.
Churches can register voters, speak on policy issues and hold political education events. Although political engagement varies across denominations, the only political restriction on churches (or any other non-profit) is that they cannot endorse/oppose or spend a majority of their resources lobbying.
Wear, however, believed that freedom from tax-exempt restrictions would not be a net-positive for churches.
“(A church donor) could give however much money he wanted to the church, on the condition that they use a certain percentage of their resources in order to help a candidate get elected,” Wear said. “The long-term consequences of that would be that people in the pews would have far more paranoia and skepticism that what is being said from the church pulpit is authentic.”
Growing up in the homeschool community of Arizona, I occasionally heard proposals to provide vouchers to homeschool families. You might be surprised that this was not a popular proposal to most of the homeschoolers I knew. The fear was, once the government is providing money for your supplies, they will want to control the supplies you can choose from. Even the potential that no-strings vouchers could eventually become stringed vouchers was too much a possibility for many homeschoolers I knew. They didn’t want to rely on government money to operate. It seemed to me that this was a decent parallel for the privileges and restrictions churches have with their non-profit status.
However, Wear was also skeptical of arguments that there would no longer be something for the government to hold over church’s heads. While I thought churches might be freed from the baggage of potentially losing their tax exemptions, he predicted another route.
“Instead … every state election, every federal election, you’d have candidates making the case that they would lower the tax on churches or … they were going to raise the tax on churches,” Wear said. “Just taxing churches isn’t going to make them less political, it’s going to make them moreso.”
I want to be clear with what I’m not saying. I’m not saying that churches should reject 501(c)(3) status or that the government should revoke it. I’m not even saying that the Johnson Amendment (which restricts non-profits from endorsing or opposing a specific candidate) ought to be repealed as the Trump Administration has proposed.
What I am saying is this: Christians should operate as if there are no restrictions on how they feel led to engage politically.
The political and financial freedoms granted by government should never be the deciding factor in what a church does and does not speak on, or how they choose to do it. Wear is right that a church may no longer hold a high integrity if congregants worry the pulpit is purchased, but currently there is no shortage of implicit advocacy from the pulpit.
I say, take the gloves off and let people decide where loyalty lies. Don’t let fear of state keep churches from doing what they feel is right or trying to find loopholes to advocacy. We do no favors to our integrity by subtly and technically avoiding penalties.
If a church feels moved by God to endorse or oppose specific legislation, political candidates, or parties, they shouldn’t keep themselves from doing so, regardless of whether they may face financial punishment.
If a church feels that their time would be best spent on non-partisan political engagement, facilitating dialogue between ideologies, and encouraging individual acts of civic responsibility, let them do that as well.
We also don’t do ourselves any good by basing so much of our existence in government liberties. The question “can the church survive without tax-exemptions” is embarrassingly America specific, considering the church exists in other places today without them.
Perhaps it’s a straw-man or a useless hypothetical to imagine an America without tax-exempt churches. But maybe it is an opportunity for us to take stock. I suspect there are churches that would happily take up partisan politics if given the opportunity. I suspect there are those who wouldn’t.
These hypotheticals, when not based in fear or finger pointing, can be helpful. As churches we ought to ask ourselves: how are we engaged in our political systems? Where do we avoid speaking or serving out of fear of appearing partisan? How are we limiting our political action and for what reason? Do we limit ourselves for money or for God?
These questions (and more) need contemplation and answering. If it took a jolt from Beto O’Rourke to provide it, then I’m thankful.