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Why We Should Tax the Churches

This essay was previously published on AlterNet.

Last November, I attended a debate in the NYU Intelligence Squared series on the topic, “Would the World Be Better Off Without Religion?” One of the audience questions concerned the enormous wealth hoarded by churches, which Christian apologist Dinesh D’Souza defended as follows:

I think in the case of the Vatican, the wealth of the Vatican is in priceless treasures, tapestries, the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, art. Now, let’s remember… it was popes, the Medici popes and so on, who commissioned those paintings. If it wasn’t for Catholicism, we wouldn’t have the Sistine Chapel.

This was the only line of the night that got boos from the audience. It’s easy to see why, since D’Souza was clearly trying hard to overlook the obvious reply: The reason why it was the church that commissioned those artworks, and not some other buyer, is because the church had all the money! The great composers, painters and sculptors of the Renaissance worked for whoever could afford to pay them, which is why they often ended up working for the church even when they were notorious freethinkers, as in the case of Giuseppe Verdi. If it wasn’t for Catholicism, we might not have the Sistine Chapel, but it’s a near-certainty that we’d have different artworks, equally majestic and famous, by the same artists. As Richard Dawkins has suggested, wouldn’t you love to hear Beethoven’s “Evolution Symphony”?

I bring this up because, thanks to the Occupy protests, inequality has come to dominate the American political conversation. Poverty and inequality are at their highest levels since the Great Depression, and there’s a growing clamor to raise taxes on the wealthy to provide more opportunity for the rest of us. I think this is an excellent idea, and I’d like to suggest that beside Wall Street bankers and stock traders, there’s another group of the mega-wealthy that’s often overlooked. Why don’t we consider taxing the churches?

Not all churches or all ministers are rich, but some of them are very rich indeed. And that’s no surprise, because society subsidizes them through a constellation of generous tax breaks that aren’t available to any other institution, even non-profits. For example, religious organizations can opt out of Social Security and Medicare withholding. Religious employers are exempt from unemployment taxes, and in some states, from sales tax. Religious ministers – and no other profession; the law specifies that only “ministers of the gospel” are eligible for this benefit – can receive part of their salary as a “housing allowance” on which they pay no taxes. (Compounding the absurdity, they can then turn around and double-dip, deducting their mortgage interest from their taxes, even when their mortgage is being paid with tax-free money in the first place.) And, of course, churches are exempt from property tax and from federal income tax.

We’re all paying for the special privileges afforded to religion. Your taxes and mine have to be higher to make up the revenue shortfall that the government isn’t taking in because these huge, wealthy churches don’t pay their own way. By some estimates, the property tax exemption alone removes $100 billion in property from U.S. tax rolls. (And it’s not just the big churches where that exemption bites: According to authors like Sikivu Hutchinson, the proliferation of small storefront churches is a major contributor to poverty and societal dysfunction in poor communities, since these churches remove valuable commercial property from the tax base and ensure that local governments remain cash-strapped and unable to provide basic services.) Just about the only restriction that churches have to abide by in return is that they can’t endorse political candidates – and even this trivial, easily evaded prohibition is routinely and flagrantly violated by the religious right.

Combined with a near-total lack of government scrutiny, the privileges granted to religion have enabled megachurch ministers to live fantastically luxurious lifestyles. An investigation by Sen. Chuck Grassley in 2009 gave a rare public glimpse of how powerful preachers spend the cash they rake in from their flocks: jewelry, luxury clothing, cosmetic surgery, offshore bank accounts, multimillion-dollar lakefront mansions, a fleet of private jets, flights to Hawaii and Fiji, and most famously in the case of Joyce Meyer, a $23,000 marble-topped commode. Meyer’s ministry alone is estimated to have an annual take of around $124 million.

Most of these Elmer Gantry-types preach a theology called the “prosperity gospel“. The basic idea of this is that God wants to shower you with riches, but only if you first “plant a seed of faith” by giving your church as much money as you possibly can, trusting that God will repay you tenfold. (The typical ask is for 10% of your annual income – gross, not net; people who tithe based on their net income hate the baby Jesus.) Naturally, this idea has made some churches very, very rich, while making a large number of poor, desperate people even poorer.

One might think this scam would only work for so long before people start to realize that giving all their money away isn’t making them rich. But the pastors who preach it have a very convenient and clever rationalization: when supernatural wealth fails to materialize, they tell their followers that it must be their own fault, that they’re harboring some secret sin that’s preventing God from fulfilling his promises.

But beyond the prosperity gospel, we’re now witnessing a new and even more brazen idea spreading among the American religious right: that the poor should accept their lot without complaint, and that calling for a stronger social safety net or advocating higher taxes on the rich is committing the sin of envy. For example, here’s Watergate felon Chuck Colson, who’s found a profitable after-prison career as a born-again right-wing pundit, denouncing the poor for wanting a better life for themselves:

Despite this, many people insist on soaking the well-off because… what they want is to see their better-off neighbors knocked down a peg. That’s how envy works.

Thomas Aquinas defined envy as “sorrow for another’s good.” It is the opposite of pity. And it is one of the defining sins of our times.

(I would guess that by Colson’s standard, some of the authors of the Bible would also be committing the sin of envy with their denunciations of the rich.)

The right-wing Family Research Council has also joined in, calling for its followers to pray that God stifles the Occupy Wall Street protests; its president, Tony Perkins, has said that Jesus “endorses the principles of business and the free market”. And then there’s this billboard, which asserts that protesters’ demands for health insurance and higher corporate tax rates violate the biblical commandment against coveting. I would’ve thought this was a bizarre joke if not for the fact that so many powerful right-wing Christians are openly saying the same thing.

On its surface, Christianity seems like the least likely religion for this theology of the rich and powerful to take root. The Bible, after all, denounces wealth and praises poverty in no uncertain terms. In fact, Jesus unequivocally commands that Christians should sell all their possessions, give the money to the poor, and live as wandering mendicant evangelists. The famous analogy about a camel going through the eye of a needle was a parable intended to forcefully make the point that it’s almost impossible for a rich person to get into Heaven – and by the Bible’s standard, millions of modern Christians are very rich indeed:

Now a man came up to Jesus and asked, “Teacher, what good thing must I do to get eternal life?”

…Jesus answered, “If you want to be perfect, go, sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.”

When the young man heard this, he went away sad, because he had great wealth.

Then Jesus said to his disciples, “I tell you the truth, it is hard for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven. Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.”

—Matthew 19:16-24

In another verse, Jesus tells his followers not to save money or store up possessions, but to travel constantly with no thought for the future, having faith that God will somehow feed and clothe them each day:

“And he said unto his disciples, Therefore I say unto you, Take no thought for your life, what ye shall eat; neither for the body, what ye shall put on. Consider the ravens: for they neither sow nor reap; which neither have storehouse nor barn; and God feedeth them: how much more are ye better than the fowls?

Consider the lilies, how they grow: they toil not, they spin not; and yet I say unto you, that Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these. If then God so clothe the grass, which is today in the field, and tomorrow is cast into the oven; how much more will he clothe you, O ye of little faith?

And seek not ye what ye shall eat, or what ye shall drink, neither be ye of doubtful mind… But rather seek ye the kingdom of God; and all these things shall be added unto you.”

—Luke 12:22-31

The Bible goes so far as to say that the first community of Christians weren’t just socialists, but communists:

“And all that believed were together, and had all things common; and sold their possessions and goods, and parted them to all men, as every man had need.”

—Acts 2:44-45

By some accounts, this verse is what inspired Karl Marx’s dictum, “From each according to his ability, to each according to his need.” Irony of ironies: Communism began in the pages of the Bible!

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Of course, these commands are nearly impossible to follow, and that’s precisely the point. In the beginning, Christianity was a small, radical sect whose followers expected the world to end within their own lifetimes. It’s no wonder that they saw no use for earthly possessions. But when Christianity became the state religion of the Roman Empire and began to convert the powerful and the comfortable, this would no longer do. No large, organized religion could possibly thrive on precepts like this, and so they were left by the wayside in the pursuit of worldly riches and imperial grandeur.

This pattern happens over and over: Even when it begins among the poor and disenfranchised, religion almost always ends up being co-opted by the wealthy and powerful and used as a convenient excuse to justify inequality. Nothing is more effective at persuading the poor not to rebel or protest than the belief that, if they stay quiet and compliant, they’ll be rewarded after death. As the columnist Ed Weathers wrote, “If you would have your slaves remain docile, teach them hymns.” And this idea isn’t just prominent in Christianity – we also see it in other religions, like Hinduism, which teaches that people’s social caste is the deserved result of the karma they accumulated in past lives. Obey the rich people in this life, and maybe you’ll be reborn as one of them next time!

The repeated exploitation of religion throughout history to further beat down the downtrodden isn’t just a coincidence. Any belief system which teaches people to fix their gazes on another life can by its nature be leveraged to excuse poverty, oppression, and injustice in this one. When we see wealthy preachers joining hands with wealthy bankers to urge the masses to stop protesting and quietly accept their lot, it shouldn’t be surprising – it’s a reminder of the natural order of things. Both groups are privileged elites whose highest concern, with a few rare and honorable exceptions, is hanging on to that privilege.

There’s a lesson here for the 99% of us: If we seek social justice, the only way we’ll ever truly attain it is to overthrow every ideology that promises pie in the sky by and by. As long as our effort is focused, even partially, on another world, it will always be divided and therefore less effective than it could be. (It’s not for nothing that John Lennon put “Imagine no religion” together with “No need for greed or hunger”.) We’ll have real equality and real opportunity when we learn to set aside fantasies of another existence and turn our attention fully to this life and the things of this world, which are the only real or important things.

Image credit: Wolfgang Sauber, released under CC BY-SA 1.0 license


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