Monday, August 24, 2015

John Oliver's call to tax churches would backfire -- badly

A badly photoshopped John Oliver with a laughing hyena. You get the idea.

Disclaimer: I don't intend on addressing politics much on this blog since it's spiritual in nature -- Jesus died for conservatives and liberals alike. But from time-to-time I'd like to show support for our Evangelical friends in institutional churches who are facing unfair criticism and provide House church perspectives on current events.

The short version: taxing American churches as businesses would create a movement that would make the Moral Majority look like a church picnic by comparison. Don't even try it.

The long version: 

John Oliver was hilarious in "Community" -- the few times the show utilized his brand of subtle comedic genius, anyway.

While I haven't seen more than one episode of his new-ish pay-to-watch "Daily Show" knock-off on HBO, I can already say with all confidence that he should give up local politics and stick with comedy.

Following a recent broadcast, Mr. Oliver has become the poster-boy for a recent niche of dissatisfied radical secularists who wish to see churches taxed.

Yes, you read that right. Tax churches. He actually went there. Unfortunately, he's not entirely alone.

Following the passage of Proposition 8 in California (the 2008 ballot referendum to outlaw same-sex marriage in that state),  Bible-believing Christians became a scapegoat; particularly Evangelical denominations and large congregations with influential ministers. Mormons felt the brunt of this criticism, as well. It wasn't long before some rudimentary figures were distributed claiming that church taxes would raise about $70 billion per year to put in government coffers (a sound investment, for sure).

For one reason or another, this now-perennial talking point has gathered steam until getting the attention of Oliver just last week. He produced a well-researched skit in which he set up a bogus tax-exempt church -- Our Lady of Perpetual Exemption -- in order to shame televangelists who are obviously concerned with profit (the infamous Robert Tilton, among them). Ha ha.

The House Church response to this is simple: If there's nothing to tax, then you don't have to worry about what we're doing!

The institutional church response has been varied: from "taxation would destroy the church" to predictions of severe cutbacks to charity and mission activities.

Not that such a ridiculous tax scheme would ever make it past the voters in the current political landscape, but let's assume that existing non-profit churches (the kind which have their own buildings, pay employees, etc.) were taxed like businesses.

For starters, there are many denominations and local churches which do pay their taxes, but nowhere near a majority of them. Some pay-in out of a fear of government control. A growing movement urges churches to forego their default or 501(c)3 status in order to retain the ability to preach freely on any subject (including politics). Others insist that simply being a church (with no IRS 501(c)3 status) is enough, and filing for a tax code status is opening the door to bureaucratic intrusions.

It's worth noting that since 1954, religious organizations have been forbidden by the IRS to engage in endorsing candidates or advocating legislation.

Secondly, this has not stopped all churches from engaging in political activism. Historically Black churches have been doing it since the days of slavery. In 1984, presidential hopeful and professional gadfly Jesse Jackson was dinged by the IRS for his "a Jackson for Jackson" campaign, where passing the plate was used as a fundraising strategy. Around that time there was a renewed focus on making sure churches were staying away from partisan activity -- a few even lost their tax-exempt status.

Predominately Anglo churches -- particularly of the Evangelical persuasion -- are more careful, but also cross this line frequently. Studies are hard to come by, but a 2001 survey found that 47 percent of African-American clergy questioned reported that they had endorsed political candidates from the pulpit; whereas 14 percent of Evangelical Protestant and just five percent of Roman Catholic clergy reported engaging in the same activity.  (More on this lengthy subject here.)

Third, let's assume that predominately Anglo Evangelical churches were to become incorporated as a means of survival. And with their paid-in-full freedom to say what they want to say, let's imagine they begin to invite conservative politicians and candidates into their pulpits. You would see a groundswell of conservative political activity come out of these same churches (which already distribute voter guides and take sides on moral political issues such as the aforementioned Proposition 8, Planned Parenthood funding, etc). Think: the Christian Coalition on steroids.

Finally, the result of this shift in American religious life would backfire on those who would dare persecute the church by taxing her. You would see white Evangelical churches (which tend to drift Republican) engage in the same kind of pulpit-politicking that many predominately Black churches often engage in for Democratic causes. The influx of cash into campaigns and recruitment of church members to campaign for conservatives would quickly counteract (and overwhelm) any liberal goals imagined by those originally upset by Prop 8's defeat in California.

But wait -- wouldn't the additional tax burden close a great number of churches? Certainly, there would be many churches that would disband, merge, move to affluent suburbs, etc. And you'd have a fair number of hucksters who would find other ways to bilk a handful of suckers than abusing religion. And smaller church buildings would not look nearly as clean and well-maintained due to a lack of funds for beautification and repair. But the great majority of these congregations would find a way to pay their taxes. The only people hurting would be those who rely on church charities such as food pantries, shelters, family counseling, etc. -- outreaches that are often the first victims of church budget cuts.

So game on, Mr. Oliver. It won't bother us house churchers, and will only strengthen our institutional church brethren in terms of defeating your political allies. And the negative effects your suggestion will have on our nation's poorest will be your burden (and the taxpayers') to bear.

Sidenote: your fictitious congregation, "Our Lady of Perpetual Exemption," refers to Catholicism, not the PROTESTANT Prosperity Gospel ministers you mock. You're not only barking up the wrong tree, but you're insulting the wrong Christian tradition. Better leave the preaching to us -- you're spending your Sundays in the studio and missing church (see 15:28). We invite you to let the cast and crew off next Sunday and pop in for a visit.

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