Thursday, August 13, 2015
The soft underbelly of American Christianity. . .
In the 1983 Bob Jones University case, the court ruled that a school could lose tax-exempt status if its policies violated “fundamental national public policy.” Since then the Bob Jones reasoning has not been extended to other kinds of discrimination, but that does not mean it couldn't be. I do not have much fear against losing the privileged status of churches with regard to taxes for any reason EXCEPT for the enforcement of social policy.
The sad fact is that we have grown fat and lazy on the tax exempt diet that has allowed us to indulge ourselves and presume that this privilege is a guaranteed right. We have not been faithful stewards and so the incomes of many congregations, many church institutions, and the national offices of our denominations have hit hard times. Christians no longer are bound by the tithe in legalistic terms but this freedom has left us lazy and weak. Christians give upon average 2-3% of their incomes -- we have abused the freedom to do less instead of more. And so congregations, church institutions, and denominational offices and programs have been forced to cut back, to find other funding sources, and to depend upon both the tax exemptions and federal money we can use as much as possible to do the social work we do. It has not served us well because we have been left weak and vulnerable to the threat and whim of a government which seems poised to enforce social policy even while protecting the right of worship.
According to a piece in TIME:
The federal revenue acts of 1909, 1913, and 1917 exempted nonprofits from the corporate excise and income taxes at the same time that they allowed people to deduct charitable contributions from their incomes. In other words, they gave tax-free status to the income of, and to the income donated to, nonprofits. Since then, state and local laws nearly everywhere have exempted nonprofits from all, or most, property tax and state income tax. This system of tax exemptions and deductions took shape partly during World War I, when it was feared that the new income tax, with top rates as high as 77%, might choke off charitable giving.
We must admit that we have become addicted to the state and federal tax exemptions and have not been as faithful in our giving or our stewardship of the many resources churches have accumulated and now we may find ourselves victims of our own self-indulgence. While I am not at all advocating that we succumb to those who wish to strip such exemptions and take away tax benefits for religious contributions, I do not believe we should let ourselves be vulnerable to the pressure. We need to shore up our giving habits, dispose of properties we do not need, and become leaner but stronger fiscal entities. For years the federal government has influenced us by the offering of federal, state, and local dollars in support of things deemed beneficial but non-sectarian. We ended almost all hospital sponsorship, closed orphanages and adoption agencies, and adapted religious programs to remove religious content in order to hold on to this money too long. If we believe it is good to do and an expression of witness and mercy inherent to our Christian identity, we Christians need to carry the full freight of it all so that if and when the government takes back some of the privilege, we will not be rendered helpless and powerless to continue. This is not the best face of Christianity -- weak, vulnerable, and dependent upon the whims of government to protect our tax exemptions, our religious property exemptions, and the tax benefit for charitable giving.