KELO takes a church; utilitarianism on the march

Heather Wilhelm details how a church (non-tax-paying) is being taken to make room for tax revenues!

Since the Supreme Court’s controversial Kelo decision last summer, eminent domain has entered a new frontier. It’s not just grandma’s house we have to worry about. Now it’s God’s house, too. “I guess saving souls isn’t as important,” says Reverend Gildon, his voice wry, “as raking in money for politicians to spend.” The town of Sand Springs, Oklahoma, has plans to take Centennial Baptist — along with two other churches, several businesses, dozens of small homes, and a school — and replace them with a new “super center,” rumored to include a Home Depot. It’s the kind of stuff that makes tax collectors salivate. It’s also the kind of project that brakes for no one, especially post-Kelo. “I had no idea this could happen in America,” says Reverend Gildon, after spending Monday morning marching in the Sand Springs Martin Luther King Day parade.

A heavily-taxed, “social welfare” minded government is always going to be a more utilitarian, more “results oriented” sort of government – one that will undervalue those things which are not tangibly “useful” to either the lawmakers or to their perceptions of what “society” needs.

In such a world, what cannot be measured and exploited is perceived to be of dubious or narrow value. To utilitarians, a church that pays no taxes (even if it feeds and clothes and helps find employment for locals having some hard luck) is essentially a waste of good commercial space. A monastery, whether Buddhist or Christian, is nothing more than a greedy and exclusive landgrab that has no “public benefit.”

To such a mindset, anyway, it has no public benefit.

Dame Laurentia McClachlen of Stanbrook Abbey, Sussex once said “a monastery is like a powerhouse; you do not lock up a powerhouse to restrain the power, but to keep anyone from coming in and gumming up the works. A monastery is a powerhouse of prayer, meant to give light to the whole world.”

It goes without saying that I believe this. I believe that a house of prayer – particularly a house of contemplation, but really any church – brings nothing but good to its surrounding communities, no matter if those communities do not ascribe to the religion. I would be as delighted to find a group of Buddhist monks moving into a small local (and fading) monastery as the I would be to see more nuns show up. If a church or a prayer community is faithful, true to its charism, then it cannot help but be a boon to a community both materially (if it includes an outreach program) and spiritually…and in unexpected ways.

I cannot cite documentation – the things I have read have all been anecdotal – but we Catholics know of many instances wherein a parish, deciding to bring perpetual adoration (which is very contemplative) into the mix has seen enormous change within its neighborhoods, not merely in terms of church attendance (and vocations) but in terms of the overall economic and social health of the area. It’s one of those things that can be viewed as completely subjective – some could conclude that a community turned around for other, tangible reasons (the economic health of the nation improved, a new business opened, people planted flowers, whatever) and yet, time and again, we have seen areas that have re-dedicated themselves to prayer be completely turned around.

Prayer is a force, and it has power.

There are things seen and unseen. Things corporeal and things spiritual. Things natural and supernatural. A society bent on utilitarianism serves only the seen, the corporeal, the natural, and neglects the things unseen – at great risk.

I know an atheist or a bureaucrat might not understand or accept this, but what is truly important and valuable to people, and to communities – and maybe even to a nation – often cannot be measured in flow charts and columns; it cannot be harnessed and tied down and made to conform to black and red accountant columns. It is not accountable. But we have seen the fruits of those socialistic societies which forget the supernatural. They flounder and inevitably fail. In Europe they are failing even as I write this.

A utilitarian society is one in which small, crabbed, self-important bureaucrats have won the day – wherein they have managed to dot every i and cross every t, and blot each entry before locking those valuable ledgers away. A utilitarian society may even have trains that run on time. But it is a society that is essentially empty because balanced books, as satisfying to the eye as they might be, do not bring love or goodness or generosity or philosophy or beauty to the world. And a soul (or a country) enslaved to their upkeep dies a dreary death – alone, unmourned and unsung.

Bizzyblog has more thoughts on the story,and writes:

“…if you attend church, ask yourself: Is your church on a busy street, or near a retail center, or simply not liked by your community’s powers that be? Post-Kelo, as predicted by Don Sensing and many others when the decision came down, it looks like your church could be vulnerable to a taking at any time.”

He also links to a few bloggers who predicted that under Kelo the churches would be at risk. The Larsonian observes that churches without outreach may be particularly susceptible:

When a church isn’t safe in Oklahoma, it isn’t safe anywhere.

Here’s another graph from the story about which I will comment:

It makes sense on one level. Churches don’t generate any tax revenue for the government to spend. They don’t “stimulate” the economy. They often, much to their peril, occupy prime, envied real estate. With the supercharged powers granted by Kelo, be very, very afraid.

Once a church occupied a place on the city square, true enough. Churches were–and in some places I’ve been they still are–social centers of communities. As for their tax exempt status, the charitible works of a church were once considered a good in themselves. Not so much anymore, it would appear. (Note to self: How visible are the works of local congregations these days? Are inward-facing congregations going to be most at-risk?)

Molten Thoughts is also following this.

More thoughts: I’ve received a few emails from people suggesting that this is a small issue, given that the church in OK had “only 50 members.”

Here in NY, there are lots of churches – probably at this point, I would say the majority of churches, Catholic and non, have what would be considered “small” member numbers. NYC residents are not notorious church-goers. Some churches, street-bound, see very little traffic during the week. Some churches, like the recently (and beautifully) restored St. John’s which is across the street from Penn Station, get lots of transient and commuter visitors throughout the day, both for worship and for confession (the Capuchin friars there are great confessors), and they feed a lot of people a few days a week, but in terms of sheer numbers, the parish would seem unimpressive. And given its primo location, it would not be at all surprising to see an attempt to take it over for revenue-increasing commercial use. Don’t suppose that only a “small” church is at risk, in this situation. And don’t suppose only certain denominations are at risk, or only Christian (but not Jewish or Muslim or Buddhist) houses of prayer are at risk. They’re all at risk. KELO needs to be defanged. Legislators need to know how you feel about it.

WELCOME: Polipundit and Amy Welborn readers! While you’re here, please look around. Today we’re also talking about Pope Benedict’s new encyclical on love (and sex) and how the world might respond to it, and Ohio SecState Ken Blackwell. We’re also remembering a fallen soldier.

UPDATED: Slightly off-topic, but interesting still (particularly since I just mentioned Stanbrook Abbey above) is this story about the sale of Stanbrook.

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  • singleton

    Since my trackbacks never work here, see

  • Sigmund Carl and Alfred

    It is true: In a post Kelo America, there is nothing sacred.

    It is hard to decide for whom the tragedy is greater- the church itself or the community that sits idly by while this happens.

  • Myssi

    Thankfully, my church along with three others were the planned center of our town at its founding and make up the majority of a state historic districtic. It encompasses Church Circle and runs down the street to what used to be the train station. However, there are some churches on the edges of town that I could see this happening to very easily and it’s very sad.

  • March Hare

    Hmmm… Wasn’t the sale of abbey land one of the conflicts in “This House of Brede”? And the chief proponent of the sale later realized that, had the sale gone through, the character of the abbey would have been altered–and not for the better.
    We never seem to learn, do we? What’s next–parkland?

  • benning

    Each politician who supports this kind of theft, each bureaucrat who condones such theft, should have his or her own property targeted for confiscation. No matter how long it takes.

    We should do this every time. Maybe the thieves will learn their lesson. But I doubt it.

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  • http://none Darrell

    When the US Supreme Court passed this law, we should have known something was up…

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  • newton

    Trackbacks don’t seem to work for me either. Here’s mine:

  • stephanie

    Question- was the Kelo decision made by a “liberal majority”? I thought conservative judges voted for Kelo too (and most of the liberals I know were NOT supportive, any more than many conservatives)
    But, that said, the community can always vote out the government that’s proposing this. So…what do the voters there think? Or does that even matter?

  • TheAnchoress

    Does anyone remember how the vote played out. I can’t swear to it, but I seem to remember that Scalia, Thomas, Renquist and O’Connor dissented and the other five, who some might call the liberal side, consented…but I could be wrong. Anyone?

  • stephanie

    But I thought Souter and Kennedy were conservative choices?

  • newton

    They “outed” themselves soon after they were safe in their bench seats. That’s what happened.
    And that’s why conservatives have been talking so much about the Supreme Court since.

  • Joseph

    This is an incredibly confused issue, particularly because the Kelo decision, as far as I can see, came completely out of nowhere politically, with no real ideological tie to any of the major political divisions and controversies in our country–despite your dark suspicions about “social welfare” and utilitarianism.
    Wal-Mart and Home Depot, after all, are hardly socialist institutions and it is big box merchandising that is ultimately driving this sort of thing.
    More broadly, I think you unreasonably confuse the sacred/secular conflict in this country with the libertarian/liberal one. And I also think you miss the point of “if this can happen in Oklahoma…”.
    The sacred/secular conflict is about the place of religion in what has always been a country of heterodox “converts” fleeing established churches, even if, until very recently, both the establishment and the dissenters were Christian.
    Inevitably the boundaries of religion and public life will be constantly tested because the “anti-establishment” clause is a real separation of church and state, while the “free exercise” clause is protective even of those who do not support rigourous interpretation of the anti-establishment clause.
    But, as far as I can see, none of this is really involved in what is going on in Oklahoma. I don’t think the parties pushing the development care one way or another about religion–at least on every day but Sunday.
    The locus of it philosophically is the libertarian/liberal conflict, but, in practice, what is going on,in Oklahoma at least, is part of the Devil’s Bargain of the modern conservative movement.
    Put shortly, a Libertarian is a Conservative with principles and a “Conservative” is a Liberal without them.
    More precisely, it can happen in Oklahoma because there is a strong and growing movement of Big Government Conservatism, which favors lots of proactive intervention by the State in private life, but only for the “right” reasons, rather than the Liberal ones.
    It may pay lip service to the sacred on days other than Sunday, but only for the purpose of “mobilizing the Christian base” to win elections. Any religious bone thrown to the base is a distant fourth among the “right” reasons for Big Government–Money, Power, and Influence are far more important.
    I could name poster children of it for you. There are quite a few prominent ones in Washington among the majority party. But I’d rather you think up your own choices.
    Because when I say “big government conservatism”, I think everybody here knows what I mean, even if they disagree with what I say. And the very fact that we all know what I mean is testimony to the real existence and real power of BGC, interpret it how you will.

  • Joseph

    I believe that a house of prayer – particularly a house of contemplation, but really any church – brings nothing but good to its surrounding communities, no matter if those communities do not ascribe to the religion.
    Precisely. I’m also flattered that every time you look over your shoulder, you seem to see Buddhists like me. We do have a trick up our sleeve, however. Traditionally, we build monasteries and nunneries near the top of mountains. Nobody can even dream of putting a Big Box Retailer up there.

  • http://none Darrell

    Hmmm…Subjugation of private property rights to government whim…Who could see that as a Leftist(Communist or Socialist) victory? Besides everybody, I mean… OK, everybody but Joe.

    You are exactly right, Anchoress. And Stephanie, that’s what happens when Republican Presidents get suckered into “playing nice” with the Dems… Democrat Presidents put up Ruth BG.

  • Joseph

    Well, Darrell, I like pears, but having one from a stray branch on my neighbor’s tree fall on my head, is not the same as my climbing the tree and raiding it. I repeat, Kelo came out of nowhere. I defy anyone to find the slightest reference to “emminent domain” in any major American political controversy whatever, pre-Kelo.
    It it perfectly conceivable that a “socialist” government could abuse it, and that its leaders might welcome the opportunity.
    But it is the wild socalism of Sand Springs, Oklahoma we are talking about here, seizing land for that great collectivist entity Home Depot.
    Homers of the World Unite! You have nothing to lose but your orange hats!
    You really could do with a smidgen more realism about cause, effect, and results in the real world–particularly in the case of the actual politicians we have in power, rather than the fantasy of the horrible ones we might have if we don’t watch out.
    Anyone with eyes can see that the real world effect of Kelo in America is the seizure of land from small defenseless landowners for the benefit of large joint-stock corporations.
    And anyone with eyes can see that local politicians from the Republican party are just as collusive in this abuse of emminent domain as Democratic ones, and that their motives have nothing to do with abstract political principles of any kind.
    If you know anything about Oklahoma [I do.] you’ll know that the only principle involved is that some county commisioner or other is getting a “good deal”, on the side, out of it.

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  • catquas

    This post seems to reveal a misunderstanding of moral utilitarianism.


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