Why Does TIME Want to Drop the Hammer on Churches?

Why Does TIME Want to Drop the Hammer on Churches? July 2, 2015

I wrote a piece for The Stream this week that engaged a stunning TIME article from New York Times columnist Mark Oppenheimer. Oppenheimer is a respected journalist who leans left but broke new ground by calling in his essay for the abolition of tax-exempt status for churches (and other non-profits).

After the piece caught some fire from conservatives, Oppenheimer protested that he wasn’t going after churches in particular. But a quick search of Twitter showed that he did indeed have churches, and indeed Christians, in his sights: “Christians fear marriage decision=trouble 4 tax exemptions. About time.” This bit of saber-rattling came as a teaser to his TIME article which bore the gentle title “Now’s the Time To End Tax Exemptions for Religious Institutions.” As I noted in my Stream response, his piece made no bones about the fact that this was an opportunity to crush dissidents of the sexual revolution: “Rather than try to rescue tax-exempt status for organizations that dissent from settled public policy on matters of race or sexuality, we need to take a more radical step. It’s time to abolish, or greatly diminish, their tax-exempt statuses.”

After conservatives pushed back against this open assault, Oppenheimer seemed abashed by the suggestion that he had congregations in his crosshairs. On Twitter, he wrote “indeed, 2 make it sound like attack on churches is a radical misreading–most nonprofits=secular. NRA, NFL, Planned P’hood shld be taxed too.” This was special pleading. Oppenheimer wasn’t targeting Planned Parenthood. He was after conservative churches, as his essay and Twitter comments make abundantly clear. Christians–and other religious groups–refuse to bow the knee to the sexual revolution. For their obstinacy, they deserve to be crushed.

What does this show us? Three things, I think.

It shows us that tolerance is over. I’m not breaking new ground here–but this must be said. Tolerance is dead. Oppenheimer’s piece ran all of two days after the SCOTUS decision on same-sex marriage. He wants to crush those who dare to stand against the fullest possible acceptance of what Harvard professor Harvey Mansfield has called “samesexuality.” Sexuality liberated from any constraints is now a full-blown worldview. This is paganism, 21st-century version. The body is all; sex is all.

The hippies now wear steel-toed boots. The earlier “free love” movement was all about doing what you want–live and let live. Today’s version of this pagan impulse is militaristic–live and you better approve. There’s a menace, a fury, in this cultural momentum. There will be no tolerance. There will be no dissent. Churches and organizations that stand bravely against the rushing tide of the late stages of the sexual revolution will be crushed.

It shows us that churches and organizations doing much good are imperiled. It is important to keep things in eternal perspective. The true church will never die. We must pray for those who persecute and love them (Matthew 5).

But folks like Oppenheimer may be blind to the full effects of their program. Let’s think about the kind of work that will stagger under the weight of major tax bills they do not presently pay.

Think with me about My Safe Harbor of Anaheim, which helps single mothers overcome terrible circumstances (often domestic abuse) by putting their lives together.

Think with me  about Hope Christian Center in the Bronx, which ministers to homeless and drug-addicted men.

Think with me about Active Compassion Through Service (ACTS), a ministry of Tenth Presbyterian Church in Philadelphia, which conducts numerous programs for the homeless, imprisoned, and sexually suffering.

Think with me about Chuck Colson’s Prison Fellowship International, which relentlessly brings the word of hope to prisoners, many of them forgotten or considered irredeemable. My forthcoming book tells the story of this compassion-driven ministry and its visionary founder.

Think with me about the Root Cellar in Portland, Maine. It assists resettled refugees in too many ways to count, giving them food, ESL classes, and spiritual uplift as they make the monumental transition to life in America.

Think with me about Second Presbyterian Church of Memphis, which has adopted a school and provides untold services to it.

Think with me about your average local church–probably less than 100 members–which carries out a regular and costly program of ministry to the elderly, to shut-ins, to preteen moms, to the wandering souls of the community.

This church faithfully preaches the Bible. It holds out the possibility of Christic transformation in a world gone nihilistic. It calls fathers to stay with their kids and not abandon them. It calls mothers to nurture their babies and offers them help. It calls children to obey their parents and tells them that God has everlasting love to offer them. It can barely pay a pastor, and the building likely needs some TLC, but the congregation is committed to sacrificial, others-centered ministry, and so it soldiers on.

Now, let’s grant Oppenheimer and his TIME editors their fevered wish. Let’s bring the hammer down. Let’s send tax-exempt status into the abyss; let’s throw it on the grand cultural pyre. Good riddance!, we cry as it transfigures into ash. What now, though? Here is what happens: without exception, every ministry I have just listed and 50,000 others are imperiled. Black churches, ministries to refugees, historic congregations–they all now face the real possibility of extinction.

So, this shows us we need to pray and work while there is day, for night is falling and winter is coming. We’re in strange new times. The government had previously recognized that it was unwise to make churches responsible for paying taxes, for that would open the possibility of the state regulating the church (unfairly and unevenly). A previous iteration of the Supreme Court saw that this statist intervention boded ill for churches, but not only for them, for the American way of life. Oppenheimer and his colleagues would undo this wisdom. In the name of “taking the government out of the religion business,” they would plunge it in far deeper than it’s ever gone.

The government can try to care for people. But politicians from all viewpoints have historically recognized that our nation is stronger not when one centralized bureaucracy handles everything, but when light shines from a thousand points. It is not Republican or even necessarily conservative to believe this. The “communalist” vision of writers like Wendell Berry and the decorated research of sociologists like Harvard’s Robert Putnam captures so much of what people of all worldviews in America love: thriving communities where people know one another and care for one another. All this is jeopardized by Oppenheimer’s platform.

Let me get to the heart of the matter in concluding: if Oppenheimer and his peers have their way, the end result will be that abused women will not be cared for. Abandoned children will have no place of refuge. Homeless men and women will have no one seeking their good. Fatherless kids will wander the streets. Sure, there will be some big-government efforts put in place. But these will likely be no more successful than the $17-trillion Great Society work has been. Has this grand strategy miraculously healed the family, cured fatherlessness, and ended poverty? We’re thankful somebody’s willing to try, but the answer here is a definite no.

The social costs of the Oppenheimer Project will be preposterously high. The American fabric will be torn asunder. People will suffer. Churches will close. Tons of money that now goes to spiritual uplift and community betterment will dry up. Ending tax-exempt status to punish dissidents of same-sex marriage will cause untold damage to this country, and people on all sides will, if they are honest, recognize this destruction.

Christians must pray and work to preserve our freedom, joining with a wide array of religious groups. The hour is late. We should not fear the world or grow anxious. Christ has us secure in his hand. But if we could stave off a new revolution, we would. The hammer is rising. If it falls, it will take many ministries with it.

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