Churches aren’t sovereign, as aren’t yogis or tea-leaf readers

Churches aren’t sovereign, as aren’t yogis or tea-leaf readers December 7, 2019

While religion’s overt effects on societies is understandably concerning to nonreligious people, we are often unaware of its possibly more worrisome covert effects, including the private attitudes of devout fellow citizens.

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Astrologer’s promo sign in West Falls, New York. (Daniel Lobo, Flikr, CC BY 2.0)

More specifics on that are a bit lower in this post.

In the meantime, some background: I ran across an example of general religious effects on societies after reading a misleading and thus confusing two-year-old story in Canada’s CTV News online, titled “No more religious exemptions: Montreal is taxing churches.”

In fact, Canada has not discontinued the long practice of exempting religious organizations from taxes, although Montreal municipality in Quebec province seems to be trying to walk back the tradition. The article says that when a church closes its doors — e.g., due to financial decline and fading membership — it can potentially start facing property-tax bills, because it is no longer executing its services to society and is therefore not eligible for tax breaks.

Whether that’s good public policy in Canada or anywhere else is a debate for another post. Here’s a couple of relevant Patheos hub blog posts from 2015 and 2017, to ponder: “Report: Churches Cost Taxpayers $71 Billion Annually,” about U.S. churches, and “Good News: Montreal Is Taxing Churches,” about our northern neighbor’s experience.

Clearly, Western nations grandly subsidize religion, mainly Christianity, and it’s fair to question the practice’s continued feasibility and advisability in countries where a quarter or more of the populations is unaffiliated with any religious tradition and where a large percentage of those are atheists and agnostics.

But that’s not what I’m focused on at the moment.

In doing research for this post and accessing the articles referenced above, I read a disturbing op-ed in the online news site Troy Media, titled “Why churches don’t pay taxes.”

Ostensibly, the March 25, 2018, opinion piece reported on a protest over property taxes being levied against the historically and religiously significant Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem — a fraught decision that was ultimately reversed by the mayor when he faced overwhelming blowback.

However, the article seemed more directed at opining why religious tax exemptions widely exist in the world in the first place.

That was the disturbing part.

The Canadian writer, Fr. Raymond J. de Souza is editor-in-chief of Convivium, a digital magazine of nonpartisan, faith-based think tank Cardus.

Ubiquitous taxation has eroded our sense of any limits on the state, so much so that we supinely accept that we should pay taxes even on the taxes we pay,” de Souza wrote. “The principal limit on the state’s power is that the state is not God. And the church, which belongs to God before it belongs to the natural order, does not belong to the state. That’s why totalitarian regimes always turn against the church, usually sooner rather than later. The church, by its very existence, means there is a place where the state may not go, a realm to which its authority does not extend.”

If ever there were a clear misunderstanding of the abiding principle of church-state separation and the reason for religious tax exemptions, this is it. The exemptions exist because states have in consensus long believed that churches provide important public services to communities more efficiently and precisely than the state.

Such exemptions are certainly not a tacit acceptance of the idea that God is sacrosanct and should always be immune from lay government accountability and edict. They are a practical solution to a practical problem, if a problem that grows less and less relevant by the day.

But Fr. de Souza is unmoved by such arguments.

“… tax exemption of the church is not a matter of enhancing social services or achieving more efficient program delivery,” he opines. “Rather, it’s a matter of recognizing that the church is not ultimately subject to the sovereignty of the state. That’s why citizens, and not just believers, ought to support the tax exemption for the church. Taxing God is never a good idea.

What’s disturbing about all this is that Fr. de Souza is far from alone in this thinking, which infects countless conservative Protestants and Catholics alike where those sects are dominant in societies. And, as we’ve found in the U.S., such people disproportionately create our laws and too-liberally acquiesce to religious incursions into the body politic.

Consider these ideas from an atheist’s perspective: We are giving tax breaks to organizations that believe in unverifiable fantasies, indoctrinate citizens in these ideas (including children, most unfortunately), and claim immunity from government oversight or taxation.

It’s a very expensive delusion, depriving Americans of a king’s ransom in tax receipts (an estimated $70 billion a year in 2015) channeled instead to churches in the form of tax exemptions, according to a Secular Policy Institute study.

All this for an imagined deity that no one has ever been able to prove actually exists.

Still, billions of folks worldwide believe. But, at least in the U.S., that doesn’t give them sovereign immunity from government.

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