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Should churches pay taxes to avoid restrictions on their political speech?

by Greg Krehbiel on 14 February 2017

Why are churches banned from speaking about politics, or endorsing candidates?

At least part of a religion’s message will usually have relevance in the political world. But churches typically dance around the issue. They advocate a position, but never a candidate. Some people chafe under that restriction and want to be able to endorse candidates.

Many people mistakenly think this is a constitutional issue, and associate it with Jefferson’s comment about “a wall of separation between church and state.” But it’s not a constitutional issue. We have freedom of the press, but the press can and does endorse candidates. So freedom of religion does not imply that churches can’t.

The restriction has to do with churches’ tax-exempt status. It was added as part of the 1954 tax reform, and was proposed by Sen. Lyndon Johnson to rein in tax-exempt, right-wing organizations that were attacking his fellow Democrats.

I have always felt that if a church wants to get involved in politics it should just pay taxes. Problem solved.

But most churches can’t afford to pay taxes.

A hard-hearted fellow might think that’s a good thing, and want to apply it universally. Get rid of the tax exemption altogether. If a church can’t afford to pay its taxes then it should close down and quit using up useful street corners with unoccupied buildings.

Trump has promised to go the other way and undo the speech restriction on churches (while keeping their tax-exempt status), and there are a couple proposals in the House to do that. Is that a good idea?

I’m skeptical. Some churches would just become fund-raisers for candidates, and that would transform pastors and the church bureaucracy into just another part of the political machine. I don’t think that would be a good thing for the church or for society. A penitent should be able to go to church without fear that his politics are wrong.

While religious messages do touch on politics, for most religions it’s not a central part of their mission. They’re out to save souls. If they can endorse candidates, and become political players, they’re going to get used and abused by crafty politicians, and that is not a socially good thing.

The current balance doesn’t seem unreasonable to me. Saying “we hold this moral principle, and the faithful should apply that to their voting” works, and it preserves an appropriate distance between politics and religion.

Besides, it’s one thing for a church to call out something as a sin. That’s within their alleged expertise. It’s another thing entirely to know how that moral principle should be worked out in the dirty world of the practical, and that’s simply not the expertise of religious leaders. In my experience, when they veer into political questions they tend to make very bad decisions.

2017-02-14  »  Greg Krehbiel

Talkback x 6

  1. pentamom
    14 February 2017 @ 10:56 am

    The government should recognize that it has no right to the income of churches (all of which has been previously taxed anyway) regardless of what they do.

  2. pentamom
    14 February 2017 @ 10:57 am

    Well, regardless of what they do apart from generating independent income by engaging in commerce, that is.

  3. Greg Krehbiel Greg Krehbiel
    14 February 2017 @ 10:59 am

    But how is that different from other organizations? All the money I spend or give has already been taxed. So it seems that by your logic, any money I give to anyone (that isn’t commerce) should not be taxed. But it doesn’t work that way in all cases. Gifts, for example, are taxed over a certain amount. And if I give to a group that isn’t an authorized charity, that’s taxable (for them).

  4. smitemouth
    14 February 2017 @ 11:37 am

    The income has been taxed? Well, the money I donate to my church is part of my itemized deductions and therefore it has not been taxed.

    So, if I buy a car, the money used to buy the car should not be taxed because it has already been taxed? It makes no sense.

    Please, keep the ban. I am sick enough of politics. I do not want to hear it from the pulpit too.

  5. William
    14 February 2017 @ 1:29 pm

    History has given us examples of what can happen when the church and state get too close. It seems to have come with a price for the church…one that can distract from its primary mission. It might be good to leave well enough alone.

  6. pentamom
    14 February 2017 @ 9:58 pm

    Okay, good point about not being taxed because of non-taxable income. My brain apparently seriously slipped a gear there.

    Just stick with the original point then — if churches should be tax exempt, they should be tax exempt regardless. There’s no real necessary logical connection between tax exemption and a gag rule. We’re just used to the idea that there is.

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