Tax-free Churches? There’s No Such Thing!

You pay what churches don’t! US churches* received an official federal income tax exemption in 1894, and they have been unofficially tax-exempt since the country’s founding. All 50 US states and the District of Columbia exempt churches from paying property tax. Donations to churches are tax-deductible, making for a double-dip loss of revenues by the government. They are not tax free. YOU pay their taxes.

Grant’s prophecy prediction (below) seems to be off by at least a couple hundred years. We can poke fun at that, or see if there’s any sense in the rest of the quote:

I would call your attention to the importance of correcting an evil that, if permitted to continue, will probably lead to great trouble in our land before the close of the Nineteenth century. It is the acquisition of vast amounts of untaxed church property…. In a growing country, where real estate enhances so rapidly with time as in the United States, there is scarcely a limit to the wealth that may be acquired by corporations, religious or otherwise, if allowed to retain real estate without taxation. The contemplation of so vast a property as here alluded to, without taxation, may lead to sequestration without constitutional authority, and through blood. I would suggest the taxation of all property equally, whether church or corporation.” (Ulysses S. Grant, 18th U.S. President [1869-1877], Message to Congress, December 7, 1875; Congressional Record, Vol. 4, part 7, page 175; from George Seldes, ed., The Great Quotations, Secaucus, New Jersey: Citadel Press, 1983, p. 288)

Churches and corporations are artificial entities created by people and authorized by government. In a sense, an unrestricted religious or corporate leader could exercise multiple votes—his own, plus whatever he could influence from his employees or congregation from his power position. That said, why are religions allowed property-tax exemptions? I would suppose the threat of taxation had been expected to keep them from acting like ordinary people with an interest in the works of government, and so would prevent religious groups’ hands from interfering. It appears that cannot work without a government agent posted in every edifice during every meeting to assure complete adherence to the law. That would happen only at great expense and set a regrettable precedent.

The govern, itself, is an artificial entity created and authorized by its subjects. The various layers of government perform many necessary functions for which they prepare annual budgets. Many of those layers suffer deficits even while billions are handed out to religious and corporate enterprises for questionable reasons. Overall, our government seems senselessly generous with our money, with both political parties equally guilty. Allowing massive acreage to go untaxed while some favored enterprise holds the title is but one example. The government should maintain titles to all properties from which it does not collect full taxes, and collect rent otherwise.

The following quote inspires questions about how it leads to governmental interference in religion, still at taxpayer expense:

The government has leverage on religious groups because of the tax-exemption privilege. Church leaders, eager for the church to be free to be the church, should ask for the removal of this privilege. If there were no tax privilege for religious groups, hucksters and people who are using religion as a cover for political movements would be discouraged.” (William Stringfellow, lawyer and lay theologian, as quoted in the Dallas Times Herald, December 9, 1978, p. A-27, according to Alan F. Pater and Jason R. Pater, compilers and editors, What They Said in 1978: The Yearbook of Spoken Opinion, Beverly Hills, CA: Monitor Book Co., 1979, p. 447.)

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by Lloyd H. Whitling


Even though you won’t find my definition in your ordinary dictionary, I am referring to attitude. It is about “Let’s find out” versus “I already know all about that.” The difference between those two attitudes defines religion and science more clearly than anything else I’ve ever heard. It also tells why religion and science share no common ground.

That difference is so clear, in fact, that it should sound a clarion to we secular folk who feel so smug in our own uninvestigated assumptions. Religion is ubiquitous among humans, and we secular folk are not exceptions, whoever gets to be the “we” of it. When a religious person demands to know, “Who appointed you God?” do we really always have at the ready all our sources of facts, referents, personal experiences, or dug-from-the-ground data to hand back to them? No, and it makes us weak in our own defense, because we are truly required to know more in our own behalf than they, and we seldom find a handy metaphor with which to paint a word-picture. The only way around that, now, is to resort their illicit form of argumentation.

I hear someone arguing, “But, we cannot do that. Not all those kinds of belief are of the established religions!”

I look around, and see a government agent glaring at me. “So what?” I ask him. “You’re supposed to not have an interest in religion. Why should you care?”

He shrugs. “People have to pay taxes.”

So, I shrug. “Why should that mean anything?”

He shrugs. We’re having a shrugging contest! “The established religions don’t pay taxes. People try to use that to scam their way out of paying as it is. You would be granting them a right they don’t deserve.” He looks down his nose at me, like he thinks I’m too dumb to know that.

I shrug, and it makes me feel tired. “Tax them all. Religions aren’t supposed to be privileged at the expense of the rest of the population.”

This time, he shifts his weight around instead of shrugging. I feel like I’ve won some kind of contest. “Can’t do that. The establishment clause prevents that in the wall of separation. If religions were taxed, they could claim a right to have a voice in government.”

I stop to do some quick thinking and remembering. “It seems like they try to do that anyway.” My noggin must have been running on empty, it took me so long to realize, “Look, what I talked about is ‘temporal’ religion, a personal kind of religion, and none of them pay taxes as it is. Even the New Testament [1 Cor. 3;16, 17] gives them an offhanded kind of recognition that, if it applies to one, it applies to them all. What you defend as ‘established’ are the ecclesiastical religions, with all the churches and temples and edifices that represent centralism. There’s a difference that’s seldom given any consideration and too often disparaged.”

He got a lovey-dovey expression on his face, like he was running the numbers in his head and liking the results. “To do what you suggested, we would have to make every man, woman and child pay a religion tax.”

I decided that would be going the wrong way. “Nothing you said had anything to do with what I had said,” I told him, now reminded of how easily I can get distracted away from my subjects. “My argument remains valid.”

A sneaky grin spread across his face. “Can you prove it?”

I looked away, just for a second, maybe. “Of course. There are several ways it could be tested, depending on what you want to know.” I saw the last sprinkles of him fading into nothing when I looked back, and realized I had been conversing with a hologram. Gibbs’ rule 35, “Watch the watchers.” Scary.

Fanatics can, in fact and by evidence, be rock-stupid and do fine in their own behalf when it comes to laying on the judgmental Gish Gallop torment and psychological discomfort. We do not get to so easily defend our secular views. We have to actually know stuff!— else resort to being just like them. Some of us do that.

Mentioning “sources of facts, referents, personal experiences, dug-from-the-ground data” reminds me we are talking about what the self-proclaimed religious rely upon for their “proofs” and “evidence”. I call it “literary evidence”, the kind of information found in books by authors that others have authorized as valid but that seculars regard to be mythological or anecdotal. Even there, differences persist but are not as easily demonstrated.

This all gets exacerbated by the fact that we are mostly ignorant about the most effective ways to deal with religious attackers. That works against us, when our most carefully thought out and rehearsed responses get received like soapy water flowing off their backs. Compare our method of argumentation with theirs as one of them describes it:

At http://earthking.wordpress.com/2009/04/19/the-secret-to-good-arguments/

“To win any debate, you MUST have arguments that inspire fear, hope, pity, or hatred within the audience.  Relying too heavily upon data and facts will not convince your audience because people make most of their decisions based on emotions.”

It’s actually true, per my own experience. So, here’s what I recommend: Remember the statement about attitude with which this essay began. Religious information will be that which portrays itself as authoritative in itself and expects all readers or listeners to grant it that authority without further investigation (until someone realizes, while reading this, how to eliminate that tell-tale sign by directing you to sources that have been authorized by hidden providers and ringers).

Science information will be that which portrays how something got discovered, figured out, added up, what hypotheses and predictions were made, describes the processes involved up to that point, what inferences were drawn, why one of those was better than the rest, what must be done to prove the latest hypothesis wrong (called “falsifying it”), and describes what kind of technologies may be involved and how they function. Any or all of that, all of that available by doing your own research. Helpful hints may be given to help with that, and pros and cons offered where they apply, the entire lot of it fully subject to offhanded religious declamation.

Science, you see, is more complicated than religion and, so, harder to defend, but so worth the effort because only science (and the associated education) enables so many of us to survive in such dense masses in so many hive-like, honey-barren cities around the world. A comparative handful of scientists has enabled that for mankind. A comparative handful with the religious attitude (including supposed atheists hawking untestable ideas not normally considered ‘religion’) have disabled that in places notable for their suffering, starving residents.  Think about this message. It offers you a tool by which you can assess religion versus science while attempting to decide under which category any kind of information might belong. You can test it for yourself by observing how others of various natures and persuasions respond to your pertinent questions about it, and about the various kinds of information trying to win your acceptance. Do the sources tell you about anecdotal tales from which you are to draw lessons, but that remain untraceable back to their origins and authorship? —or do you get informed as to who originated what, how it got done, why and, especially, what you can to do verify it for yourself?

Now, all that does not mean you have to become an expert in quantum physics (nor does it deny you the right), become a mathematical genius, or lose a week (and risk getting fired) from your job just to check things out each time a religionist decides to attack you as prey with some new bait he or she fancies. It just means that, after you have gained a bit of experience, you can know the difference between wishful thinking and cold, hard facts when you are exposed to either. If you cannot, I am sure someone will sooner or later show up to take you by the hand and lead you step by step.

I have one last bit of advice I hope you’ll follow when that time arrives. RUN!

Copyright ©2014 by Lloyd H. Whitling. Permission to excerpt is granted if accompanied with credit to the author. Permission to reuse unchanged is granted only if accompanied with this notice and proper credit. All other rights reserved.