By Tom Ehrich
It’s time for religion to lose its special treatment in the Constitution and in tax codes.
Not because religion has ceased to matter, but because it matters more than ever in our increasingly unethical society, and the special treatment ends up hurting both religion and state.
Three examples: hiring practices, tax-exempt property, and tax-deductible donations.
The Supreme Court, continuing its string of unwise decisions, affirmed religious institutions’ right to discriminate in hiring practices. They play by their own special rules, the court reasoned, saying, in effect, that the so-called “separation clause” guards religion’s right to do the wrong thing.
Unfortunately, just as presidential candidates use religion to batter opponents and to appeal to the dark side of human nature, so will religion become an excuse to seek other exceptions to civil rights. If churches can discriminate, others will say, why can’t we? Bigots and unjust employers will have an open field for hurting the vulnerable.
Meanwhile, religion will stand out as a special preserve where children can be molested without legal consequence, and the usual rules of financial accountability and simple justice don’t apply. That won’t help religion’s cause one bit.
Their historic exemption from property taxes has encouraged faith communities to see property as their purpose, not mission and ministry. Many a church has clung to deteriorating facilities while mission languished and people seeking more than maintenance budgets departed. Finally the church closes its doors – and the community evaporates.
Yes, religious facilities have contributed much to architecture and scenic street corners, but both religion and society would be better served if those institutions saw their purpose as mission, their work as offering ministry, and each other as companions in a movement, not as disputatious property owners.
Tax-deductible donations, meanwhile, have virtually destroyed responsible stewardship. Instead of following the Biblical model of “harvest giving” and the Biblical standard of the tithe, churches have fallen into treating their donations as “charitable giving.” Instead of first-fruits, they get last-fruits, whatever remains after everything else has been purchased.
Churches end up competing with museums, schools and medical causes for leftovers. That is a competition they cannot possibly win, because they don’t have the budget to do charitable fund-raising effectively, and religion’s prophetic cause – “comforting the afflicted and afflicting the comfortable” — isn’t as appealing as putting on good music or fighting cancer.
To protect tax-exemption, religious leaders refrain from meddling in society’s doings – whereas the Gospel demands such meddling. Society needs boldness, not self-protective hedging, from its faith communities. It needs strong preachers in the public square, not little-noticed homilies on the safe and esoteric. Was anyone preaching to the bankers when they fleeced their own customers? Probably not, because the core truth of a stewardship program seeking charitable gifts is: be nice to the wealthy.
That weakened voice, in turn, deprives society of the ethical guidance that it badly needs. Not shrill scolding on esoterica, but bold words and compassionate deeds when people go astray and allow their dark natures to win.
Whatever Thomas Jefferson meant by “separation of church and state,” it’s clear from our own history that we need God’s people to be more active in the public square, not walled up in a tax-sheltered preserve where, in exchange for staying silent, the religious are free to discriminate, play landowner and appease the wealthy.
Our sheltered status has made us soft and, to our growing dismay, irrelevant.
Photos: Above, a church Gospel choir performing on Park Avenue in Midtown, NYC, the new “Wall Street.” Below, the Episcopal Cathedral of St. John the Divine, on the Upper West Side, NYC.