Forty-eight hours did not pass from the release of the SCOTUS decision in Obergefell before fresh calls for revocation of churches’ tax-exempt status began coming. At present, such calls are sporadic and often breathless, unqualified,—even hysterical—though this cannot be a comfort to those who are friends of religious liberty in America: quite a few of the most recent proposals, perhaps most (in)famously the Time article linked above, claim that the time has come for revocation precisely because certain churches no longer deserve exemption since their teachings on marriage are afoul of the new official secular orthodoxy, and/or that churches in general have outlived their social usefulness.
If these are the true bases on which the proposals regarding the revocation of churches’ tax-exempt status rest, then the calls for revocation can have no ultimate purpose but the destruction of organized religion as a social force. More to this: those who would see religion pushed out of society and off the public square would use the government to do the pushing—and that would signal a basic and irrecoverable change in both the kind of society ours is and the kind of government we have given ourselves.
The history of religious liberty in the United States is complicated. Nevertheless, one thing is certain: the purpose of the First Amendment to the Constitution was—inter alia—to protect religious organizations from federal intrusion and guarantee those organizations (and their members) the right to exist and conduct their earthly mission free from government interference – to have a place in American society and a voice in the public square. The use of government force to abridge, censure, truncate or otherwise silence a voice, the liberty of which is guaranteed in fundamental law, is a matter that touches each and every citizen in the heart of his citizenship: the issue is one that touches the very heart of what we understand the common weal to be. The question is: who shall have a voice in America, and on what terms?
To be sure, religious freedom is not now, nor has it ever been, absolute and unqualified in America: even under the present Constitution, we have long recognized that worship houses, soup kitchens, schools, sports facilities, hospitals and hospices must all be built to building spec, just like other buildings, and that fire codes apply to everyone. Nevertheless, if the First Amendment means anything at all, it must mean that government has not the power to destroy religious organizations—and it is an indisputable maxim of government that the power to tax is the power to destroy.
Given that purpose, the current and long-standing terms of the exemption arrangement are rather perplexing. In exchange for the exemption, churches essentially promise not to endorse candidates. If the federal government has not the power to tax churches (nor any state government, per the First Amendment through the Fourteenth), why would any Church accept an arrangement under the terms of which they and their institutional leaders would voluntarily censor their voices in exchange for tax-exempt status?
One could suppose the reason to be one of adding the inducements of bona fides through institutional commitment to a promised line of conduct that was, and still is, quite commendable on grounds of prudence so obvious as to be very nearly self-evident, and to require no elucidation. A less charitable mind could countenance clerics, e.g., the Catholic bishops of the United States, quite happy to have a reason to have the rule imposed on them, to stop themselves from endorsing specific candidates. Such jaded fancy could conceive the bishops not trusting one another to refrain from such endorsements of their own accord.
In any case, when the history is written, it may well be found that this point was the thing that allowed the usurpation of the rights and immunities guaranteed to religious organizations and believers in US fundamental law to happen more swiftly and more completely than anyone—even the advocates and architects of the usurpation – thought possible.
What to do?
One possibility would be for the Catholic Church to reject the arrangement and seek a direct legal challenge to the presupposition on which the arrangement is premised, i.e. that the government of the United States as presently constituted could, ceteris paribus, tax churches. To do so would undoubtedly result in litigation that would most likely not be resolved finally except by the highest court in the land, and a loss could be disastrous for the Church’s position in the public square. On the other hand, it is difficult for even the most optimistic observer to countenance an improvement of the Church’s public position in the short term—and history teaches us that liberty, once lost, is neither easily nor cheaply recovered.
Whatever institutional response may be in order, one thing is certain: now is not the time for silence and retreat. “There is no way for a citizen of a republic to abdicate his responsibilities,” remarked Edward R. Murrow in the midst of another crisis of voice in the American public square. In the face of the present crisis it is essential that Christians especially discover “the courage to engage in civic life and to bring [their] deepest beliefs and values to reasoned public debate,” as Pope Benedict XVI placed the matter in his remarks on the South Lawn of the White House in April, 2008.
Though the celerity with which the calls for the Church’s expulsion from the public square followed the Obergefell decision was perhaps shocking, the thing itself ought not surprise: the calls for revocation of churches’ tax-exempt status are part and parcel of the most recent iterations of an old (and familiar) accusation: that Christian doctrine is inimical to the morals of a republic.
In the midst of our needful debate and discussion of the proper attitude to adopt toward the world in its turns, let us recall the reply of St. Augustine of Hippo, the architect of the first Christian response to sustained attack from sources claiming Christianity incompatible with republican virtue: let us be such soldiers, doctors, lawyers, agents, laborers—in a word, such citizens as Christ commands. “Then,” St. Augustine instructs, “let those who call Christ’s doctrine incompatible with the State’s well-being … dare to say that it is adverse to the State’s well-being; yea, rather, let them no longer hesitate to confess that this doctrine, if it were obeyed, would be the salvation of the commonwealth.”