“Churches that preach politics should be taxed”

“Churches that preach politics should be taxed.”

This is a common refrain that grows louder every election year. I have heard it from both liberals and conservatives. In conversations about abortion, about Israel-Palestine, about gay marriage, and about tax reform, someone who disagrees with an official policy of one church or another will claim that church leaders should not try to convince their members to vote or advocate one way or another.

I do understand the sentiment behind it. As a pastor, I watch my words very carefully. People who have chosen to come into my congregation do so for a variety of reasons. They have loaned me their time and attention for somewhere between fifteen minutes and an hour, trusting that I will not waste their time or abuse that trust. There are some churches whose theological or political or aesthetic opinions I find objectionable, and I do wish they would shut up. Penalizing them financially might be one way to lower their volume in the public square.

But would you penalize a humane society for advocating for laws against dog or rooster fighting or animal cruelty? Would you say that an organization whose mission is to promote music and the arts should not take a public stand when politicians try to gut funding for art education or public museums? Would we say that an organization whose mission is to fight homelessness should only pass out blankets and soup bowls, and should not advocate for housing policies that would actually reduce homelessness?

If you agree that the above non-profit organizations should be able to advocate for policies that support their mission and values, then the only reason to tax churches is because they are religious—which violates the first amendment.

Supporters of the tax-the-churches idea claim that most of the charitable contributions to churches do not go directly to “causes” that benefit the community. They point to mega-churches with gym memberships and country-club atmospheres that cater to members only. They fume over pastors who live in mansions.

Strong opinions and anecdotes, though, are not data. Mega-church country clubs are big and visible, but they represent less than 10% of all churches. The median church has just 75 members. Within that 10%, churches range between 400 and tens of thousands of members. While half of all church-goers in the U.S. go to this 10% of all churches, most of these are not very politically active. You don’t usually get to be that size by being on the radical fringe.

Economists have also pointed out that the economic benefit of churches to the surrounding community is typically somewhere between two and six times their budget. This is because churches leverage ministry dollars and volunteer time to multiply their ministry. The person who is tithing is likely also singing in the choir, volunteering in the nursery, and working in a food pantry. By building community they are reducing crime, boosting literacy and education, promoting the arts, and providing free services of all kinds. A church with a $200,000 budget may have a positive economic impact in the community of up to a million dollars. This is called the <a href=”http://articles.philly.com/2011-02-01/news/27092987_1_partners-for-sacred-places-congregations-churches&#8221; title=”“halo effect.””>“halo effect.”</a>

A government who taxed such an organization punitively would be shooting itself in the foot.

Finally, it only takes a few minutes of reflection to realize how uneven calls for revoking tax-exempt status are. What kind of political behavior should churches be allowed to do? Should they have been allowed to advocate for Civil Rights? Women’s suffrage? The abolition of slavery? Support of child labor laws? This kind of rhetoric was used by people who wanted to silence religious leaders of those movements, too. Which churches shall we penalize? Glide Memorial in San Francisco, for their outspoken support of minority people?

What about churches whose individualistic prosperity gospel and support of the status quo certainly does fit the definition of “political?” Churches are inherently politically active, even when they claim not to be. One very wise author told me recently that he advised one church planter, “Decide, right now, whether you will be a Republican church or a Democrat church. If you choose neither or say you’re going to ‘transcend’ politics, you will be a Republican church. That’s the default Christian mode in our culture.”

I wish the church were the leading edge of social change and the transformation of culture, but in the last fifty years, we’ve been playing catch-up. God is still at work, and remains faithful, even when we are not.