The following editorial column was first published in The Calhoun Times, Saturday September 12, 2015 and appears here courtesy of the author.
In the changing political and legal landscape that is our culture, there has been a lot of talk lately about the tax exempt status that non-profit organizations and churches in particular enjoy. Some are calling for an end to such exemptions, claiming that the government is basically underwriting religious activities. I contend that the tax exempt status of churches is a necessary component in the separation of church and state. Let’s consider the origin and history of this concept for a moment and then return to our discussion of taxes.
If you research the founding documents of our nation, such as the Declaration of Independence and Constitution of the United States, you will find no mention of the separation of church and state. The First Amendment to the Constitution contains what is known as the establishment clause, namely that “Congress shall make no law regarding an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” While the current trend in our judicial system is to make the culture of our nation increasingly atheistic, the original language sought to preserve the rights of religious persons. The American Revolution was fresh in the minds of the framers of the Constitution and a few of the original 13 colonies had been founded by those fleeing religious persecution or else seeking religious freedom. The establishment clause was meant to prevent the American government, or any state government, from creating a state sanctioned church as had been the case with the Church of England. The Pilgrims had been separatists that withdrew from the Church of England while the Puritans tried to stay in the church and purify it of corruption. Both groups would eventually end up in New England, one leaving and the other eventually being driven out. The First Amendment is about ensuring freedom of religion and not freedom from religion. If a religious leader opens a session of Congress in prayer, or a school administrator or local elected official acknowledges the existence of God, nothing unconstitutional has taken place as those things do not equate to a state established religion.
So what about separation of church and state? Those actual words are from a letter written by Thomas Jefferson, the author of much of our Constitution. When asked about the establishment clause and freedom of religious expression, Jefferson wrote that the first amendment built “a wall of separation between church and state.” That phrase has been used repeatedly by the Supreme Court. The U.S. Constitution is remarkable brief and the Jefferson letter is a historic document that helps us identify “framers’ intent,” what the authors and signers meant by what was actually written down. Would it surprise you to learn that I’m an avid supporter of the separation between church and state? The lack of such separation during the late Middle Ages was a big part of Europe’s problems prior to the Protestant Reformation. While the king was the highest sovereign in the land, if he was a good Christian then he was still a subject of the Pope. The Church was levying taxes and raising armies while kings and nobles appointed bishops and cardinals within the ranks of the Church. In colloquial terms, the two were all up in each other’s business. My personal friend and mentor Michael Spencer had this to say about the interaction of church and state: “It’s like mixing ice cream with dog crap. You can’t make the crap any better, but you can sure ruin your ice cream.” Simply put, it is in the best interest of both groups if they are not in each other’s business.
So where does that leave us with tax exemption? Some Christian worshipers, such as Quakers and Mennonites, descendants of the Anabaptists, do not believe in taking up arms. Many conservative Christians of all denominations oppose abortion and abortion inducing drugs provided by Obama Care. Separation of church and state means that decisions made the government are not dictated by religious considerations. It also means that government activities which churches and their worshipers find morally reprehensible should not be funded by them. If tax dollars were collected from church treasuries, then money given to the church to do the work of God would be spent by the government to do its work. While some of that work may indeed be good, there is no “wall of separation” if the government enriches itself with the tithes and offerings of church goers. The church should be funded from the offering plate and the government should be funded by taxes collected from citizens and for-profit businesses, and both will be better for it.