My friend Duane, whom I trust and admire although we disagree on some topics, posted the picture on the right this week on his Facebook page. Duane, who calls himself “antireligion,” was unambiguous in his purpose: “If they can't afford the tax then they can cease to exist. That would be fine by me.” Because Facebook updates don’t permit complex multipart debate, indulge me as I lay out three reasons why I think non-religious people should disagree with this thesis.
1. The Giver of Values. In American tax policy, religious houses are equal to colleges, fine arts organizations, scientific research laboratories, and organizations for prevention of cruelty to children and animals. These contrast with
businesses, like department stores and heavy industry, which exist to
turn a profit and a dividend for investors. By contrast, the above
charities exist to do not what is profitable, but what is right.
Real life tells us we often do the right thing only at cost to ourselves. Dan Ariely has scientifically demonstrated what most of us know instinctively, that when profit enters the picture, it creates (occasionally strong) disincentives to do what is right. Therefore, if religious houses have
to pay the same taxes as commercial enterprises, it would change the
system of values at their heart. I suggest Duane would have no problem
But play this out fully. Religious houses exist because they believe God or the gods provide an objective system of right and wrong. God is the giver of values. The state, in forcing religious houses to change their business model, requires them to adopt a new set of values. The state, in essence, usurps the role of God. And if the state usurps that role for churches, what’s to stop it from usurping that role for everybody?
2. Shifting Ground. If America had always subjected religious houses to property and other taxes at the same rate as private enterprise, maintaining that position would be value neutral. But they haven’t, and it’s not. If a groundswell
of opinion allowed American lawmakers to change the values behind our
tax code, well, a secularist like Duane might not mind. But that would
set a precedent he would not like.
History records that American values can shift very quickly. Consider the changes in racial politics two generations ago, or the changes in sexual politics right now. Statistics indicate that American religious feeling is at a low ebb now, but this has happened before. Maybe all we need is another Jonathan Edwards to whip up strong feelings, and Duane could find himself outnumbered by a new ascendant majority.
Our Founding Fathers placed limits on popular sovereignty because they feared that a “Tyrannical Majority” would use sheer numbers to silence opposition. (Then they passed the Three-Fifths Compromise. Don’t overthink things.) They feared a resurgence of Greek democracy, which was little better organized than a street gang. An idea’s popularity is not enough to change our political structure.
Even if my ideas reign right now, shifting ground could put me in the minority quickly. Thus, I must never use my ascendance to limit others’ freedoms. Indeed, in a free society, I have a personal imperative to defend the freedoms of those with whom I disagree. I think Duane’s opinion is flat damn wrong, but even if I didn’t enjoy spirited debate with a friend, I have personal stakes in ensuring nobody could stop him speaking his mind.
3. Don’t Feed the Bears. Right-wing Christian economist Larry Burkett warned in 1991 that secularists would suggest exactly the action Duane has suggested, for
exactly the reason he suggests it. Other conspiracy theorists may have
voiced the same paranoia earlier, I don’t know. From a simple strategic
position, it makes little sense to play into the hands of those who want
to become martyrs to the system.
Let me say, though, what I don’t mean. I don’t consider all positions equal, or think freedom has no constraints. Any position that limits others’ freedom has overstepped its bounds, and we must make sure they are constrained. For instance,
those who use faith in God to justify shooting abortionists or bombing
mosques are not exercising religious freedom. They are criminals, who
should be punished.
I only mean that personal, or even public, opinion, is no justification to change our policies or enforce value positions on any organization. There are many opinions out there that I find odious. And I intend to defend them to the utmost of my strength.