Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Church, State, and the Almghty Dollar—a Defense

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 with this.

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.


  1. Nice defense. And I agree that I'd defend your right to have and to present publicly such an opinion up til my demise and beyond.
    The crux of the matter for me is that I don't believe that religious institutions are equal to the organizations listed above.
    Values (and ethos) don't (or shouldn't in a reasonable world) come from god or gods, they come from what a society deems right and proper. This changes over time.
    That doesn't mean that society should be governed according to the profit motive, as you have it, but by consensus. Rational consensus. Governance by superstition is not rational and is therefore undesirable.

  2. Perhaps values should come from society. I won't try and change your mind on that, because it's a value judgement. But to the religious mindset, God DOES give values, and forcing religious houses to adopt a new value system puts the state in God's position. I restate my point above.

  3. That is only problematical if one is a theist.
    I say to you the state should NOT be forced to the values of any mindset except that of the will of the people, under a democratic rule of law.
    Clearly such a state is utterly perverted by it being bent to serve the needs of the few, the loud, the faithful. We can see those principles in action-especially now after almost fifty years of buggery, post-Goldwater, as the Conservative movement took over the apparatus of the Republican party and commenced hustling the body politic closer to Torquemada than to Solomon, and to douse it repeatedly in what can only charitably be described as ripe effluent.
    Humbly, sir, humbly, I submit that this is untenable.
    And therefore I restate my premise as well. The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few. Wherefore does this lead us then?
    At what point do people begin to remember the words of Pastor Niemoller, and take those ominous syllables to heart?
    If we are to follow current events to their logical conclusion, do the darkened alleyways not ring with the clatter of jackbooted feet, are the nights not sullied with the whimperings of the frightened?
    I ask you, sir, is this how you would have it?

  4. Asking the state to exempt humanitarian organizations from tax rates that would force a change in their value system is a far cry from holding the door open for fascism. Indeed, historical fascists themselves used monetary policy to marginalize viewpoints that didn't hold with the state.

    Therefore, I put it to you that, in a democratic society, it is just as bad to make any subset of the population change its value system to accord with that of the state, as it is to make the state accord with the values of any single subset of the population. Using taxes to engineer social change, though not without precedent, is rightly decried by both the political Right and the Left as unjust.

    I have no truck with theocrats, religious tubthumpers, or anybody who would make the Law of Moses into the law of the land. I find those people at best creepy, at worst dangerous. Nothing I have said should be construed to endorse that position. And I must say, I resent your intrusion of such an all-or-nothing claim into my statements.

    But, at the same time, a democratic society is comprised of its people. ALL of its people, including those with whom any of us disagree. The mere fact that you dislike religion is not good enough. Some people believe higher education breeds indolence, or the arts reek of decadence. Would you grant them their position, just because they believe it heartily enough?

    Not all religious people are jackboots. I commend to your attention William Wilberforce, Howard Thurman, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Aung San Suu Kyi, or Dr. King. Religious people have done horrible things at times, it's true, but so have irreligious people, and I would not require the unwilling to attend Mass.

  5. Well, then let's by all means quell the hyperbole and get after it.
    That segment of the population has to take into account the secular nature of this particular state. That is written right into the law of the land.
    Therefore that segment of the population has the right to equal treatment, not preferential treatment. That's important. You decry using taxes to engineer social change, but it's a group that has no right arrogating to themselves any federal authority in the first place. None, according to the law of the land.
    My dislike of organized religion only comes into this because the more didactic "Christian" agencies are trying to shove their values down everyone's throat. I get a little militant sometimes. Truthfully, my take is that religion itself is unimportant. We need to move socially beyond such affirmation of absurd superstition...but I have no more right to use my views as a cudgel than anyone else does.
    I commend your attention to this article:
    It isn't about personal views in any case-the extreme WOULD require unbelievers to attend Mass. And they are the ones who are doing most of the talking. And theirs is undeniably the way of the jackboot.
    I don't grant any position based on faith. I find "faith" unjustifiable as a base for the rules that the governing body must enforce. I do not consider churches of any kind to be humanitarian organizations.
    That all said, my original statement and purpose *was* about egalitarianism. The religious are not above the law, as much as they'd like to think so. They certainly are not in a position, in a secular government, to impose or enforce law. But yet they feel that they must, because their god is greater than the state. That's a fallacy. And the law of the land speaks against such imposition.