Should churches be tax exempt? In a recent article in Slate, Matthew Yglesias favorably quotes policy wonk Mina Kimes’ call for an end to the tax deduction for contributions to religious organizations:
“If the government is serious about saving money, then it should consider exempting religious donations from the charitable tax break," Kimes is quoted as saying. "Most people give to churches because they want to, not because they get a tax break for their generosity.”
Of the numerous flaws in this idea, the most egregious is the notion that religious organizations aren’t charitable institutions. Do you know of a church (or synagogue, mosque or temple) that doesn’t provide needed social services along with its rites and rituals? The idea that churches aren’t charitable is laughable on its face.
But let’s think about Yglesias’ and Kimes’ proposal for a moment. Assuming you could somehow separate the charitable wheat from the purely religious chaff (which you can’t), would it be good policy to eliminate the tax deductions for religious institutions? Yglesias makes the case that not only are donations to churches deductible, but the land they occupy is also exempt from property taxes. He observes that the tax exemption encourages land ownership by churches that could be put to productive use.
Two questions: Do you know a church that is in the land-hoarding business? Neither do I. Second question: What makes Yglesias think that churches are an unproductive use of land? In comparison to what? An abattoir? A Costco?
A more apt comparison might be to a psychiatric hospital, a use I presume even Yglesias would consider productive. Is a church less productive of social well-being than a psychiatric hospital? Without getting too specific, I would argue that churches are much more productive. Psychiatric hospitals treat very small numbers of very ill people, while churches minister to the spiritual needs of much larger numbers, arguably helping to keep them out of such hospitals. Their contribution to individual well-being, family health and social cohesion is incalculable.
The idea that churches are an unproductive land use betrays a common bias: the belief that attending to the spiritual realm is a private hobby, like stamp collecting or model railroading. Fun for the participant, but of no relevance whatever to society. The privatization of religion is the great tragedy of Modernism, one that the church not only acquiesced to but actually abetted. The church needs to restake its claim in the public square, not as the state’s conduit to God (Europe’s established churches show how well that doesn’t work), but as God’s instrument for the common good.
The fact that smart people like Yglesias and Kimes don’t consider the church to be either charitable or productive could be attributed to their ignorance, or it could be seen as a wake-up call for the church. Perhaps God needs a better PR department. Or perhaps our witness is not as compelling as it should be.