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OK. Today is the "Pulpit Initiative" sponsored by Ralph Stanley and the ADF (Alliance Defense fund). Haven't heard anything yet on the news on how it went off. But we'll see. Maybe it just fizzled. Actually, I hope so.

The Pulpit Initiative, for those who haven't heard, is blatant preaching from the pulpit on behalf of a particular political candidate (wanna guess which one?). The ADF claims this is a First Amendment issue; they want "to restore a pastor’s right to speak freely from his pulpit without fearing censorship or punishment by the government. " (

No one is trying to censor or punish pastors. That is a complete misstatement of the situation.

The 1954 Johnson act bans non-profits from intervening in politics. They can speak on political issues; that's fine. The line is drawn at actually endorsing or condemning a particular candidate. If any non-profit 501c3 (not just a church) crosses this line, they can lose of their IRS tax-exempt status. There is no felony or misdemeanor here. No one would be arrested. It is an administrative matter, a loss of privileged status.

But this loss of a privileged status is being cast as a 'punishment'. Stanley says it infringes both freedom of speech and separation of church and state. 

Pastors can say anything they want, as private citizens. And, if they are willing to forgo their privilaged status, they can also say anything they want from the pulpit. But when they act like a political action committee, they are subject to taxation as a PAC. Donations are not tax-deductible and the church organization will have to pay taxes like anyone else.

Neither religious expression nor free speech is really the issue -- seems like a transparent economic motive to me.

Several of the pastors interviewed on this issue seem to think that the tax-exempt status of churches is enshrined in the Constitution. It isn't. Nothing in the Constitution addresses taxation of churches, or any exemption for churches. The IRS itself only dates from 1913. Where does this idea come from?

The Constitution does have the First Amendment: "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances." This was ratified December 15, 1791.

The Johnson Act applies to any organization which wishes to enjoy tax-exempt status. It does not single out churches, nor does it in any way "prohibit the free exercise" of religion; it just defines the IRS requirements for the special privilege of tax exemption.

I used to be treasurer at my church, and currently chair the Finance committee. And I know that we have never, since the 1600s, ever paid property taxes on the church building. So there is some sort of tax exemption that has "always existed". But if we are going to go back to colonial times, we should look at the whole picture.

Many of the first colonists were religious fanatics who chose to be governed by a theocracy. (The Taliban would be a good modern analogy.) The church was the government, and the government collected money via church tithes. The English had an official State Church but the Puritans felt that the government was not church-centered enough. They elevated the church above secular government. For example, you could not be a member of the governing council unless you were a respected member of the church (essentially a church elder).

The new Jerusalem couldn't last, however. Roger Williams and other religious dissidents broke off to form a separate colony which was the first to explicitly guarantee religious freedom and tolerance. Churches were no longer the seat of government, but they were often the largest buildings in the community and served as community gathering spots. Church property was not taxed, but their previous direct support was taken away. By providing services, they essentially paid tax "in-kind".

How does property tax exemption relate to separation of church and state? And should it continue?

State-level exemptions for church property exist in all 50 states, but in some states they must be applied for, and in many jurisdictions the exempted property is narrowly defined (for instance, the church itself is exempted, but not a parish hall, etc.).

Recent court decisions have been interesting. In 1970, an athiest (I believe) named Walz sued the Tax Commission of the City of New York, saying that the church tax exemption violated the the"no establishment" clause of the first amendment. The court ruled that while a direct tax subsidy would be a violation, a property tax exemption was not, since it did not give money to churchs, it merely abstained from demanding the church support the state.

In 1972, the tenth Circuit Court stated this more strongly: "tax exemption is a privilege, a matter of grace rather than a right." In 1983, the Supreme Court stated that "Both tax exemptions and tax deductibility are a form of subsidy that is administered through the tax system. A tax exemption has much the same effect as a cash grant to the organization of the amount of tax it would have to pay on its income."

The stage is set for another lawsuit. I think with the 1972 and 1983 clarifications, there is a very good chance that a suit claiming that tax-exemption constitutes a tax subsidy which violates separation of church and state would fly. And judging by the comments I've read about the Pulpit Initiative, this would be welcomed by major segments of the population.

Our church has always avoided taking federal monies, because with federal money comes federal oversight, and the church believes in social activism which often runs counter to the government's stances. If tax exemption is ruled to be a federal subsidy, I don't think a heck of a lot would change. We would need to come up with the money for property tax, which would admittedly be a burden, but so are the higher fuel prices this year, and the need for a new roof. We would just have to suck it up. Would donations go down if they were not tax-exempt? Probably not to a significant extent. Basket donations are anonymous, and few donors give so much that they are issued documentation for their taxes. I think that most people give because they want to support the church, not because they want a tax deduction.

Some religious sites are claiming that taxation would constitute government control over a church, since the power to tax implies a power to regulate and possibly to destroy. But I think they are confusing the church as a religious body with the physical property of the church. My church has very little organization, and what it has is all volunteer. Our entire budget is probably lower than the threshold required for reporting to the IRS. If necessary, we could meet in private houses, and while it would make some of our outreach efforts more difficult, it would not compromise our religious beliefs.

Other churches have multimillion dollar stadiums to accommodate thousands of people, or run television studios as part of their mission. Is that structure required for their religious beliefs, or is it merely an organization founded on religious beliefs, which could fulfil its mission just as well if it were commercial and paid taxes?

This Pulpit Initiative might backfire. The easiest way to free preachers to campaign from the pulpit is to remove the one thing that prevents them from doing so -- the tax-exempt status of churches.
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I don't post a whole lot. I've never gotten the hang of using this as a sort of postcard to my friends. Instead, I use it more to write editorial-style reactions to things. Or just talk about something that intrigues or bothers me.

Religion fascinates me. Unfortunately, much of what is evil in the world seems to be done in the name of doing good, or at least in the name of what someone thinks God wants them to do.

This essay presupposes a fairly normal (whatever that is) idea of God in the American Christian sense. On we go.


A few weeks ago, I was at a Church breakfast, and we were discussing how to figure out what God wants us to do. Some people talked about following what it says in the Bible, which is really hard to do because the Bible contradicts itself. (If you don't think so, you haven't been reading it closely). So how do you decide what parts of the Bible to take seriously? Usually people rely on what some preacher says. So how do you decide which preacher to follow?

And then someone asked, "why do we have prophets and preachers at all? Why doesn't God just tell each of us directly what he wants of us?" The talk turned to having faith and belief and obedience. But the question gobsmacked me.

I should mention that I've never been comfortable with the traditional Christian idea of God. I took a Talmud course once, which approached the Bible as a collection of teaching stories. The value of the stories lies in what you discover for yourself as you discuss and debate them. Improbable stories which illustrate questionable morals are not there so you can 'have faith and believe'; just the contrary. They are there so that, by examining the shades of grey, you can discover for yourself what is meant by black or white. This made a lot of sense to me; as a teacher, I know that this is a good way to teach intangibles.

For instance, how do you teach the idea of beauty? You could simply show a bunch of beautiful things, and say 'this is beauty'. But that doesn't teach the concept of beauty; it just presents examples. To internalize the concept, it works far better to show something that may or may not be beautiful, and discuss in what ways it is beautiful and in what ways it fails to achieve beauty. The process of examination and thought develops the ability to discern beauty far better than just presenting examples does.

So -- back to the question -- why doesn't God just tell us what he wants us to do? Free will, said some. But free will is the answer to why God doesn't impose his will; it's no excuse for not making his will clear. Some replied he did make his will clear; he gave us the Bible. But that's not clear either; first someone has to tell you that it is the will of God (God doesn't whisper it in your ear), then you have to read it in whatever translation and decide what God really meant by saying certain things, and finally even if this is the word of God, what does that say about what you are supposed to do. Meanwhile others saying other things are really the will of God. If the will of God were clear, then discerning God's will would not even be a question. It is a question, so the will of God is not clear, QED. Certainly God has the ability to tell each and every person on Earth what he wants by direct revelation. So if what God wants us is for us to obey his will, why doesn't he just tell us what his will is?

It seems uncomfortably like having a relationship with someone who communicates with you by leaving messages with other people. He knows that these people sometimes garble the message, as in a game of telephone. But if you don't understand his message, it's somehow your fault.

I'm sorry, but this is passive-aggressive behavior. When the stakes include the fate of one's soul, it approaches psychopathic proportions. If God wants our obedience, but won't tell each of us clearly what he wants, yet punishes failure with damnation -- then it is logical to conclude that God is insane.

If we assume God is good, then there must be another reason for his not simply telling us what he wants. The reason that makes sense to me is the same as the Talmudic approach to the Bible. God wants us to figure out for ourselves what is right, and by so doing grow up. As long as we are simply obeying him, we will not grow up.

Think of a child. As long as the reason a child obeys is "because I said so!", that child is still a child. Part of growing up is challenging rules, making mistakes, and learning to take responsibility for the consequences of your actions. If your grown-up child obeys you, he does so not because it is your will but because he has evaluated the options and has chosen to do what you want; what was your will is now also his will. And if your grown-up child does something else, it is because you and he have come to different conclusions as to what is best.

To develop that capacity to evaluate, it may -- possibly -- be necessary to be less clear about what is wanted. Imagine a teenager who wants to go to a party but has homework to do. You want him to do his homework, and you could just order him to stay home and do his homework. But you also want him to learn to take responsibility for his actions, and that lesson is frankly more important than just getting his homework done. So you take the risk that he may not do your will; you just remind him that his education is important. He may take the hint and stay home. Or he may go party and have to get up early to finish the homework, or he may fail to do the homework and have to face the academic consequences. Each of these is a lesson, and in fact, the lessons from not doing your will may be more maturing in the long run than obedience would be.

This is the only reason I can see for God not making his will clear. More than he wants our obedience, he wants us to just grow up. And that won't happen unless we challenge and question what we think he might want, and make up our own minds.

And he certainly doesn't want us to simply obey people who claim to be speaking in his name.


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