Tax Exempt Status and the Privilege of Churches

“What I would say to the churches is be bold and challenge them and say in our church we’re still going to discuss good and evil and what we think of it, and so be it if the government wants to come and challenge us because if we don’t stand up and try and protect our God-given rights they’re going to be taken from us.”

Rand Paul to CBN host David Brody

Listening to Rand Paul’s latest appeal to Christian church pastors to speak out on political matters, you would think American churches are embroiled in a spiritual war with the federal government. Are pastors being threatened by the IRS on pain of death to keep silent when it comes to endorsing political candidates or causes? Have they been drug into the street, had their family and homes taken from them? No.

What Rand Paul is attempting to doing here is to re-frame this issue away from the truth. Rand Paul needs churches to feel like they are victims, so he is framing a new ‘truth’ so they will be free to play that role. He wants us all to believe that churches are being suppressed by not being able to take positions on political matters. The truth is that churches are completely, 100% free to take positions in politics – but there is a cost.

In an agreement with the American people, through the law of the United States for 501(c)3 organizations, churches have been given the benefit of operating as non-profit entities, which means they do not have to pay taxes on the money they bring in. In the agreement to receive this benefit there are some costs for churches. One of those costs is not being able to take positions on political matters. This restriction is not unique to churches; all non-profits are prohibited from taking positions on political matters. It is a perfectly reasonable system that distinguishes between organizations that want to exercise political power or make a profit (which must pay taxes) and those that want to operate for the benefit of a community and not make a profit (which do not have to pay taxes).

This is a simple cost / benefit proposition. For this benefit there is this cost. That’s life in the real world. Every benefit has a cost. If churches are no longer happy with the cost, they are perfectly free to give up the benefits of being non-profit organizations, and they can pay taxes on the money they bring in (which is a substantial amount for some churches, but enough to at least maintain a building for most).

The really sad thing here is the privilege, dishonesty and immaturity of the American conservative Christian culture that is being exposed. Churches have actually enjoyed greater privilege than other non-profits in America. While all other non-profits of the 501(c)3 classification have been required to submit tax filings every year, to prove that their income is being spent as they claim it is, this filing requirement has not been enforced on churches. But even with this added privilege, the churches are not willing to stand up to their side of the agreement with the American people that allows them to be tax-exempt. They act as if they deserve this privilege and even more, and if it is denied to them they will act like five year-olds and throw a fit.

The best thing the secular community can do in regard to this growing movement for churches to wield political power is to rationally point out the truth of the matter: being tax-exempt is a benefit that comes with the cost of not taking political positions, and if churches want to take positions on these political matters, they are perfectly free to give up their tax exempt status. The end.