08/11/2010 09:13 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Are Religious Groups Hiding Behind The Tax Code?

By Tom Ehrich
Religion News Service

(RNS) There are moves afoot to unleash clergy as political commentators. The aim is to let clergy use their pulpits to endorse candidates and political views.

Clergy, like all Americans, already have that right. The issue isn't the freedom to voice political views, but rather whether clergy can wax political while their congregation retains its tax-exempt status.

The heart of the current system is a package of tax benefits historically awarded to religious institutions and other nonprofit community organizations. Those institutions avoid certain taxes, and their donors can treat tithes and gifts as deductions on personal income taxes.

In other words, it's about the money. It's not about freedom of speech, or separation of church and state, or high ethical principle.

It's about tax benefits and the widely held fear that, if constituents couldn't get a tax break, they wouldn't give. By this reasoning, it isn't faith that drives donations to congregations. It's a careful calculation of how much wealth can be protected from income tax.

If it takes a tax benefit to spark constituents' giving, then the congregation has bigger problems than muzzled clergy. It faces a crisis of purpose and performance.

The Bible is clear about giving: it comes from the harvest, not from a tax calculation. The harvest is gathered, and the first tenth is given back to God. No tax adviser is required. You get, you give.

Many congregations have fallen into promoting "charitable giving": collect the harvest, pay expenses and then decide which charities deserve largess.

The results for churches have been disastrous. Other than occasional large gifts to underwrite bricks and mortar, churches rarely have enough revenue to operate effectively and to make a difference in their communities.

Meanwhile, their clergy are indeed muzzled--not only by government tax rules, but also by constituents wielding tax-deductible giving as a weapon to force compliance. Clergy know what would happen if they followed Jesus' lead in addressing issues of wealth and power, if they called their constituents to ethical behavior, and if they preached Jesus' radical inclusion and radical sacrifice.

Giving would dry up. Not because the government had withdrawn tax breaks, but because many constituents don't want to hear such things.

Despite everything Jesus said, Mammon rules the roost. Government avoids unpleasant sniping from the ethically informed; people of large wealth receive a free pass on any questioning of how they built their pile and whether they share it; and everyone can devote church time to safe topics like other people's sexuality. Parishioners are not led into scrutinizing how they respond to their neighbors or function as citizens.

If you ask me, this is a huge loss in exchange for a tax break.

Faith communities should be leading the way toward ethical behavior. The corruption that is undermining our democratic institutions wouldn't happen so easily if preachers (like the Hebrew prophets) were doing their job as ethical goads. Intolerance, cultural decay, incivility and crumbling of families need more "meddling" from faith communities, not less.

I don't think we will get that leadership from faith communities as long as Mammon calls the shots. If churches gave up their tax benefit, clergy could speak freely, and constituents could deal directly with whether they have the faith for harvest giving and the courage for ethical leadership.

There should be no hiding in the tax code.

(Tom Ehrich is a writer, church consultant and Episcopal priest based in New York. He is the author of "Just Wondering, Jesus" and founder of the Church Wellness Project. His website is Follow Tom on Twitter (at)tomehrich.)