England's King Henry VIII tired of his first wife, Catherine of Aragon, because she failed to produce a male heir to his throne. But the Catholic Church believed that marriage was for life, and therefore did not allow divorce. So in 1527, the king solved his dilemma by ordering the Archbishop to grant him a divorce against the express wishes of the Pope. The Archbishop was fond of keeping his head attached, so complied. With this one act King Henry split from the Vatican and created the Church of England, to which he named himself head. He promptly married Anne Boleyn.
This lesson from history was well understood by our founding fathers when they created a secular republic. We do not need a Church of America: what the founding fathers knew in 1776 holds true in 2011. In spite of right-wing Christian rhetoric to the contrary, that we are a secular nation cannot be denied. The facts supporting that conclusion are unambiguous, overwhelming, and indisputable. The Declaration of Independence in 1776, the Articles of Confederation of 1777, the U.S. Constitution (1787), and the Federalist Papers (1787-1788) are purely secular documents. I have previously reviewed each in detail. Searching for references to god in any of these documents is akin to looking for Rick Perry at a gun control rally. Nowhere to be seen.
Our national obsession with god in politics is a recent phenomenon, and would seem completely alien to any of our founders. "In God We Trust" was first placed on United States coins in 1861 during the Civil War. Teddy Roosevelt tried to remove the words from our money in 1907 but was shouted down. Only in 1956 was that phrase adopted as the national motto by the 84th Congress. The clause "under God" in the Pledge of Allegiance was inserted only in 1954 when President Eisenhower signed legislation to recognize "the dedication of our Nation and our people to the Almighty."
For the first 180 years of existence, the United States never included god in its motto, on its currency, or in any document creating the republic. We were born a secular nation and remained one for nearly two centuries.
The religious right claims, incredibly, to know more about the intent of our founders than the founders themselves. We really need to stop this ridiculous argument about being a Christian nation. If there should be any doubt, let us listen directly to the words from those who created our great nation. This from Thomas Jefferson in an April 11, 1823, letter to John Adams: "The day will come when the mystical generation of Jesus by the Supreme Being in the womb of a virgin, will be classed with the fable of the generation of Minerva in the brain of Jupiter." He went on to say in his concluding paragraphs, "But we may hope that the dawn of reason and freedom of thought in these United States will do away with all this artificial scaffolding..."
Jefferson said long before the United States existed that his statute for religious freedom in Virginia was "meant to comprehend, within the mantle of its protection, the Jew and the Gentile, the Christian and the Mohammeden, the Hindoo and Infidel of every denomination."
The final word, however, belongs to John Adams, who said when signing the 1797 Treaty of Tripoli, "the government of the United States is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion." Since he helped found the country, he would certainly know on what principles the nation was founded. Should we not take his word over some preacher's interpretation almost 300 years later?
And yet in spite of the clear intent of those who created our country, we continue to argue the point. The Rev. Robert Jeffress, senior pastor at First Baptist Church of Dallas, preaches to a flock of about 10,000 followers. The good pastor insists that only "followers of the lord Jesus Christ" are qualified to occupy the Oval Office. The Church of America.
Jeffress is in the news as a result of his accusation that Mitt Romney, as a member of the Mormon cult, is not a Christian. More noteworthy but overlooked was Jeffress's self-answered questions when he introduced Rick Perry at a Value Voter Summit:
Do we want a candidate who is skilled in rhetoric or one who is skilled in leadership? Do we want a candidate who is a conservative out of convenience or one who is a conservative out of deep conviction? Do we want a candidate who is a good, moral person -- or one who is a born-again follower of the lord Jesus Christ?
The first question impugns Obama because he speaks well; the second disparages Romney as a flip flopper. The third lauds Rick Perry for his Christian ideals.
Let us be clear what we have here: a pastor of a large church using his pulpit to endorse a political candidate to lead a Christian nation. He endorses Perry because he is a true Christian, and suggests rather explicitly that no Christians should vote for Romney.
Jeffress's activism is but one example of invasive religious meddling in politics, which presents us with two problems; first is the consequences of political campaigning from the pulpit; and second is the threat to our founding principles separating religion and government unambiguously established at our origin.
Campaigning for Christ on the Back of U.S. Taxpayers
Of course I fully support Jeffress's right to express his political opinion openly. But he cannot play politics while simultaneously claiming the rights and benefits that our society conveys upon apolitical organizations. Places of worship now enjoy property tax exemption as long as they do not violate IRS statutes that prohibit political campaigning by any tax-exempt religious group. Jeffress has clearly crossed that boundary by his open campaign to get Perry elected.
Some churches are now thinly masked political machines hidden behind the veil of "values" politics. The pulpit in fact has become a central point for political rallies on the right. Some churches have thrown off the pretense of being non-political, but have paid no price for doing so. Examples of political activism are abundant.
In 2004, the Catholic Church interjected itself directly into presidential politics. Referring to candidate John Kerry, the church declared that any person who is "personally opposed to abortion, but supports a woman's right to choose" incurs automatic excommunication. The Boston Archbishop Sean O'Malley said that pro-choice Catholics are in a state of grave sin, and cannot take communion. If any doubt lingered that the target of these pronouncements was Kerry himself, St. Louis Archbishop Raymond Burke went so far as to forbid Kerry from taking communion when the candidate was campaigning in the area.
If that example is too subtle, O'Malley's predecessor, Cardinal Humberto Medeiros urged Catholics not to vote for Barney Frank and James Shannon, two liberal Democrats in Congress.
In a debate during the 2006 gubernatorial election, Sarah Palin stated that religious leaders should be able to support a particular candidate from the pulpit. That is not terribly surprising coming from her. Her religious mentor, Pastor Kalnins, told followers they would go to hell if they supported Senator Kerry during the 2004 presidential election.
In 2008, in a repeat of 2004, a South Carolina Catholic priest, the Rev. Jay Scott, threatened his parishioners that a vote for Obama would deny them communion. The priest said that any support for Obama "constitutes material cooperation with intrinsic evil." The Mormon Church actively lobbied against and funded opposition to Proposition 8 in California.
With these examples, we can no longer even bother pretending otherwise: churches are political organizations that routinely and openly violate IRS statutes, undermining any claim they might have had to property tax exemptions. And while the vast majority of Americans believe otherwise, the Supreme Court ruled in 1970 that exempting church property was permissible, but not required by the constitution (Walz v. Tax Commission of the City of New York). We have no obligation to exempt churches from property tax.
What has been obscured by time is the nature of the Supreme Court's decision in Walz, a close vote of 5-4. The minority wrote an opinion supporting the argument that state exemption for church property indirectly caused the state to make a contribution to religious bodies, in violation of the First Amendment. Exempting churches from property tax was one vote away from being declared unconstitutional.
The Tenth Circuit Court further clarified the Walz ruling in 1972 (Christian Echoes National Ministry, Inc. v. U.S.), holding that "tax exemption is a privilege, a matter of grace rather than a right." The Supreme Court went even further in that direction in 1983 (Regan v. Taxation with Representation), ruling 8-3 that tax exemption was indeed equivalent to a tax subsidy. Justice Rehnquist wrote:
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.
That is not the ravings of a left-wing nut job, but the words of a Chief Justice of the Supreme Court who sat well right of center. Even conservative courts have ruled consistently that churches have no special privilege in property tax exemptions.
James Madison, Benjamin Franklin, James Garfield and Ulysses Grant all opposed the exemption. Grant said to Congress, "I would also call your attention to the importance of correcting an evil that, if permitted to continue, will probably lead to great trouble in our land... it is the accumulation of vast amounts of untaxed church property."
The argument for exemption on the basis that churches are non-profit and provide charitable services to local communities holds no water. Other organizations with identical characteristics do not benefit from the exemption. The exemption is clearly focused on religion. Extending that privilege can no longer be justified when a religious leader actively campaigns for one candidate or one Party. Nobody can doubt that Jeffress is campaigning for Perry.
Windfall in a Tough Economy
The estimated value of untaxed church properties in the United States is on the order of $300 billion to $500 billion (a wide range because no central database collates these numbers from counties across the country). Undeniably, residents pay higher taxes than they would if religious institutions paid their share on this vast sum. Churches use city services, rely on good streets, are protected by the police, and would expect the fire department to respond to a blaze on church property. Yet churches do not contribute to the city accounts from which funds are drawn to pay for those services. Everyone else has to pay more to make up the difference. Across the nation tax authorities report that exemptions for property and buildings used for religious purposes contribute significantly to and are often the biggest cause of lost revenue.
Every time a new church is built on land that could generate property tax, all other tax payers are placed immediately at a disadvantage by becoming the source for that lost revenue. That must stop. Churches should be taxed like the big businesses they have become. The U.S. Treasury reported way back in 1968 that established religious organizations no longer depend primarily on charitable contributions and members fees, but rather on the return from multiple investments. In 1986, the last year for which I can find accurate numbers, religious organizations earned an annual investment income of $10 billion with investments well exceeding $100 billion. That number is probably five to ten times greater today. As a taxpayer I am now directly subsidizing the Church's political activities to the tune of billions of dollars.
Enough already. If preachers and ministers want to play politics, fine. If religious leaders want to agitate to create a Christian nation, they have the right to do so. But if they do, we should immediately revoke any privileges of tax exemption. The playing field becomes extraordinarily skewed when only one team has to play by the rules.
Jeff Schweitzer is a scientist, former White House senior policy analyst and author of Calorie Wars (July 2011) and A New Moral Code (2010). Learn more about Jeff at www.jeffschweitzer.com.