The relationship between politics and churches is a complicated one that has existed for decades, if not centuries. However, there is much more to the story than most Christians may know. Many communities are hesitant to allow churches to come into their town because of the lack of revenue that the organizations bring in. Churches and places of worship hold a tax-exemption status due to laws protecting religious freedom.
Many communities are not as welcoming to the idea of building churches in their neighborhoods. According to Christianity Today, “Cash-strapped towns have frequently tried to use zoning laws to block the development of new churches and are only stopped when the federal government enforces the religious land-use laws that Christian groups advocated for in 1993 and 2000.”
Sometimes these cases are caused by outright religious intolerance and religious liberty laws help churches in such circumstances. However, some people of faith are noticing that the hostility many neighbors feel to their local church might stem from a lack of revenue rather than outright bigotry.
This is an issue that has been discussed in the Democratic presidential primary, as well. Beto O’Rourke received backlash from many conservatives—and some Democrats—when he made the comment that churches should not hold a tax-exempt status based on Christianity’s position on same-sex marriage. The former Texas congressman said, “There can be no reward, no benefit, no tax break for anyone, or any institution, any organization in America, that denies the full human rights and the full civil rights of every single one of us.” O’Rourke said that as president, he would “make that a priority” and “stop those who are infringing upon the human rights of our fellow Americans.”
While it is an issue in the public eye right now, the debate about church tax exemption in America isn’t new. In the 18th century, the European tradition held that certain churches were not made to pay taxes, but they were also “supported by taxes levied on the general public.” Many Americans were not fond of this idea, including Isaac Backus, John Leland and Thomas Jefferson, who advocated for the separation of church and state, leading to the status churches hold now in the U.S.
In our modern-day, there has been a rise in opposition towards religion, with many millennials reporting that they have no definitive personal faith or do not practice religion at all. Political scientist Ryan Burge recently posted a study that found that the same numbers of Americans claim no religion as those who claim to be Catholic or Evangelical.
Some believe that the church should be aware of the ways in which it may be harming its own reputation by avoiding paying taxes.
As historian Paul Matzko points out, it might not be worth it to alienate the communities in which churches reside. “After all, why did Jesus, when asked if he owed taxes to Rome, say, ‘Give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s?’ (Mark 12:17) It is far better to live peaceably with all people, giving ‘to everyone what you owe them—if you owe taxes, pay taxes.'” (Rom. 13:7) Religious Americans fear a country where there is no tax-exemption status for churches, as they believe this will lead to no churches at all. This, too, is a fair concern and it will do the religious community well to continue to debate both sides.