If there is one thing consistent about the tides of the culture wars, it is that whenever one side is emboldened, it inevitably leads to overreach. The secular Left is proving this point with gusto in the wake of the Supreme Court’s decision to nationalize gay marriage, calling for the removal of tax exemptions for churches and religious non-profits who continue to hold the tired old definition of marriage that existed all the way up until yesterday. This step, which would crush the budgets of many churches and non-profits, reveals an amusing hypocrisy of the modern Left’s turn against civil liberty: they no longer believe in the separation of church and state.
Writing at the website of Time magazine, New York Times columnist Mark Oppenheimer called for abolishing the tax exemptions for nonprofits and instead turning over those funds to government to spend in the interests of the community. “We’d have fewer church soup kitchens — but countries that truly care about poverty don’t rely on churches to run soup kitchens”, he rationalizes. Take that, Salvation Army.
Oppenheimer’s view takes the idea of “government as simply a word for the things we decide to do together” to an unsustainable extreme – suggesting that if we do not do things via government, they do not matter, or they are by their nature insufficiently caring. Frederic Bastiat had such views in mind when he decried the socialists of his time who “accuse us of not wanting persons to eat because we do not want the state to raise grain.”
The separation of church and state, for so long touted by those on the secular left as a hedge against creeping theocracy, was intended to defend the church from the state. The purpose of the First Amendment is to protect faith from government, not the other way around. As James Madison wrote of “the excellence of a system which, by a due distinction, to which the genius and courage of [Martin] Luther led the way, between what is due to Caesar and what is due to God, best promotes the discharge of both obligations.”
The depiction of tax exemption of religious non-profits and churches as unfair is a bizarre view that would require assumption that all property naturally belongs to the state, and that allowing churches to keep the money they are given in donations is an act of largesse as opposed to a hedge against untoward influence of government. For Oppenheimer, giving to Caesar and to God is not enough – God must give to Caesar, too.
Oppenheimer may argue that ending tax exemptions would just treat religious institutions like everyone else, but that’s the problem: everyone else already knows exactly what that means. American households live in fear of the capricious malice of the Internal Revenue Service, which may more or less at will strip them of possessions and peace of mind with no appeal. It is the closest thing to the hard hand of tyranny the individual American will ever experience — certainly its ordinary exercise of power, seizing one-quarter to one-half of a family’s livelihood every year, exceeds anything George III ever dreamt of inflicting — and so we may only imagine the damage that would be wrought by the same gray and grim bureaucracy when unleashed beyond American homes to American civil-society institutions.
The truth is that the IRS has a long history of use as a political weapon. During the presidency of John F. Kennedy, his brother the attorney general saw to it, in a fit of petty pique, that his defeated rival Richard Nixon was audited every single year. Nixon in turn famously sought to use the IRS as a weapon against his own political enemies. And in the modern day, we have seen the power of the IRS and an array of federal bureaucracies engaged by the Obama administration to harass, suppress, deter, and dismay its own enemies.
Are we to believe this practice will not continue when faith is subjected to its possibilities? It would require a wholesale denial of the nature of man and power.
To believe that the IRS will be fair, just, and impartial with religious institutions that may oppose the policies of its controlling executive requires belief in several prior propositions: that the federal bureaucracy is by nature fair, just, and impartial; that the power of taxation tends toward an equitable effect; that power-holding elites in Washington DC, are primarily interested in the common good; that there is a pervasive and in aggregate overriding adherence to constitutional order in the federal workforce; that political appointees who helm federal agencies owe their first allegiance to the people; that malicious application of federal law and regulation is uncommon; that public servants in general are intelligent and principled stewards of a liberal society; that preservation of a liberal society is a primary goal of the federal apparatus. All these propositions are false.
The push for gay marriage always included a significant portion of people who simply wanted fairness, as they saw it. But this fairness is not enough for the secular Left, which has become more honest about their ultimate goal: the eradication of religion’s place at the center of American public life. They will in the coming months and years seek to use the full power of the IRS to achieve this goal. Those who believe in civil liberty must stand against them, or risk an America where there are no churches and no charities but those the state deems fit to exist – exactly the America the Founders sought to prevent.