Aug 26, 2013

Tax the churches

Blogger and journalist Matt Yglesias offers an economic argument for taxing churches:
even insofar as tax subsidies do target the true faith they're still a pretty bad idea. The basic problem with subsidized religion is that there's no reason to believe that religion-related expenditures enhance productivity. When a factory spends more money on plant and equipment then it can produce more goods per worker. But soul-saving doesn't really work this way. Upgrading a church's physical plant doesn't enhance the soul-saving capacity of its clergy. You just get a nicer building or a grander Christmas pageant.
At the same time, Yglesias grants that those who want the current tax code's prohibition on politicking from the pulpit lifted are basically right. The law -- though apparently unenforced now for a number of years --   trades special non-tax status for the restriction of speech from the pulpit. Specifically, 501(c)(3) groups are not allowed to officially endorse a candidate and political activities can't be a "substantial" part of their activity.

A growing number of politically oriented pastors, mostly evangelicals, have agitated to end this law. Yglesias thinks they're basically right: "trying to say that churches should get subsidy when they don't endorse candidates is de facto a kind of subsidy to religious doctrines whose views happen to lack strong partisan implications .... That's perverse. Just make everyone pay taxes."

Though most religious leaders are unlikely to like this idea, at least one big figure on the religious right agrees. None other than former presidential contender and pastor Mike Huckabee has actually argued that churches should voluntary choose the status Yglesias is suggesting as policy.

"Freedom," Huckabee said, "is more important that government financial favors."