This post was going to be on atheism and morality but I received a long comment on my last post from Sean, a reader of Blag Hag, and it was pertinent enough that I thought I’d address it in a post. Welcome, Sean. I appreciate you engaging me and doing it civilly and thoughtfully.
My impression is that they [churches] cannot directly run campaigns or parts of campaigns on these issues, not that they cannot preach about them. The line is, unfortunately, rather fuzzy, but I don’t know that your statement is very precise, and I’m unaware of any church that has actually lost tax-exempt status solely because of something being preached against. In fact, I suspect that any such case would involve a very strong First Amendment defense for said church. A probable exception is endorsing political candidates, which is obviously explicitly ruled out by 501(c)3 rules.
This happened to an Episcopal church in Long Beach in 2003. (I can’t remember the name of the church. I think it was All Saints or something.) It’s one of these things that happens very infrequently so I take notice when it does happen. I’m sure that there are churches that *did* endorse candidates but did so in ways that weren’t blatant enough for people to react to.
But it’s not clear to me that a church can not, for example have a generic pro-life stance and encourage people to consider those issues while voting, or get involved in protests so long as they do not directly contribute money or labor to pro-life political lobbying. In fact, I strongly suspect that the many churches near here that do precisely this (I live in Denver) have not had their tax-exempt status threatened. But I’ll certainly yield to counter-examples.
It’s one of these things, I think, where it’s a slippery slope and you only hear about it happening when the act is fairly egregious or when it’s an issue where there’s enough people opposing them that petitions can be filed. I know that my husband’s parishes have tended to be very pro-life and there are pamphlets for the nearby “Walk for Life” but unless he gets up in the pulpit and preaches out very specifically against abortion and irritates people, most people on the opposing side are content to leave well enough alone.
I also will admit that I have no idea what you mean by “the state has no jurisdiction over churches, synagogues, mosques, and temples.” It’s certainly the case (and very fortunate) that the First Amendment prevents the state from regulating which religious doctrines are taught, and also from competing by promoting specific religious viewpoints. But I don’t see what this has to do with taxation. I mean, churches are certainly subject to state jurisdiction in matters of criminal law, and there are certain financial tricks that churches obviously can’t pull (such as affinity fraud, pyramid schemes, or absorbing businesses solely to exempt them from certain taxes). I’m not certain why taxation in particular, on churches in particular, is a problem with jurisdiction in particular.
No problem. Because of the separation of church and state, the state cannot claim jurisdiction over a church (or mosque or synagogue — let’s use “church” in this example) because the church is outside the power of the state. The whole 501(c)3 status of churches has only been in effect since 1954 and was enacted by then-senator Lyndon B Johnson. You are correct in stating that churches are still subject to local law and criminal law. The way this affects taxation is that churches are not classified as businesses and are therefore not subject to taxation as such. As I said before, clergy are considered self-employed by the government though church workers like secretaries and janitors would be subject to normal payroll taxes because their employment is that of a normal private sector employee.
It’s also notable that the same rules apply to atheist and secular 501(c)3 groups, although those are generally considered “educational” groups rather than churches (obviously the same rules are supposed apply across the board). Frankly, I think that this issue is a bit overhyped, and comes more from atheists being irritated at a handful of peculiarly rich religious leaders than anything more substantive.
Believe me, a number of Christians get really ticked off about peculiarly rich religious leaders as well. I should probably explain that some churches (like the LDS) track tithing and income and actually have members settle their tithing to the penny at the end of the year while other churches don’t have an offering plate and members give what they can and do so in different ways. The most well-known pastors frequently are not the richest. Rick Warren, for example, practices “reverse tithing” where instead of giving 10% and living on the remaining 90%, he lives on the 10% and gives away the other tithing. His royalties for all his Purpose-Driven stuff are given to charity. In fact, it’s a sign of spiritual immaturity when the really rich pastors have things like private jets and villas. There is *nothing* about prosperity in the Gospel — the opposite is true.
I feel somewhat the same about the National Day of Prayer and all that, which is more of a symbolic issue than anything (same with the Cold War era symbolism, such as “under God” in the pledge and “In God We Trust” on various things). I think these things are not so much bad in themselves as annoying in the context of rhetoric about a “Christian nation” that often goes overboard. It’s certainly the case that all these minor endorsements of religion cumulatively add weight to the idea that being nonreligious somehow makes you less of a proper citizen.
I’ll address the last sentence of this in a future post. For the record, I agree with you.
Items like Rick Perry’s bill are somewhat more annoying because they cross two lines. Besides being inherently an endorsement of religion, made from a governmental platform, they also are endorsements of the idea of supernatural intervention. This is definitely something that bothers atheists insofar as so many other atheist issues involve supernatural intervention. Intelligent design is an obvious example, but a more appropriate analogy would be when certain believers (notably many Christian Scientists) who refuse medical treatment for their children out of the hope that miraculous assistance will come instead.
I figured that this would be an annoyance. (I heard about the call for prayer on one of the Christian radio stations I listen to in the car.) I don’t know that such a call to prayer would happen in California because we’re a much less “churched” state than Texas is. (I could be wrong so please tell me if I am.) It’s kind of a fine line for me because of the way it gets worded — it would be less of an endorsement (at least to me) if it was worded along the lines of “would those who pray please pray for rain for Texas?” Thoughts?
There’s also some annoyance at the privilege involved. Lots of politicians obviously feel that playing up their faith will gain them some political advantage (or at least it won’t hurt). This is not usually the case with someone playing up how little faith they have. There’s a feeling that Perry gets to be as Christian as he wants since he’s in the majority, and especially because he’s in a conservative state, while politician with nonstandard beliefs in Texas would have to instead play up how moderate and sympathetic to the majority they are. So the prayer stuff seems like just a cheap tactic to win enthusiasm from certain segments of the population.
I think that it is indeed unfair that politicians are more likely to be elected if they happen to be Christian or a member of a faith tradition. (I’m sure Muslim politicians are getting the short end of the stick on this given the Islamophobia of the nation.) I think the reason Christian politicians get so much favor is that people expect them to have higher standards of morality because of the religion they claim to follow. As I plan to address in another post on atheism, someone claiming to be Christian can be much less moral than a politician claiming to be atheist or agnostic — the only difference is that they theoretically *should* know better than to misbehave. On the other hand, Kay Hagan’s purported ties to an atheist group got her some donations that she probably wouldn’t have had otherwise — I know my dad tossed some “godless money” her way after hearing the smears from Elizabeth Dole.
Sean also left me some other great comments on my post regarding Christians subjugating atheists. I’m going to post his comment in its entirety because I think he makes some great points.
I think that, if you want to look at the personal rather than the general stuff, a big concern for a lot of atheists is how to handle family and friends. It’s certainly the case that about half or maybe a bit more than half of the atheist/agnostic community is made up of people who used to be believers and then deconverted. And it can be seriously disconcerting to have people who you used to be very close to, suddenly change attitude, or avoid you, or show direct intolerance. Or people who were very warm at first, become more and more uneasy as they realize that you don’t believe in the same things.
I’ve heard a few dozen of these stories, and some of them can be quite harsh. Some people have had family members pray for something bad to happen to them, apparently believing that atheists will immediately convert when confronted with misfortune or the specter of death. Others have simply been shunned. Last week I was talking to someone who had asked his father why he never called anymore. The father replied “What does light have to do with darkness?” and that was that.
There’s also an anxiety that keeps people in the closet. A lot of people don’t come out at work, not out of fear of a specific type of retribution, but because they worry that, the moment they come out, they’ll change from a “normal” person to someone who is the target of questions, hostility, or attempts at conversion.
I suppose if there are two simple things to change, it would be these: First, people shouldn’t assume in public that everyone they meet is a Christian, or that all the nice people are Christians, or that they would all at least like to be told about Christianity right here and now. This especially goes for asking strangers questions that atheists at school or work often dread, such as asking “What church do you go to?” instead of something more general like “Are you religious?” or “What religion are you?” or something. Obviously this happens more in the Bible Belt and in rural areas. Secondly, Christians need to understand that atheism is a description of what people might think about the universe at large, and doesn’t mean that atheists just all have some kind of burning anger towards all religious people and religion. Some of us probably do, but that’s beside the point; it’s a stereotype that doesn’t describe how most of us feel most of the time.
Obviously the morality issue also plays a role, but I think that my second point above may actually play a bigger role in mistreatment of atheists. People don’t normally act hostile to strangers. But I think that some people have interpreted my calling myself an “atheist” as implicitly an attack on religion all by itself, and so they get kind of defensive before I even have the opportunity to say anything specific about my beliefs. And that defensiveness leads to being more willing to label me as getting something morally wrong, or to misinterpret what I say as being much more of an attack than I intend it to be (which in turn frustrates me, increasing the chance that I actually do say something offensive).
Thank you Sean for engaging me on these things. I appreciate it.