Sunday, August 23, 2015
John Oliver: Should We Tax The Churches?
On Sunday, August 16th, John Oliver delivered a hay-maker on the HBO television program, "Last Week Tonight." In it, John exposed the televangelistic criminatilites of Robert Tilton, a man who was exposed for his shenanigans back in the 1980's. But unlike Jim Bakker and Jimmy Swaggart, Tilton was not completely brought down. He's still out there, and that made him a prime candidate for John Oliver's wrath. Lumping him in with other faith-based assholes such as Kenneth Copeland and Creflo Dollar, he attacked the notion of "seed faith," which is a concept I'm all too familiar with, having spent most of my youth in a Pentecostal church. The basic idea is that if you tithe your 10% to the Lord, that God will repay you many times over. In other words, prosperity comes by giving to the Church, and to various televangelists as well. But if you give over and above your tithe, God will reward your faithfulness even more. In other words, gifts to preachers are investments in your own prosperity later on. Many people have learned the hard way that this doesn't work, and many more get continuously spanked by this doctrine, and go on self-punishing themselves anyway, to the delight of the televangelists who bilk them mercilessly.
So, Mr. Oliver proceeded to respond to this with his usual mockery, launching the Church of Our Lady Of Perpetual Exemption, and asking people to send him their "seeds," (which, one week later, it seems some people literally did - not money, ACTUAL SEEDS!).
But this awesome publicity stunt, which small-media outlets like this blog are totally in favor of, has put tremendous pressure on the government to begin taxing churches. People are sick and tired of this shit, and so they're calling legislators, e-mailing representatives, and begging them to start taxing the churches. Should we?
I've written and spoken on this subject before, and my answer may surprise you. HELL, NO! We shouldn't tax the churches, because the whole fight over the separation of Church and State hinges on our being able to tell religious entities that they cannot have a voice in government because they don't pay taxes. In other words, if you didn't pay your admission fee, you don't get to play. But if we tax the churches, we lose that critical point of argument. Churches will be able to turn around and not only argue that they paid their admission fee, so they should be able to influence government, they will resurrect the old rallying cry of, "No taxation without representation." And we atheists will have no defense to this counter-offensive. Sorry, guys, but the churches should stay tax free. And sorry, Mr. Oliver. You've made your point, but I'm afraid that, just this once, it was for a losing cause.
But wait! Perhaps not all is for naught! While we cannot tax the churches outright, we CAN enact some common-sense safeguard legislation that will leave most churches tax-free, while cracking down on the most hideous abuses of this tax-exempt status. Here are my suggestions:
1.) Only grant tax-exemption to parsonages which are at or below the estimated average value of a home in a given state. For example, in Wisconsin, the average home costs about $150,000. That means that a home can be owned by a church and be free of property taxes if the value of that home is below $150,000. If the home is worth more than $150,000, then the owner, church or not, minister or not, will pay property taxes on whatever additional value that home is worth. With this rule, the vast majority of churches will still pay no taxes, having provided homes for their ministers which are adequate, but not lavish. But the assholes who buy multi-million dollar mansions like the one owned by Kenneth and Gloria Copeland (something cited by John Oliver in his expose), would get hit HARD! And that's the way it should be! Housing prices fluctuate, but they tend to fluctuate together, so tying the standard to the average value of houses in a state is a sound measure. And keep in mind, it wouldn't even be the full value of the property taxed, if a tax were levied! It would only be the small amount over and above the average home value for the region! Most churches could afford that, even on a limited budget. The ones who would pay, and pay big, are the Creflo Dollars and Kenneth Copelands of the world - and that's the way it should be!
2.) Apply a similar rule to parsonage vehicles. Limit of one per household, and tax exemption can only be claimed below the average value of a standard automobile, pickup truck, or SUV. The dodge here might come in the form of traveling preachers who crisscross the nation in large recreational vehicles. If so, fine. If it's a mobile ministry, limit of one RV per ministry too. Not household, ministry.
3.) Fully tax the national televangelism ministries. No, I'm not talking about the local churches who appear on local cable channel number 71. I'm talking about nation-wide broadcasters. It goes without saying that nation-wide broadcasters are not local churches, and therefore should not receive the same sorts of tax exemptions as local ministries and neighborhood churches. You want to do a television ministry in Davenport Iowa on the local community access network? Fine, you get to be tax exempt. But if you broadcast to every state in the union? Too bad! Cough it up!
4.) Only tax the megachurches. The vast majority of churches are small, seldom breaking 200 in attendance on any given Sunday. That's including multiple services at 9:00 a.m. and 11:00 a.m., nightly services and Wednesday family night. Only 2% of churches have attendances of 1000 or more per week. If you have much more than that, you're a megachurch. And the abuses of megachurches are extreme. For example, the largest church in Wisconsin is Elmbrook Church, located in Brookfield, Wisconsin. Its capacity is so large that it could hold easily hold 3,000 people. Its weekly attendance is roughly 7,000 per week! Contrast this with the Riverside Theater which holds 2,450 people, or the Pabst Theater, which has a capacity of 1,345. Uihlein Hall, part of the Marcus Center for the Performing Arts, has a capacity of 2,305. If you're a church, and your building can hold more than 1,000 people, you are ridiculously huge! And the chances that your church is corrupt increases exponentially with its size. Now, I'll grant Elmbrook church a break and say that its probably not corrupt, but that doesn't matter, because its so large that police officers have to be pulled in from their regular job of protecting the public from crooks in order to direct traffic! Elmbrook is that huge! So not only is it not generating any tax revenue, it's costing tax dollars! Taxing such churches is therefore more than fair, whether the ministry is corrupt or not! So, I propose a tax levy upon any megachurches with a seating capacity exceeding 800. 10% of the property's value becomes eligible for taxation when a church's seating capacity exceeds 800, and an additional 10% of that property's value should be subject to taxes for each additional 100 seats. Keep in mind, Elmbrook is probably the only church in Wisconsin that would be hit by any such rule. All the other churches would still be completely tax-exempt.
5.) Tax churches that get involved in politics. There is already a law in place which does this. More than half a century ago, then-senator Lyndon Johnson proposed an amendment that would tax churches that engaged in political activity. In other words, churches could not endorse a political candidate or campaign for a particular political party. If they did, they would lose their tax exempt status. When the law was revisited in 1987, it was actually strengthened, further specifying that churches could not campaign against political candidates, either. Such laws need further strengthening, and a separate bureau to police such activity should be put in place.
So, John Oliver, your little stunt was not a complete wash-out. It inspired me to write this. This, my dear Mr. Oliver, is MY "faith-seed." And I will send you a copy of this proposal with my love offering of $10.00, hoping that you will read my letter and agree with me.
And who knows, some other smart cookie with a lot more political influence than myself might even read this blog post and do something with it.
I have faith in that.