Freedom of Religion & the Tax Exempt Status of Churches

The issue at hand today, and also in past eras is whether or not religious freedom is a biblical mandate or if it is merely the construct of enlightenment thinking. If the bible supports religious freedom for individuals and communities then what exactly does that mean? I had a good conversation with a friend yesterday which led me to seek out a study on this topic for my own personal growth, and now I would like to share my brief studies from today with you my readers. The content I’m providing is guided by Wayne Grudem’s “Freedom of Religion” chapter in his excellent work “Politics,” found on pages 499-510.

Most Christians would agree the basis for freedom of religion can be traced to Matthew 22:21 when Jesus said, “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” Jesus clearly proclaimed the truth that there are things which belong to the realm of God, and those things should not be bothered by government (the realm of Caesar, or government). Jesus does not clearly state what the things are that belong within the realm of belonging to God, however, it’s reasonable to believe as Grudem writes, “’the things that belong to God must include decisions and actions regarding worship and doctrinal beliefs.” So, this means people should have no governmental interference or coercion when it comes to religious beliefs or religious activities. Put simply, the government has no place in the worshipping of its people. This is the bare-bones meaning of “religious freedom.”

Where is the biblical precedence found for the religious freedom in question? Acts 4:20 is the first place after Jesus’ comments about Caesar that we see the principle practically applied. The governing forces over Peter and the apostles attempted to halt the preaching of the Gospel; they attempted to limit religious freedom, and coerce the worshipping of their constituents, and God’s people responded saying, “We cannot but speak of what we have seen and heard (4:20),” and, “We must obey God rather than men (5:29).”

Freedom of religion includes not only the element of governing bodies not influencing the worship of its constituents, but also not coercing or influencing religious belief onto the constituents. So, the biblical view of what has been called “the freedom of religion,” is that the government has no right to either compel or coerce religious belief, or interfere with religious beliefs and practices of its constituents. The Bill of Rights clearly upholds this view of religious freedom, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the exercise thereof…”

So, as readers of Thinkchristiandaily you may be wondering, “What is the issue?” It seems pretty straightforward that the Constitution is not in any way at odds with the biblical view of “Freedom of Religion,” so why do you have to write a blog post about it in 21st century America? Grudem very helpfully highlights the changing of the definition of “freedom of religion” throughout the course of the 20th and 21st centuries, and these changes are what is making today’s conversation about the issue so convoluted. He notes a part of the issue, “The First Amendment was not understood by anyone in 1787 to prohibit government officials from freely expressing their own religious beliefs in public and particularly at government functions, nor was it understood that way by the entire legal system of the U.S. for about the next two centuries.” To prove this point we must look no further than the First President, George Washington’s, proclamation for a national Day of Thanksgiving, when he spoke of his religious beliefs in the following way: 

“Whereas it is the duty of all nations to acknowledge the providence of Almighty God, to obey His will, to be grateful for His benefits, and humbly to implore His protection and favor; and whereas both Houses of Congress have, by their joint committee, requested me ‘to recommend to the people of the United States a day of public thanksgiving and prayer, to be observed by acknowledging with grateful hearts the many and signal favors of Almighty God, especially by affording them an opportunity peaceably to establish a form of government for their safety and happiness…”

Washington’s words are just one example of this understanding of the Bill of Rights’ protection of religious freedom being recapitulated throughout American history. Grudem also quotes speeches from Abraham Lincoln, some 80 years after the writing of the Constitution and he clearly held the same view of “Freedom of Religion” as Washington did. Grudem also includes quotes from Pres. Roosevelt from his public prayer on national radio for the soldiers at D-Day (Just think about how different America is today in its understanding of “Freedom of Religion!”). All of this leads Grudem to conclude the relatively recent Supreme Court decisions that have removed religious expression from the public square cannot be in step with the original meaning of the Bill of Rights. Furthermore, he takes all of this to result in rejecting the modern day view of a strict “separation of church and state” which he says is claiming “that no government property or government function should contain any religious expression, and to that he says it “is based on a modern myth that the Constitution legally requires it, whereas those words are found nowhere in the Constitution and nowhere in any subsequent national laws that were passed by Congress.”

So, it begs the question “How, then, did this myth of ‘separation of church and state’ acquire its power in our government (502)?” Grudem believes it was imposed on the nation by Supreme Court decisions, such as Everson vs. Board of Education (1947), and Lemon vs. Kurtzman (1971). These decisions are the reason why we continually see controversies over the prohibition of prayers in schools, and the censorship of graduation speeches for religious students, and the removal of religious symbols from monuments. This is also the reason why intelligent design cannot be taught in public schools, which begs the question of why evolution is allowed to be taught as if it were law rather than theory, but that’s a conversation for another blog post.

Grudem’s argument and thesis in regards to our American context, in all of its peculiarities and uniqueness is “If we return to the basic biblical principle that government should allow freedom of religion and freedom of religious expression, and if we go back to the original meaning of the First Amendment, then we will reach some different conclusions about questions related to freedom of religion in the U.S. today.” 

Grudem’s conclusion leads me back to the conversation I was having with a friend yesterday in regards to “Political advocacy by churches and their tax exempt status (509).” To this point, Grudem reminds us, “In 1954 the US Congress amended (without debate or analysis) Internal Revenue Code 501c3 to restrict the speech of nonprofit tax exempt  entities including churches requiring that they refrain from any advocacy of or opposition to any specific political candidates by name.” A direct quote of that amendment reads that nonprofit tax-exempt entities could not “participate in, or intervene in (including the publishing or distributing of statements), any political campaign on behalf of or in opposition to any candidate for public office.” Therefore, if a relevant entity violates this policy it results in the revocation of tax-exempt status of the church. I will note that most churches have followed this restriction in submission to the government. Before the passing of this particular amendment there were no restrictions whatsoever on what churches could or could not say about government, voting, or political issues. There were restrictions put on non-profits for the amount they could spend on political lobbying, but there were no restrictions placed on them in regards to their speech.

At this point, I would share (As Grudem does) my caution for churches to support or oppose particular candidates with their public platform. The mission of the church is to preach and proclaim the good news of Christ, and it is not primarily to fight political battles or exert their influence on elections. That is not to say there is never a time a pastor needs to speak on a politically charged subject (I.E. it is necessary a pastor shares God’s Word in regards to pro-life issues, so the purity of the church in regards to Imago Dei theology is maintained, and the church can be salt and light in the midst of a generation practicing evil). However, it is to say that If we are training our people to think, speak, and act biblically then of course these sorts of conversations will happen amongst our people, and they will increasingly carry out their citizenship duties with God’s perfect holy character at the fore-front of their minds. All this is to say the Gospel is what helps us think biblically about the world of politics, and we must not confuse impressing ideology or political indoctrinating with “helping people think biblically.” Our people don’t need ideology and political indoctrination; our people do need theology and biblical doctrine, and this is always driven from exegesis of the Bible. I do not believe it is wise for churches to endorse political candidates, whether their tax exempt status is in jeopardy or not. Grudem shares my convictions saying, “I suspect that nearly all Christians and all churches would recognize the wisdom of exercising considerable caution and restraint with regard to advocating specific political positions from the pulpit of the church (510).”

Yet, a person can agree with me and Grudem, and the question would still remain of whether or not it is right for the IRS to restrain religious institutions from all political recommendations all the time? The question boils down to whether or not it is proper for the government to be the ones who make a decision in this regard, or should it be the decision of individual religious institutions to speak or not speak on a particular political issue, candidate, or platform in any unique circumstance? Grudem’s stance on this issue is shared on page 512, “Decisions about what is preached from the pulpit of a church should not belong to the government, but to the individual pastor and the church itself. Any government control of what is said from a pulpit constitutes a wrongful violation of religious freedom and a wrongful violation of freedom of speech. It is the government—the realm of ‘what is Caesar’s”—attempting to intrude into a realm where it does not belong—the realm of “What is God’s.” I could not agree with Grudem any more than I do!

If you think about it, if the amendment were to begin to be acted upon and executed (so far it has not been except in one instance), then it would serve as a form of blackmail in that it threatens to remove a status meant to help non-profits financially just as long as they do not say something that may be too heavy handed in regards to a governmental or political hot buttons. Furthermore, this allows the government to determine what is acceptable political endorsing and campaigning, and what is unacceptable terminology and verbal endorsing and campaigning to be used by a religious institution. If a government has a right to determine how far is too far then they can effectively draw boundaries between what becomes acceptable political speech and what is unacceptable—that would not be a biblical or constitutional understanding of “Freedom of Religion.”

If you want to read more on the specific issues surrounding the current conversation about churches having tax-exempt status then I highly recommend studying the issue for yourself at this link:  https://churchesandtaxes.procon.org/#backgroundThe article does a very good job of providing a balanced pros and cons list of why churches should or should not maintain tax exempt status.

Boyce College’s Denny Burk also wrote a helpful article you may find here:  https://thefederalist.com/2015/06/29/ending-tax-exemptions-means-ending-churches/

Even the LA Times once published a piece and response on this issue over a decade ago! It’s good and it can be found here: https://www.latimes.com/la-oew-lynn-stanley23-2008sep23-story.html

I highly encourage TCD readers to study this issue for themselves.

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