Today is Tax Day, so if you haven’t done your taxes yet, you’ve got some time left to get busy.
Tax policy is a complicated subject, and you’ll find lots of opinions about it – often heated ones. While Americans may disagree on how much they should be taxed and what those taxes ought to pay for, there’s one thing I’d hope we could all agree on: No taxpayer should be compelled to subsidize religion.
Unfortunately, we’re drifting from this idea. Private school voucher plans that use public funds to subsidize private religious schools are operating in some states, and President Donald Trump and Education Secretary Betsy DeVos have proposed a nationwide tuition tax credit scheme (a type of backdoor voucher plan) that would cost billions.
In addition, “faith-based” initiatives continue to proliferate. Under Trump, some taxpayer-subsidized religious institutions have boldly declared that they have a right to take money from the public yet refuse to serve certain classes of people, a situation Americans United is challenging in federal court in South Carolina.
The framers of the Constitution believed that houses of worship should not receive tax dollars. They didn’t feel this way because they were hostile to religion – far from it. While they clearly believed that forcing people to support religion against their will was a violation of the fundamental right of conscience, the Founding Fathers also understood that faith communities prosper when voluntarily supported by members.
In 1785, James Madison penned the “Memorial and Remonstrance Against Religious Assessments” – a broadside that blasted a proposal to force all residents of Virginia to pay a tax to support Christian ministers.
The document is essentially a list of 15 reasons why church taxes are a terrible idea. The entire thing is brilliant, but point seven is especially relevant today:
“Because experience witnesseth that ecclesiastical establishments, instead of maintaining the purity and efficacy of Religion, have had a contrary operation. During almost fifteen centuries has the legal establishment of Christianity been on trial. What have been its fruits? More or less in all places, pride and indolence in the Clergy, ignorance and servility in the laity, in both, superstition, bigotry and persecution. Enquire of the Teachers of Christianity for the ages in which it appeared in its greatest lustre; those of every sect, point to the ages prior to its incorporation with Civil policy.”
Far be it from me to paraphrase Madison, but he’s essentially saying here that evidence shows that church taxes haven’t helped religion, they’ve ruined it. He points out that the Christian faith received state support for 1,500 years, and this led the clergy to become arrogant and lazy. It also sparked ignorance among lay members and fostered persecution. Madison recommends that you ask ministers – they'll tell you that Christianity did better before it took state money.
Madison was right, and we can see evidence of this is the world today. Consider the countries that still have taxpayer-supported, state-sponsored religion. They tend to be either nightmarish theocracies or places where religion plays a largely ceremonial role but dwindling numbers of people actually bother to attend services.
America needs to re-embrace one of its founding principles: No one should be taxed to pay for the religion of another. On Tax Day, recommit to that idea yourself and work with Americans United to buttress it.
P.S. Benjamin Franklin also had a great quote on this topic: “When a Religion is good, I conceive that it will support itself; and when it cannot support itself, and God does not take care to support, so that its Professors are oblig’d to call for the help of the Civil Power, ’tis a Sign, I apprehend, of its being a bad one.”