church-tax-exemption

The federal government gives financial breaks to whomever it wills. Often those benefits go to industries which it wishes to foster, or to those industries it wishes to protect from foreign competitors. Agriculture has often been on the receiving end of such breaks. So has the petroleum industry. For some time churches have received favors from local, state, and federal governments in the form of tax-exemptions. The rationale was that these organizations help society in a variety of ways that otherwise might not be possible if taxes were imposed on them.

We may be moving into a new day in which governments hungry for revenue take a second look at their policies. One reaction on the part of churches would be to roll over and pay. When outsiders ask, “Why should the church get tax breaks?” this group is ready to swallow hard and bring out the checkbook without uttering any defense.

I think the Church should do a better job explaining its value to our society. Unfortunately, we’ve taken too literally Jesus’ admonition of not letting the right hand know what the left hand is doing. I was as surprised as anyone to learn that 20% of our nation’s population has been served by a Lutheran service organization of some sort. I suspect that number would be even higher had not a number of our hospitals removed the name “Lutheran” from their name, and had not a number of adoption agencies ended their services.

In a multi-religion culture, touting the merits of Christianity will miss the point. The value to society which the Church provides is not a denominational value. It is a known fact that a democracy and capitalism depend on a solid moral foundation if they are to work well. The Church strives to provide such a foundation for citizens. It strives to be a watchdog that warns about the excesses of a runaway capitalism that only congratulates the rich for making themselves richer, and a runaway socialism that forces a redistribution of wealth that robs people of dignity and a work ethic by making them political and economic dependents. It also tries to provide an ethical warning to the sciences.

An important part of that process can happen within a parochial school system. I mention it because where school-age population dwindles, there are pressures from both secular and ecclesiastical sides. Both types of schools need all the students they can get for obvious scales of economy. But the more the public school system is “values-neutral,” the less helpful it may be to the type of society where a strong sense of morality is needed to guide important decisions.

Because we Christians live in two kingdoms, we have civic responsibilities as well as religious ones. Christian individuals should use the opportunity our political system provides and give better witness to the necessity of the free exercise of religion that extends beyond Sunday morning worship. It would also be a good time to review the thinking that often wants to remove the word “Lutheran” from our vast array of social service organizations and housing providers. The Church still may be taxed, but at least it will not be done by a government ignorant of the Church’s benefits to its society.