Mimsy Were the Borogoves

Editorials: Where I rant to the wall about politics. And sometimes the wall rants back.

Tax me to the church on time

Jerry Stratton, March 30, 2016

The Temptation of Pope Francis

“The Temptation of Pope Francis by the Left”

The left is celebrating that the Pope is calling for ending tax exempt status for “churches that don’t help the needy”. I’m sympathetic to this. Tax exempt status for churches is a double-edged sword. In practice, it’s as much to keep churches in line—keep them from preaching anti-establishment politics—as it is to keep churches alive. So if the Pope were to come out in favor of ending tax exemption, I’d be interesting in looking at it. The religious tax exemption results in government control over religious speech. Tax exempt status is a way to extract favors from religious leaders, a way for the government to establish what makes a religious institution without establishing religious institutions.1

Of course, I’d prefer to solve the problem by reducing regulations, not increasing them. If the federal government taxed each state this wouldn’t be an issue on the federal level, and states could act as the fifty crucibles of democracy they’re supposed to be.

But it appears that the left is drastically misquoting Pope Francis. I followed the trail from the link—“Pope Francis Calls for Ending Tax-Exempt Status of Churches That Don’t Help the Needy”—to its source, and the Pope doesn’t appear to be calling for anything like what the headline says. He’s targeting actual commercial enterprises:

Some religious orders say “no, now that the convent is empty we are going to make a hotel and we can have guests, and support ourselves that way, or make money”. Well, if that is what you want to do, then pay taxes!

An empty convent turned into a hotel is not a church. That’s not a religious institution. Of course, that’s one of the problems with the tax exemption: it puts the decision about what is and is not a religious organization in the hands of government bureaucrats. It wouldn’t surprise me if some of these hotels bribe government bureaucrats, directly or indirectly, to maintain their tax-exempt status long after they’ve transitioned from a religious institution to a commercial enterprise.

But combatting this has nothing to do with requiring churches to “help the needy”.

Nor does it have anything to do with the United States. In the United States, churches running for-profit enterprises such as a hotel would fall under the Unrelated Business Income act, and would be subject to normal taxes on the hotel. The Pope appears to be asking other countries, specifically Italy, to act more like the United States.

It’s telling, however, that the left has taken “end tax exemptions for hotels” and turned it into “add another level of bureaucracy for religions”. What the left appears to want is to bring religion under the same big-government cronyist landscape that they brought health care under. They want to take milker laws and rent-seeking to church.

The left loves big business because they love big organizations and top-down management, and this is just another manifestation of that. The bigger the organization, the more people it affects, and the more people the left can affect by bringing that organization into the bureaucratic event horizon. A thousand different small organizations run by individuals with individual dreams is anathema to the left.

So they create regulatory environments that encourage big organizations and harass small organizations. The consolidation of the health care market isn’t a side effect of the ACA, it’s one of the desired outcomes. A small additional bureaucratic hassle in an industry doesn’t mean much to a global company that already has a battalion of lawyers. It means a lot to an individual or a small business in competition with the global company.

Adding more bureaucracy to maintaining tax exempt status would leave the Catholic church and other big religious organizations in place. Megachurches would also be able to weather it easily—this is not going to hurt the Joel Osteens of the world. The churches it would affect are the small, local ones run by one or two ministers with no organization backing them up. They’re already struggling, and don’t have the resources to comply with more regulations.

The left has long voiced an active dislike for evangelicals. Part of this, I now suspect, is because they are smaller organizations, often grass-roots, and less easily controlled.

Further, this sort of regulation is designed to favor churches that provide the kind of assistance the left can influence. It will disfavor churches that preach individual contributions and individual service. Churches that want to comply with the regulations will need to ensure that contributions from their flock go to a central organization which then doles those resources out—and thus has the records to prove compliance.

Yet again, the left is supporting a measure that will benefit big organizations and hurt smaller ones; and that will consolidate activity into a central bureaucracy rather than letting it flourish among individuals. At some point, the left is going to have to just admit that they don’t actually like the little guy, and that they prefer the powerful and the connected. Because that’s who their policies support.

In response to Five Million Times Easier!: I’ve got a way to make the IRS’ job five million times easier. And your tax forms half as difficult.

  1. Freedom of speech is in the same part of the constitution as freedom of religion, and I’ve yet to find a tax exemption for bloggers.

  1. <- Federal service