A Libertarian Perspective - Separation of Church and State: What Is It? Why Do We Have It? Should Churches Pay Taxes?
What is Separation of Church and State?
Many believe that the separation of church and state means that Christians, or any other religion for that matter, cannot use their religious beliefs to influence the political system and/or constitutional law. They are wrong. Let me address this to the best of my ability.
The separation of church and state does not mean that Christians, or any other religious persons, cannot vote or make political decisions based on their religious beliefs, it is the idea that there should be a separation of church from the state. The church and the government should be two separate institutions. Take a look at the context of when the separation of church and state was first enacted. The Founding Father's had just broken away from a nation (Great Britain) that was infamously known for being political corrupt due to the nature its relationship with the Catholic church. Too many times had the British government been compromised by the Church. Great Britain had a "Church of England" and even at one point gave a lot of power to the Pope over the English people, so, our Founding Fathers veered away from this kind of government so that one institution would not dictate the other. However, any religious persons in America, still have the constitutional right to vote based off of their religious beliefs, it is protected by the First Amendment (Freedom of Religion, Speech, Press, and Petition). They have the right to have and express their own political ideologies, whether their ideologies are those that match the Bible, the Torah, the Quran etc. or Karl Marx, Nietzche, Bertrand Russell, Epicurus etc.
Are we a Christian Nation?
Many Christians say that we are a Christian nation, because we were founded by Christian men, however, this is a huge misconception and is simply false. While our founders were technically religious and followed certain aspects of Christian philosophy, they are not the kind of Christians you're thinking of. For example, Thomas Jefferson (the Author of the Declaration of Independence and one of our Founding Fathers) was a Deist. More specifically he was a Unitarian. Unitarians, including Jefferson, reject the idea of the trinity and believe that Jesus might be a teacher and some sort of savior, but they do not believe that he is the one true God. Also, they reject the doctrine of Biblical inerrancy. Meaning that they do not believe that the Bible is without fault. Many Christians of the 18th Century even called Jefferson a heretic. Jefferson himself said he respected Jesus for his moral truths, but he was known to not attend church and he rejected many of the Bible's teachings, even going so far as to make "The Jefferson Bible" which was a version of the New Testament that Jefferson edited that excluded many of Jesus's "miracles" and even scrapped the idea of the Resurrection/divinity of Jesus.
What do other Founding Fathers think?
"The Government of the United States is not in any sense founded upon the Christian Religion." - The Treaty of Tripoli (1797): Initiated by President Washington, signed by President John Adams, and approved by the Senate of the United States.
"Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religions..." -The First Amendment (Written by James Madison, who also wrote the Constitution)
" I am a sect by myself, as far as I know." -Thomas Jefferson
"In politics, as in religion, it is equally absurd to aim at making proselytes by fire and sword. Heresies in either can rarely be cured by persecution." - Alexander Hamilton
Other known Founding Fathers that were Deists? John Adams, George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, Alexander Hamilton and James Madison... The six most influential Founding Fathers of America were all Deists. And we still think this nation was founded by Christian men with strictly Christian principles?
This doesn't mean, however, that the Founding Fathers weren't religious, because they were. Deists believe that God exists and that He created us and set things into motion. But then stepped back and let the universe run its course on its own. They were still religious men, but, based off of these facts, they obviously did not intend for us in anyway to be a Christian nation. So think about it next time before you try and justify your Christian ideology by naively stating that the government should be a certain way because our Founding Fathers wanted it that way. That is not how they wanted it to be, they wanted everyone to express themselves freely; they did not exclusively favor Christianity.
Churches, Taxation, and Government Relief.
Taxation is already a controversial issue by itself; so, one could imagine that adding religious organizations into the mix would make for an extremely touchy subject. Religious organizations and taxation have long been a part of the separation of church and state debate. Many believe that, in order to maintain separation, churches should be exempt from taxation and government intervention. Others believe that religious organizations make too much money and that they too closely resemble for-profit businesses when it comes to finances. These are both valid beliefs that we should not ignore, however, there's one large issue that both of these arguments fail to mention. When George W. Bush was president, he started a "faith-based initiative" which actually gave taxpayer money and funds to religious organizations, primarily Christian organizations. When Barack Obama was president, he completely supported Bush's initiative. In fact, he increased the amount of funds given to faith-based organizations.
Now, there is no need for panic, there is no secret government conspiracy to fund certain religions and disregard others. Presidents Bush and Obama both have a rationale behind their decision to fund these organizations. Simply put, they believe that funding religious organizations is beneficial for local communities, and that the volunteer work many churches do for their communities helps support low-income families and the homeless. Personally, I think there are too many ulterior motives and conflicts of interest taking place here, but I can still empathize with what Bush and Obama were trying to do. Though this initiative is most likely a positive one, I have a few issues with it. Firstly, there is no way to accurately trace where the money is going. All of the funding from the government goes into a church's general donation fund, a fund which is used to pay off a broad spectrum of church expenses: church employees' salaries, charity work/missionary work, food, church property rent/payments, construction, and all types of expenses. I see a problem with this; not only is this an inefficient and zero-transparency process, the funds give an inherent advantage to certain churches/religions over others. I have no interest in which church or religious organization does or does not receive funds, what matters is that smaller churches will not be able to compete with churches that receive funds. I know that is a funny statement, you would think that churches wouldn't need to compete with other churches, but giving a certain amount of funds to certain churches, not all, creates a disproportionate advantage for larger churches over small churches.
Furthermore, we have to consider the political agenda being pushed from both major parties through this initiative. For the Republicans, it is the most obvious, they are empowering religious organizations and values. Specifically, they are favoring Christian organizations, the religion which is deeply rooted in traditional/conservative Republican values. Since Christianity is the largest religion in the US (and the world), it has the most large churches, the types of churches which receive the majority of the funding from the initiative. So, there is obviously a conflict of interest here, though it isn't explicit. For Democrats, though not as obvious, it is simple: they want to fund organizations which promote social programs. Though I also think that this could apply to Republicans, the concept of promoting social programs to boost the economy is more heavily relevant amongst the Democratic party. Personally, I believe that using these funds to promote social programs is a positive thing, but the way the system of church funds works, it increases the chances of money laundering and corruption (two things I am not a fan of). Solution? Re-direct the funds into other social programs directly run by the government to increase transparency and accountability, thus increasing efficiency. Or, cut taxes on low-income individuals and give the money, originally taken for these programs, back to the people.
Church wants to buy 3 Million dollar "home/residential center"?
Should churches pay taxes? Or, should they be exempt?
Before I give my opinion, let's first lay-out some important information and possible hypocrisies from Republicans and Democrats on this issue. For the Republicans, and I already know that they will not at all like this argument, I see the most significant hypocrisy of them all. The way money is being given by the government to religious organizations, which Republicans have yet to criticize, is similar to the way the government supplements Planned Parenthood. Yes, I just made that comparison. Now, before you yell at me, how are they similar? First, I'm going to put aside my personal beliefs and any and all moral arguments for or against abortion services and the organizations which provide them. That isn't relevant here, so try not to get caught up in whether or not abortion is morally permissible. I don't care right now, we are just going to look at the two as non-profit organizations and how they are run. Republicans have frequently made the argument to not fund Planned Parenthood, because it isn't constitutional, nor is anyone obligated, to give their taxpayer money to Planned Parenthood. I think that's a fair argument. Nowhere in the constitution does it state that US citizens must fund women's reproductive services. This doesn't necessarily mean that the citizens can't decide to fund women's reproductive services through the government, it just means that it isn't a natural right to receive free reproductive services. Democrats, of course, fund Planned Parenthood because the organization promotes social programs/services that benefit the community (take that with a grain of salt, I'm not making a statement that what PP does benefits the community, I'm just assuming the mindset/argument of a Democrat/Progressive), similarly to the way Bush's initiative promotes social programs/services through the church. Now, it is both hypocrisy and ridiculous on the Republicans' side to promote one non-profit (churches/religious organizations) over the other (Planned Parenthood) simply because one benefits their beliefs and the other goes against their beliefs.
Now, for my opinion on whether or not churches should be exempt from taxation...
Should religious organizations/churches be exempt from taxation? Yes, I believe they should be exempt from taxation. These organizations promote community services/charity that is beneficial for the people and their communities. In this instance, the government shouldn't push churches to provide certain services (for example, gay marriage ceremonies), however, churches shouldn't be allowed to make donations to political campaigns, if they do, they should be treated as private businesses and not as non-profit organizations.
What if religious organizations/churches continue to receive public funding? Then they should be treated as a public organization/service. The government should be permitted to ask for recordings of church gatherings, censor any teachings on church premises, require churches to offer same-sex marriage ceremonies etc. The moment you start accepting government funding for your organizations, you should be treated as if you are government/publicly run organization.
All-in-all, it's a "pick your poison" kind of conclusion. If you want to remain consistent with the constitution, organizations either have to choose to:
1. Receive funding, but give up some rights.
2. Be exempt from taxation and government intervention, but no longer receive money from the government.