--Bill of Rights; Amendment I
Thomas Jefferson is one of the most cited founding fathers and is credited with writing many of our founding documents, including the Declaration of Independence, and much of the language in The Constitution and the Bill of Rights. His ideas for running a government were revolutionary (literally) and have influenced subsequent constitutions in many other countries. I am no historian, so I am not sure how much of the first amendment Jefferson wrote, but his commentary on certain aspects of respecting an establishment of religion is almost as influential as the amendment itself. Jefferson wrote to the Danbury Baptist Association in 1802:
"... I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should 'make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,' thus building a wall of separation between Church and State."
This is the first mention of separation of Church and State--ever. Believe it or not, this was a radical idea, as indicated by the fact that the intent of this letter was to set at ease certain religious minds--who wanted to more directly influence the government--by stating that this separation was to protect them from the government directly influencing their religion. And he was right. Virtually every nation in our history which has not included some kind of Church/State separation clause, has adopted a government sanctioned religion. State churches exist even in predominately secular countries like Norway, where every citizen is a member of the Church of Norway at birth, despite only 20% of Norwegians claiming to be religious (4th lowest in Europe), and only 2% attending church on a weekly basis.
The First Amendment simultaneously protects both government and religion from the each other by forcing government neutrality. The power that a government can assume under the guise of religion is alarming, to say the least. One needs only to look at the Communist regime of Stalin to see how a government can become a religion unto itself and terrorize its own people into submission--and Stalin was an admitted atheist. This is how totalitarianism is born; not to mention the Inquisition of Europe by the Catholic Church, the ancient Egyptians, any Jewish conquest in the Bible, the Spanish Inquisition, various Chinese Dynasties, the Persian Empire, the Taliban, the Ottoman Empire, the Nazis working with the Japanese Emperor during WWII, many Islamic countries today, and various puritanical settlements in early American history.
The language of the First Amendment is particularly interesting: "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion...." What does it mean to have respect in the context of government? Perhaps special privileges granted. Maybe elite status. Or just tax exemption. This is a tricky area and I am still undecided; but a case can certainly be made in favor of taxing churches.
When tax exemption first entered the political arena, it was presumed that churches offered services which were for the "public good." The Federal government did not have any welfare programs, schools, or hospitals yet, so churches often filled that communal need. In addition to tax exemption, confidentiality of financial statements was also granted, as well as tax exemption for clergy and property owned by a church. This was the compromise made in order to keep religion out of politics. Even to this day churches may not "attempt to influence legislation, or intervene in political campaigns." To do so would necessarily violate their tax exempt status.
Now it gets even trickier; how does the government know if a church is influencing legislation or political campaigns, for example, by donations, if they have no way of viewing their financial records? And, in a broader sense, what if a church comes along which makes absolutely no effort to work towards the "public good?" How much should an evangelist pastor of a Mega-Church be able to skim off the top without paying taxes? How much land can a church buy up at minimal cost, and how does this affect the local economy? As of right now, there are no limits to these abuses. No other non-profit organization has this much freedom. All you have to do is claim to be a Christian church and the government will turn a blind eye on much of your doings.
To be clear, I am not advocating a complete removal of tax exemption for churches. But if the government changed the tax exemption status of churches to reflect the status of 501 (c) 3 non-profit organizations (like Project Reason, The Red Cross, and even PETA), many of these problems would go away--not to mention it would lighten the tax burden on everyone else.
One of the key differences between churches and 501 (c) 3 non-profits is disclosure of finances. A few years ago PETA came under fire for several items in their financial records, such as donating to domestic terrorist organizations like the Animal Liberation Front. Imagine what this would do to the Catholic Church and all the money that Mother Teresa collected which went missing, as well as all the scandels they have been covering up lately. Imagine what it would have done in 2008 for Proposition 8 in California, with regards to the financial involvement of the Mormon Church.
The best part of this method is that churches would still be able to get tax exemption if they can provide evidence of benefiting the community through demonstrable charitable actions--just like any other 501 (c) 3 non-profit organization. This would make it much easier for the government to validate qualifications. Also, without paid clergy, imagine how much more money could go to helping people in need, and how many fewer scumbags would try to rip people off.
One way in which government respects one religion over another is by regulating what constitutes a religion in the first place. Many religious groups have been turned down when applying for religious status with the government. Even the Mormon Church was turned down initially, and had to do certain things to qualify as a legitimate religion in the eyes of the state. Lumping churches together with 501 (c) 3 non-profits would eliminate this religious qualification process, as the primary requirement would be their charitable efforts. This would level the playing field for smaller, more obscured groups, and no group would be respected by the state over than another in terms of its beliefs or membership.
Few things in our Constitution are as important as the First Amendment. Separation of Church and State protects everyone and we are all spared from potential abuse of their mixing together. Tax exemption reform may be the next step in keeping the peace; or it may be a collossal failure. We won't know until it at least enters the public dialog, and possibly not until we try it. But one thing is for certain: separation of Church and State is vital for our freedoms to remain intact. In the words of Christopher Hitchens, "Mr. Jefferson, build up that wall!"
Here is an Oscar winning documentary (Marjoe, 1972) of a former child preacher exposing many of the techniques used by evangelists to scam people--tax free: