After being out of the country for a week, I received a message from my father. “Be aware that the world has changed while you’ve been gone, “ he said.
According to Facebook and Drudgereport, it's true. My newsfeed was exploding with articles, opinions, celebratory comments, and vicious snark. We're already seeing the aftermath of SCOTUS’ decision, as authors like Mark Oppenheimer are leaping from rejoicing over homosexuals' rights to marry into a broad attack on American religion. It's a watershed event. America’s secularization is complete.
Mark Oppenheimer's unnerving suggestion signals a shift in national public discourse.
Oppenheimer argues that churches and other non-profits are subsidized by tax exemptions and represent a vast source of untapped wealth which could solve the American government’s financial woes. But Oppenheimer is either ignorant or willfully neglectful of Western history, and advocates for drastic actions which would irrevocably change of American life.
Anyone who glances over history will see that there has always been a strong connection between the state and religion in the West. Ancient Egypt combined both in the God-Man ruler of Egypt called the Pharaoh after the incarnation of Horus. Every Pharaoh was a god. In ancient Greece, polis leaders offered sacrifices to gods and sought the wisdom of divine oracles before initiating wars. In Sparta, the ephors (priests) were entrusted with the authority to check the power of the kings. In Roman times, almost no major decision was made without animal sacrifice and a reading of the entrails to determine the will of the gods. Throughout medieval Europe, popes and kings pursued one network of nations linked by their pursuit of church and state working together to produce a God-honoring political society.
Each of these societies believed in a different deity or set of deities, and yet they all agreed that religion was vital to human flourishing.
Each of the religions listed above also taught the importance of supporting the government. Harmonious civilizations required the integration of religion and the state. Rulers were invariably connected in some way to the divine power which orchestrated the world. Religion also inculcated morality within a people. It defined right and wrong alongside good and evil, and explained how humans should live together in harmony. Finally, religion partnered with the state to regulate the whole person. The state regulated the body, primarily focusing on physical policies and punishments. The religious organization, whether a network of priests or churches, dealt with the spiritual side of man. When these two worked in harmony, a thriving society resulted.
Where would Americans learn the basic morality essential to American democracy? Honesty, integrity, loyalty, sacrifice, valuing the community more than the individual – where would these concepts be taught if religion is removed from public life? They are no longer taught in the traditional public school (though many wonderful teachers still transfer these concepts in their classrooms).
Even on a superficial read, his proposal contains several flaws. Tax exempt status is not a subsidy. Removing tax-exempt status would cause the restructuring or closure of thousands of non-profits institutions nation wide. What happens when every church (across both religions and denominations) faces hundreds of thousands of dollars in property taxes at the same time that many of the wealthiest church members lose their incentive to donate generously? If all non-profit organizations lost their tax-exempt status, American churches (with their extensive property holdings, age-graded programs, educational facilities, and professional ministers) would cease to exist.
More significantly, Oppenheimer’s plan would further remove moral instruction from American life and drive Christianity out of the public square.While Christians should always be able to articulate the importance of their faith, conservatives can also understand and defend the value of religious organizations.
Religion is vital for the preservation of the moral order which leads to human flourishing. We can't stand idly by and witness the removal of religion from American society without protest.