Render unto Caesar now: Should we be taxing the churches?
There's big money in religion for some of the top pastors and evangelists. | CC

Therefore render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s. Matthew 22:15-22

In this famous biblical passage, Jesus made it clear to his followers that they ought to respect the laws of Caesar, and his taxes, and to respect the laws of God, and render support to his ministry, at the same time. In essence, even Jesus said to obey the taxes of Rome, onerous and unfair as they were, seeing no contradiction between the two states of mind. Taxes, for Christ, were to be paid by those of faith. The fairness, and the point, of those taxes were a conversation for another day, as taxes back in those times were simply payment to the ultra-rich for little in return. The rich of Rome demanded much, and gave nothing back (setting aside, for the moment, the usual “bread and circuses”).

Religious liberty, in the original sense of the term (freedom of worship) and not the bastardized propaganda newspeak that is promoted by the right wing (freedom to discriminate), is one of the cornerstones of American life. Like freedom of speech, it’s inconceivable to think of America without this free marketplace of existential ideas.

Religious liberty is so protected to the point that the federal government gives full and complete tax exemption to religious organizations, even to the extent of demanding neither a Form 1023, which grants tax exemption to other secular nonprofits, nor a Form 990, an annual return report required of other tax-exempt organizations.

In fact, such little disclosure, regulation, and transparency are demanded that our system of religious freedom is markedly distinct from such countries most similar to our own legal culture such as the U.K. and Canada. And it is quite a different picture from the dictates of the Emperor Tiberius that Christ had to deal with.

The idea of exempting religion from taxes was a noble one: No religious group would be financially pressured by the government, allowing whatever creed, sect, denomination, or community to be able to flourish without additional impositions for funding. But like a lot of high-minded ideas in America, it’s become twisted.

Now many are treating the tax exemption as a license to effectively “print money”: We have the disturbing (though not entirely new) phenomenon of the pastor millionaire or religious educator (such as Joel Osteen and Jerry Falwell, Jr. both worth over $100 million dollars, and Kenneth Copeland, the richest pastor in the world, worth $300 million dollars). The super-churches, such as the one Osteen had redesigned from a former NBA stadium in Houston,, are gaudy displays not of Christian humility, but rather corporate showcasing. The tax exemption is no longer a shield for a struggling religious community, but an outright tax dodge for some of the wealthy.

Needless to say, a tax exemption based on religion that can create millionaires needs to be re-addressed, and soon, because such an exemption, and such obscene exhibitions of personal wealth based on the contributions of their followers, is more destructive to the religious community as a whole than any tax would be.

With the growth of the internet and social media, it becomes evermore obvious that the ulterior motive of personal profit is behind many of these religious endeavors, at the same time creating cynicism and bringing much of Christianity itself into disrepute. When so much wealth is generated, and so little of it is being put back into the community, one who may be interested in religious study of any kind will immediately be taken aback by the sheer hypocrisy on parade. For every would-be convert pastors like Osteen and Copeland reel in, five more out there must be disgusted by what is openly manifested.

Kenneth Copeland, the country’s richest evangelist, shows off the private jet purchased with the contributions of supporters. | via Kenneth Copeland Ministries

A way can be devised to tax the religious rich without unduly interfering with truly struggling churches, synagogues, mosques, and temples, and every Christian and person of faith should support it. A proper system of taxing religious communities will take away a major argument against Christianity and other groups—that all those involved in some sort of leadership capacity are just in it for the money and the tax dodge, and that all churches are focused more on their financial statements than moral education and salvation. Allowing the Osteens and Copelands to get away with this way of moneymaking for so long has only opened the space for flagrant, stinking corruption across the entirety of Christianity.

A tax on religious organizations would also be a way to finally tap into the immense resources of the Catholic Church, which has holdings so vast and so opaque that no one really knows how much they own in the United States. It wouldn’t be much of a surprise if we learned that the Catholic Church as a whole, in just the U.S., made Osteen’s and Copeland’s organizations look like paupers! As a practicing Roman Catholic, I would like to see more of the Church’s money go into the community than just being used in worldly investments—or lawsuit settlements.

Think of what could possibly be done, and how much humanitarian work could be accomplished if a system of taxation were to be put through. For just the net worth of one Joel Osteen, we could build 28 commercial wind turbines—enough clean electrical power to power over 21,000 households. Or that would effectively provide enough power and then some to the 15,000 households in the Navajo Nation, which suffers from a systemic poverty that is the shame of the land. I’d sooner see people in such harsh conditions get electrical power than watch as yet another mega-church gets built to enrich the next prosperity preacher.

Wouldn’t that be for everyone’s benefit in the end? And wouldn’t that be more mindful of everyday people? Religious groups not paying their fair share of taxes also puts them on essentially the same wavelength as most amoral major corporations—the ones that through loophole and legislation, pay exactly the same amount as tax-exempt religions—absolutely nothing! These similar institutions regularly commit the cardinal sin of greed, and live more like Emperor Tiberius, demanding much from our society and giving nothing back (not forgetting our 24-hour streaming online entertainment).

As with all op-eds published by People’s World, the views presented here are those of the author.


Forbes West
Forbes West

Forbes West has a Master’s Degree in Political Science from California State University, Long Beach. He lives and works in Long Beach, California, and Ojima, Japan, in the foothills of Mt. Fuji. He is a published author of several books and a producer of several short films.