Tax Exempt?

For this roundtable, Nick the Editor wants to know “if politically active churches should be tax-exempt”.

It sure looks like President Trump believes they should be.

This past February, the president vowed to “totally destroy” the Johnson Amendment; that’s the 1954 law which states that clergymen and congregations cannot endorse political candidates and also maintain their tax exempt status. So, in April, Mr. Trump signed an executive order which, in theory, at least, makes it more difficult to enforce the Johnson Amendment. There is also currently a bill in Congress which would place further limitations on that law.

Of course, all of this is pure politics.

What President Trump is actually doing is shoring up his support with conservative religious voters. Those folks helped him get elected, and so he’s paying them back with some favorable legislation. That sort of thing happens all the time in American politics, and even though progressives are reaching new heights of self-righteousness in their outrage over the whole situation, no one with a lick of sense has any doubt that they would be doing the very same sort of thing Mr. Trump is doing if they thought it would help them get more votes in the next presidential election.

But even though this is just normal, run-of-the-mill politics, a lot of religious people in this country are also very invested in this controversy. Many religious conservatives see these most recent developments as something of a liberation. For example, the Reverend Robert Jeffress, the pastor of First Baptist in Dallas, said that President Trump is “ending the government assault on religious liberty”. But a lot of progressive religious people are concerned that the actions of the Trump administration will actually end up harming people of faith. Thus, in an open letter to Congress, groups like The Episcopal Church, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, and the Unitarian Universalist Association stated that “houses of worship” should not “be torn apart by partisan campaign politics”.

So what side are we Orthodox Christians taking in this debate?

We’re not. And that’s not because we don’t care about what goes on in our country. We do. In fact, as an Orthodox priest, I pray specifically for “our president, all those in civil authority, and our armed forces” at least four times each and every week day and even more than that on Sundays. But in Holy Orthodoxy we also have two millennia worth of political experience, and that experience gives us a unique perspective on the significance of various political issues.

For example, during the four hundred years when the Ottoman Turks controlled Greece, Romania, Bulgaria, and Serbia, the Orthodox in those countries were not allowed to engage in any sort of education or evangelism; the Ottomans also forced the Orthodox to pay additional taxes simply because they were Orthodox. So to say that Christians in this country are going through an “assault on religious liberty” is, to put it mildly, an exaggeration. Similarly, during the last century, when the Soviets controlled Russia, the atheist government closed or destroyed over 45,000 Orthodox temples and chapels. So, to suggest that American “houses of worship” might “be torn apart by partisan campaign politics” is, again, to indulge in some real hyperbole.

In fact, the main thing that we Orthodox have learned over the last twenty centuries is that, ultimately, you shouldn’t put your trust in any sort of politician or any kind of political process. And, believe you me, in Holy Orthodoxy, we’ve seen it all: tribal confederations, feudal states, absolute monarchs, constitutional monarchs, socialism, communism, and republics of various kinds, in addition to presidents, kings, queens, prime ministers, parliaments, senators, houses of congress, benevolent dictators, evil dictators, and whack-a-doodle dictators. Many of those politicians supported the Church; a lot of those politicians persecuted the Church. A few of those political systems reflect some of the teachings of Holy Orthodoxy; a good number of those political systems oppose most of what Holy Orthodoxy teaches.

So, if you can’t finally trust politicians or politics, who are you supposed to trust?

We Orthodox trust the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. And when it comes to politics and politicians, here’s what that means: Since we pray, many times, each and every day, for our country, its government, and its military, and since we know that the Most Holy Trinity hears very single one of those prayers, we can approach whatever happens on the political front with a deep sense of peace and purpose.

Thus, if the parish I serve continues to be exempt from taxation, that blessing isn’t going to be the result of lobbying and posturing and influence peddling; it will be a mercy which the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit have bestowed on us. On the other hand, if, down the road, our tax exemption is taken away for some reason, that challenge won’t be the consequence of demagoguery and fear mongering and dishonesty; it will be because the Most Holy Trinity wants to provide the parish I serve with an opportunity to grow in faithfulness and courage and wisdom.

So, to use the term our Editor uses, it’s not that we Orthodox aren’t ‘politically active’. We work just as hard—or harder—than the most dedicated conservative or progressive activists. But our primary political work is prayer, and that means that the horizon we are concerned with is not the current media cycle or even the next election. The horizon upon which we are focused is the Kingdom of God.

If you’d like to find out more about this very old and yet radically new way of doing politics, just get in touch with me. I’d love to talk to you about it.