Not because religion has ceased to matter, but because it matters more than ever in our increasingly unethical society, and the special treatment ends up hurting both religion and state.
Three examples: hiring practices, tax-exempt property and tax-deductible donations.
The Supreme Court, continuing its string of unwise decisions, affirmed religious institutions’ right to discriminate in hiring practices. They play by their own special rules, the court reasoned, saying, in effect, that the so-called “separation clause” guards religion’s right to do the wrong thing.
Unfortunately, just as presidential candidates use religion to batter opponents and to appeal to the dark side of human nature, so will religion become an excuse to seek other exceptions to civil rights. If churches can discriminate, others will say, why can’t we? Bigots and unjust employers will have an open field for hurting the vulnerable.
Meanwhile, religion will stand out as a special preserve where children can be molested without legal consequence, and the usual rules of financial accountability and simple justice don’t apply. That won’t help religion’s cause one bit.
Their historic exemption from property taxes has encouraged faith communities to see property as their purpose, not mission and ministry. Many a church has clung to deteriorating facilities while mission languished and people seeking more than maintenance budgets departed. Finally the church closes its doors — and the community evaporates.
Yes, religious facilities have contributed much to architecture and scenic street corners, but both religion and society would be better served if those institutions saw their purpose as mission, their work as offering ministry, and each other as companions in a movement, not as disputatious property owners.
Tax-deductible donations, meanwhile, have virtually destroyed responsible Christian stewardship in many major denominations. Instead of following the biblical model of “harvest giving” and the biblical standard of the tithe, churches have fallen into treating their donations as “charitable giving.” Instead of first fruits, they get last fruits, whatever remains after everything else has been purchased.
Churches end up competing with museums, schools and medical causes for leftovers. That is a competition they cannot possibly win, because they don’t have the budget to do charitable fundraising effectively and religion’s prophetic cause — “comforting the afflicted and afflicting the comfortable” — isn’t as appealing as good music or fighting cancer.
To protect tax exemption, religious leaders refrain from meddling in society’s doings. The Gospel demands such meddling. Society needs boldness, not self-protective hedging, from its faith communities. It needs strong preachers in the public square, even if that means violating the first rule of charitable giving: Be nice to the wealthy.
That weakened voice, in turn, deprives society of the ethical guidance that it badly needs. Not shrill scolding on esoterica, but bold words on justice and compassionate deeds to bind up society’s victims.
Whatever Thomas Jefferson meant by “separation of church and state,” it’s clear from our own history that we need God to be more active in the public square, not walled up in a special tax-sheltered preserve where, in exchange for staying silent, the religious are free to discriminate, play landowner and appease the wealthy.
Our special status has made us soft and, to our growing dismay, irrelevant.
— Tom Ehrich, a church consultant and Episcopal priest, is the author of “Just Wondering, Jesus” and founder of the Church Wellness Project. His website is www.morningwalkmedia.com. Follow Tom on Twitter @tomehrich.