State And Church In The USA (Yet Another Subject That Needs To Be Better Taught In School)

This immediately below is a becoming an all too wearyingly common view in some form or another on “liberal-left” US social media:

[From Instagram.]

To which it is suggested that such institutions would attempt to keep their untaxed largesse away from the public good by weakly replying…

[From Instagram.]

To which the “enlightened reformer” smiles and responds dryly, of course:

[From Instagram.]

In fact, she reminds me of former students of mine who saw something they did not like and were glibly sure they had an “easy” answer. (Because, you know, no one ever considered THEIR idea before, right?) However, in that they are usually demonstrating they lack the grounding of background information as to how we got here and why we do what we do now. And the commenters to that above that I have read (insofar as some of them may even be considered literate) ALL – even those attacking her view – miss the point as well.

Suddenly I feel like I am teaching Poli Sci 101 again. Please bear with me. Because this appears to need stating – clearly.

The roots for why we do NOT tax religious institutions in the U.S. may be traced mostly to the Reformation in Europe in the 1500s-1600s and the religious conflicts that stemmed from it – Protestant churches vs. the Roman Catholic church battling (literally with guns) for supremacy in this region or that region, or for this monarch or for that monarch. English (Protestant) King Henry VIII was one such monarch:

“Reform,” as History Hit captions above, is a rather polite word that might be used by one side; the other (British and Irish Catholics) might argue that Henry essentially ransacked the Catholic monasteries to fund his decidedly earthly power grab – what might also be termed in a (very rough) sense, uh, “taxation.”

Taxation of religious institutions by any State means essentially that “the monarch” has THE power to coerce religious institutions. And that makes sense, for think about it: If you refuse to pay taxes to “the monarch,” meaning the State, you are of course forcibly taken to the State’s jail. In the U.S. we don’t have a “king” or “queen” of course; it is a republican State funded largely by taxation enforced now by the Internal Revenue Service (IRS). That U.S. government has since its founding sought to avoid a “confrontation” issue between it as the State and religious institutions set up by its citizens; in the modern era – about the last 100 years – it has done so by opting in tax law to treat those religious institutions as charities (such as the World Wildlife Fund, Greenpeace, etc., that do not pay taxes either).

In short, we do not sack monasteries in the U.S. to fund the State. That approach has gone a long way toward creating a broadly-based government not seen as in the pocket of any one faith – which had been of course a notorious problem of the Reformation. Minimizing religious strife is one of the few things we might with confidence assert we have done very well in the U.S. since independence:

[General Washington: “General Orders, November 5, 1775.” National Archives.]

and indeed starting just prior, such as, for example, when General George Washington ordered his officers NOT to allow “5 November” (by coincidence tomorrow here in the UK) bonfires in the then mostly Protestant new (shortly to be U.S.) Continental army that was composed of men mostly still heavily imbued with British customs – customs that came down to them in part from the behavior of the likes of King Henry VIII 240 years before. That “Bonfire Night” appeared following British Roman Catholic Guy Fawkes’s November 5, 1605 failed “Gunpowder Plot,” which would have blown up the parliament building in London in response to that body’s recently introducing anti-Catholic legislation. It evolved into essentially yearly tauntings on every “5 November” of Roman Catholics for the failure of their bombing effort – hence the setting off of fireworks and lighting bonfires. (By now “Bonfire Night” has largely receded from its anti-Catholic roots of three hundred years ago and become pretty much just a night to shoot off fireworks and therefore frighten pets. It is NOT a legal holiday here akin to the “Fourth of July” in the U.S.)

Especially since the Bill of Rights (the first 10 amendments to the Constitution) was ratified and added to the U.S. Constitution in 1791, we have seen U.S. religious diversity increase exponentially – and the freedom to practice their religion has for some been a reason they chose to immigrate to the U.S. No one in the U.S. in 1791 really imagined any numbers of, for example, “Mohammedans” or “Hindoos” ever living in the U.S., yet today we have Christian churches of all denominations, Jewish synagogues, and increasingly Muslim mosques, and Hindu and Sikh temples, and other places of worship of all faiths in our communities operating peacefully alongside each other because the State stays out of religion. No one is throwing bombs at each other over their differing religious texts and views of the Afterlife while also battling for control of the State in order to gain worldly supremacy for their faith-view.

Unfortunately it seems too many in this current life clearly take our relatively tranquil U.S. public religious environment for granted – as if it just spouted from the soil naturally and is not a result of centuries of careful policy.

[President Washington to the Hebrew Congregation of Newport, Rhode Island, 1790. National Archives.]

President Washington’s 1790 letter above (probably drafted by Thomas Jefferson) to the Jews of Newport is an incredible statement on freedom of religion in the context of 1790.

Fourth president and “Father of the Constitution” James Madison wrote volumes on separating government and religion. (He was uncomfortable even with the idea of military chaplains.)

During his 1960 campaign, future president (and Roman Catholic) John Kennedy explained his idea of religion and the U.S. state. (“It was Virginia’s harassment of Baptist preachers, for example, that helped lead to Jefferson’s statute of religious freedom. Today I may be the victim, but tomorrow it may be you…”)

[Visitors at the grave of John and Jacqueline Kennedy at Arlington National Cemetery, just below Arlington House. Photo by me, 2018.]

Those are but a few places to begin. Sadly too many appear now never even to have thought to have asked from where the 1st Amendment itself (free exercise and non-establishment) comes and why it is there. If our educational system has arguably not taught the history of race in America very well, so much that we see now demonstrates we have FAILED UTTERLY in teaching about religious freedom up to the present (in which we now have our second president who happens like Kennedy also to be a Roman Catholic).

Oh, but you say religion is in U.S. politics now? What we need to remember is there is a HUGE difference between politicians sharing their personal religious views vs. bishops or other clerical figures being directly involved in governing us. Meaning if you are irritated NOW by some bishop on TV declaring (simply because he has free speech as a person) he feels, say, abortion is murder, or whatever else with which you may not agree with that he says, after we start taxing his church we won’t have any ability whatsoever or right to tell his church to stay out of partisan activist politics.

The “liberal-left” calling for taxation of them appears to have talked itself into believing that taxing religious institutions is somehow a way to push religious political opinions out of politics. However, quite the opposite is likely to be the case. Taxed religious institutions would almost certainly have no qualms about jumping into politics with both feet with all the money they could raise and no one could then argue reasonably that they should not do so… given they would be being taxed. (An important aside. It is tough to avoid the conclusion that those favoring taxing religious institutions appear to want to do it because they selectively don’t like “right-wing” religious people as opposed to, for example, those who attend historically Black churches. However, we don’t get to make that choice in law: If we are going to tax evangelical Protestant churches and Roman Catholic churches, we are going to have to tax that African Methodist Episcopal Church down the street too.)

And any potential taxes to be collected are hardly worth the wider cost given what we have seen of the history of religious conflict and what we see now in various elsewheres torn apart by religion. Indeed that just above recently in Oregon is what can happen when the State decides it has the authority to tell a religious institution what to do. How do we all like that? We all think that’s terrific?

That local authority knows it cannot DIRECTLY constitutionally mess with the religious institution itself. So it is evidently pointing to “safety issues” as the rationale behind the ruling. (It seems feeding people more than two days a week is a “safety” concern.) Likely the church will fight it in court if necessary – and there would be, I am sure, no shortage of good 1st Amendment lawyers who would LOVE to handle that case.

As we also saw at the top here, it is fun making a TikTok (a platform incidentally based in a country – communist China – with one of the worst human rights’ records anywhere for religious freedom) ridiculing the idea of religious institutions feeding those who may need feeding. However, as for REAL religious institutions that may face the wrath of the State for daring to do so when the State does NOT like it? Eh, so what? Just tax ’em, right?

Have a good Thursday, wherever you are.


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