An effort long feared, but widely predicted, has finally surfaced.
Last Thursday former Texas representative and 2020 Democratic presidential candidate Beto O’Rourke said that churches, charities and other religious institutions that oppose same-sex marriage should lose their tax-exempt status. This came with the promise that, if elected president, he will immediately enforce the policy through executive action.
“There can be no reward, no benefit, no tax break for anyone or any institution, any organization in America that denies the full human rights and the full civil rights of every single one of us. And so as president, we’re going to make that a priority and we are going to stop those who are infringing upon the human rights of our fellow Americans.”
Please read that last paragraph carefully. It holds two wildly provocative ideas: first, that taking a religious, moral stand is now equated with denying someone else their human/civil rights; second, that the government must stop any and all expression of those moral stands.
There has never been such a direct assault on the First Amendment in the history of the United States. Further, it is an assault on the very principles O’Rourke is claiming to support—namely, equality for all.
But do not expect his argument, much less sentiment, to go away. If anything, expect it to take root and spread. As a result, it is worth addressing it on both of its fronts—that this is a civil rights issue akin to race, and that the tax-exempt status of churches and other charitable organizations are some type of “reward” that should not be given to those who so clearly do harm to others.
Let’s first disentangle sexuality and race. Rebecca McLaughlin – herself same-sex attracted – aptly notes how gay rights is simply not the new civil rights movement, as if failing to embrace gay marriage now is like opposing mixed-marriage then. For example: 1) unlike racial heritage, sexual activity is a choice; 2) unlike with racial differences, there are significant biological differences between men and women; and 3) more white Westerners than people of color support gay marriage (As leading black intellectual Stephen Carter has observed, “When you mock Christians, you’re not mocking who you think you are.”).
But then there is the tax-exempt status issue.
As Professor John Inazu at Washington University has noted, “the candidate [O’Rourke] seems not to realize that eliminating tax exemptions for certain religious institutions would be catastrophic.”
For example, such a policy would not simply affect the conservative Christian base of the Republican party O’Rourke clearly had in mind, but also “conservative black churches, mosques and other Islamic organizations, and orthodox Jewish communities, among others.” As Inazu contends, “It is difficult to understand how Democratic candidates can be ‘for’ these communities – advocating tolerance along the way – if they are actively lobbying to put them out of business.”
Perhaps the most culturally potent argument against taking away the tax-exempt status of religious and charitable organizations is how it would “decimate the charitable sector.”
Here Inazu is worth reading at length:
“It is certainly the case that massive amounts of government funding flow through religious charitable organizations in the form of grants and tax exemptions. But anyone who thinks this is simply a pass-through that can be redirected to government providers or newly established charitable networks that better conform to Democratic orthodoxies is naive to the realities of the charitable sector.
“In fact, religious individuals and organizations spend billions of their own dollars in the charitable sector and donate hundreds of millions of hours of service in global and domestic regions where the social fabric is the most distressed. They have spent generations building institutions, infrastructure and networks that enable large-scale responses to natural disasters and other calamities. When hurricanes and tornadoes devastate entire communities, churches and religious organizations mobilize thousands of volunteers and many tons of relief supplies. Ending the tax-exempt status of these organizations would substantially weaken the charitable sector, which would result in more people suffering.”
But sane reasoning isn’t winning the day, so harden yourself to what is sure to come. Harvard law professor Mark Tushnet has already suggested that those on the left take a “hard line” with religious conservatives because, after all, “trying to be nice to the losers didn’t work well after the Civil War,” and “taking a hard line seemed to work reasonably well in Germany and Japan after 1945.”
Yes, he said that.
As I’ve written before, it is no longer about acceptance or tolerance or equal rights—it is about the refusal for anyone to disagree. And if you do disagree, you should be penalized in whatever way possible: refused participation in the economy, silenced in the public sphere and, if needed, criminally prosecuted.
Or as an opinion piece in the Wall Street Journal maintained, “It’s no longer enough that they won the marriage debate… [they] now want to punish anybody who disagrees.”
This festering boil was revealed in the backlash toward openly gay Ellen DeGeneres for simply sitting next to former president George W. Bush at a baseball game. She responded that the world needed more kindness and tolerance. “Here’s the thing,” she added. “I’m friends with George Bush. In fact, I’m friends with a lot of people who don’t share the same beliefs that I have. We’re all different and I think that we’ve forgotten that that’s OK.”
Yes, Ellen, sadly we have.
James Emery White
Leonardo Blair, “Beto O’Rourke Says Churches Should Lose Tax-Exempt Status for Opposing Same-Sex Marriage,” The Christian Post, October 11, 2019, read online.
Rebecca McLaughlin, Confronting Christianity: 12 Hard Questions for the World’s Largest Religion.
John Inazu, “Democrats Are Going to Regret Beto’s Stance on Conservative Churches,” The Atlantic, October 12, 2019, read online.
Cydney Henderson, “George W. Bush ‘Appreciated’ Ellen DeGeneres Going to Bat for Friendship After Backlash,” USA Today, October 8, 2019, read online.
“Beto O’Rourke’s Progressive Tolerance,” The Wall Street Journal, October 11, 2019, read online.
About the Author
James Emery White is the founding and senior pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, NC, and the ranked adjunct professor of theology and culture at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, where he also served as their fourth president. His latest book, Meet Generation Z: Understanding and Reaching the New Post-Christian World, is available on Amazon. To enjoy a free subscription to the Church & Culture blog, visit ChurchAndCulture.org, where you can view past blogs in our archive and read the latest church and culture news from around the world. Follow Dr. White on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram.