In this post I’m going to make three appeals. The first is a common one made by atheists. The second is more commonly made by churches. The third one is, to the best of my knowledge, novel.
1. Churches should not be exempt from paying taxes.
2. Congregations should be required to pay for the services they receive from their churches.
3. Charities could be set up to help those who are unable to pay for religious services (“charities for churches”).
I’ll start by addressing the most obvious question: are churches charities?
A report on the charitable habits of American churches by the Council for Secular Humanism finds that, on average, 71% of American churches’ income goes toward operating expenses such as salaries. By contrast, only 8% of the income of the Red Cross is used to cover operating expenses. Given these numbers, it is very difficult indeed to see how churches could be defended as charitable organizations.
Could the actual religious services provided by a church to its congregation be considered “charitable”? Let’s unpack this a bit by looking at actual charities. Consider, for instance, a charity that runs soup kitchens. Soup kitchens provide food for those those who are too poor to provide proper nutrition for themselves and their families, at least at a level required for good health. (The government provides this charity with tax exemptions because the charity is essentially relieving the government of some of the burden it carries for this sort of service. In other words, while government holds significant responsibility for looking after the destitute, it can nonetheless share some of this responsibility with private institutions which, in return, gain some nominal financial reward.)
The key thing to note about a soup kitchen is that it’s all about food. And the thing about food is that people are generally expected to pay for it, even though it’s a basic requirement for survival. Indeed, the only reason soup kitchens are necessary in the first place is because some people cannot afford to pay the expected price for food.
It is perfectly fair to expect payment for food because food costs money to produce. Farmers don’t grow crops for free, bakers don’t bake bread for free. These people must take care of their own needs, so they cannot be expected to slave away making food for the rest of us without receiving payment of some kind.
Let’s get back to churches now. Pastors, like bakers and farmers, provide people with something they need. (I’ll leave aside for the moment the question of whether people really do need what pastors offer). And just like food, there is no reason why people should expect to receive a church’s services for free. Pastors spend a lot of time running their churches, preparing for (and delivering) sermons, visiting members of their congregations who are ill or bereaved, and many other things. They should not be expected to do these things without payment.
Ideally, then, churches should not be charities. They should be just like grocery stores, providing something people need, but not providing it free of charge. The bizarre thing about real churches, though, is that they place almost no demand on their consumers to pay for the services they provide.
Imagine what would happen if a major grocery store decided to stop charging its customers for food, but instead handed a collection plate around the store once or twice a day, asking customers to contribute whatever they wished. No store owner in her right mind would embark on such a venture, because the outcome would be obvious to her: the store’s income would plummet, and it would go out of business.
Churches, then, should require their members to pay for the services they receive. Some churches, like LDS, already do this in the form of tithing. This is, I believe, the fair thing to do, just as it is fair to charge people for food and other basic services.
To repeat, then, churches should not be seen as charities. They do not provide an essential service to those who cannot afford it. They provide a (possibly) essential service to people who mostly can afford it, and therefore should be expected to pay for it.
[Edit: If churches were run more like businesses, and lost their tax exemption status, then pastors would be free to express their political views from the pulpit.]
What about those who cannot afford it?
Just as there are some people who cannot afford food, there are some people who cannot afford the fair price of religious services. For these people, genuine charitable organizations could be set up*. Just as charitable organizations provide food for those who can’t afford it, so charitable organizations could be set up to either subsidize people’s membership at a church, or to provide their own religious services. The point is that these “charities for churches” would be truly charitable: they would be aimed only at those who could not afford to pay for the religious services of a church.
As I’ve already said, though, the plain fact of the matter is that most Americans can afford to pay for their church attendance. Indeed, if they consider church services to be fundamental necessities of life, they should be willing to play a fair price for these necessities, rather than taking advantage of their churches’ labor and time.
And once people are required to pay for the religious services they consume, churches will no longer have to hold their current uneasy legal position which has them masquerading as charities. Churches should be businesses. Their success should depend on the market, on supply and demand. It’s the way other basic needs like food, housing, and transport are met, and churches should be no different.
* I say “could” instead of “should” because it’s far from clear that religious services provide basic necessities like grocery stores or housing builders do. We don’t expect charities to provide poor people with free movie tickets or vacations abroad. We only expect charities (including government programs) to meet people’s basic needs. Of course, if someone volunteers to start such a charity, then by all means they should go ahead, just like anyone who wishes to start a charity to provide movie tickets or vacations abroad should.