The New York Times ran a “Room for Debate” on whether churches should continue to enjoy tax exemption. Among the variety of views was the observation that tax-exemption allows for freedom of religious expression by small progressive groups mainly in cities where taxes are generally higher.
The religion headlines aren’t on my side lately. If I were not religious, I might want to make religions, particularly conservative Christians, pay for the privilege of their bully pulpits.
But I am religious — a progressive Christian — and I will argue for the tax-exempt status of religious organizations for only one reason. Moderate and progressive religion is overwhelmingly formed in the U.S., and it is an essential voice in national and international discourse. We are an important moral and ethical voice for society as a whole, a voice that has to be religious to respond to other kinds of religious movements.
The bottom line is that if historic churches like the one I serve had to pay property taxes, many of us would close. The liberal, diverse, urban churches in historic buildings would be priced out, and the newer, suburban minimall churches would be the church of the future. They are not always, but tend to be, overwhelmingly conservative. In the political arena, the right defends its agenda by that same conservative Christian language. The Christian center and left are a minority whose faith demands they work toward a more just or compassionate society, and many of us are also the stewards of prime real estate.
Our tax-exempt status gives minority views a space to seed and grow, often ahead of the political culture. This is possible in part because of the diverse church communities that develop because of where the buildings happen to be. We are not the majority in our traditions, but we are game changers.