Wednesday, November 12, 2008

What Good Are the Churches?

Two issues, two days, two wrongheaded political interventions by churches: Mormons fund a proposal to ban gay marriage, Catholic bishops begin murmuring about opposing Obama on their micro-issues. Maybe it's time to take away the tax exemptions of churches, see if they have time to screw around with the rest of us then.

Note that they're never out in front for peace or for poverty reduction. Only exceptionally, and usually for the self-interest of their congregations, do they come out in favor of ethnic tolerance.

I won't even bother with whether their beliefs make sense. Let's look at their actions, which principally amount to wanting to carve into the stone of the civil, religiously neutral law of a pluralistic society minor quirks of their moral codes.

Let's start with the Mormons. The Church of Latter-Day Sainst opposes gay marriage; fine, no judge will force a church to perform a marriage that violates the churches teachings.

Certainly, no Catholic priest is legally obligated to marry a divorced Catholic who does not have an canon law annulment: Catholic teaching on the indissolubility of the bond created by the sacrament of matrimony trumps secular law under the U.S. Constitution.

On the issue of marriage, Mormons have their own unusual history.

In 1890, then-LDS President Wilford Woodruff claimed he received a revelation that polygamy, previously taught as consistent with "God's law," should be banned. The oracular event was instrumental in Utah's admission into the USA in 1896. Yet even then the first Mormon elected to the House in 1898 was denied a seat because he practiced polygamy.

Should the Mormons be allowed polygamy? Why not? The Catholics are allowed not to recognize divorce decrees that are perfectly legal in civil courts.

But it doesn't end there. The Mormons also banned blacks from the priesthood or their temples in 1849, a doctrine that was not altered until 1978. Note that government did not interfere in the application of this doctrine.

Much the same can be said of Catholicism, which as a matter of practice in the United States upheld separate seating, and in some places separate churches, for blacks and whites. The practice was still known to occur in 1949, I am aware, when Washington Archbishop Patrick O'Boyle banned it in his diocese and swiftly unseated several pastors who defied him.

But, you might say that the Catholic Church gives plenty to the poor through Catholic Charities, no? Actually, no. Between 45 and 65 percent (depending on the source) of Catholic Charities' funding comes from contracts with the government.

Catholic Charities heyday as a private beneficence was when its charges were white and Irish. Once the Irish moved to the suburbs and clients began to be primarily black or Hispanic, the organization needed government money to continue.

Now comes Archbishop Francis George of Chicago, arguing that bishops should express opposition to the rumored regulatory changes that the Obama administration will make in the areas of abortion counseling and stem-cell research.

Why haven't the bishops been as vocal on other issues as they have on this? Isn't it a fact that the bishops want a law on abortion because their preaching has failed so abysmally that Catholics are statistically as likely to divorce or get an abortion as non-Catholics?

Why should we taxpayers subsidize this nonsense? The LDS and Catholic churches have plenty of money -- witness the millions paid out in damages in response to lawsuits from pedophile priests' victims.

Traditional religion is, indeed, the only wholly untaxed business in the USA. Whatever social purpose they may have been deemed to perform in the past, that role is long gone. In a country that prides itself on the separation of church and state, religion should be taxed, like pornography, cigarettes and liquor.


Anonymous said...

The churches are good to oblige people to follow the good way, which is the way that pleases to the majority of a country. Obama is a good guy when he is for death penalty and free possession of guns, he is the bad guy when he is for abortion. (I don't know his point of view about gay's marriage or creationism, two other great subjects of debate)

While people focuse on prop 8, they forget that General Motors is being down. Churches are good also to be people's opium.

So, for such great benefits, normal that your churches are not taxed.

heartinsanfrancisco said...

I think Genevieve is referring to Karl Marx's statement that religion is the opiate of the masses.

Your last sentence puts the issue into perspective perfectly. Under separation of church and state, churches should be taxed, although grouping religion with liquor, cigarettes and pornography made me laugh.

Sadly, under Bush, that line has practically dissolved and churches have entirely too much power in government. While rigidity on certain issues has cost the Catholic church a great deal of support, the Fundamentalist sects have gained increasing power, and fundamentalism by definition cannot work in a democracy.

And yes, I would define the Church of Latter Day Saints as fundamentalist. It started out as a cult but got upgraded over time. Money and large buildings helped. If I sound negative, it's because I deeply believe that religion must justify its existence by unifying people. To claim that there is a God but that only certain religions have access to Him/Her/It is simply a passive-aggressive form of warfare.

All religions have the potential to do good but too often, they prefer to be "right." And that is always wrong.

Anne said...

In reading 11/9's NYT columnist Nicholas Kristof's usage of "pointy-head ivory tower elitist" even though he wasn't writing of them, I couldn't help but think of the bishops of my church.

I am so angry with them (& their minions) on nearly all counts, it is truly a very narrow path that a Catholic Christian must walk in their midst. To me the church has become a superficial covering.

To see Egan in full regalia at a dinner party in 2008 is offensive to my eye and to read today that he advocates that he and his fellows say their castigations "with a punch" is downright abusive.

The church has become two-faced and fork-tongued. I believe its leaders have some kind of mutant dissociative disease.

Poooor bishops. Over 50% of their "flock" has voted for Obama.

Rant, rant, rant...

rick said...

"Never out in front for peace and poverty reduction"?

You've never head of:
Bread for the World?
Compassion International?
Feed the Children?
Food for the Hungry?
Samaritan's Purse?
World Vision?

Just to name a few. Do you not watch late night TV infomercials for charitable organizations?

You suggest we judge them by their actions. Sure. Why not. Judge the above by their actions and get back to me.

Cecilieaux said...

Thank you all.

Genevieve does seem to be echoing Marx, who also called religion the "sigh of the oppressed" and seemed to express ambivalent views vis-a-vis religion, while holding to the materialist view that ideas, religions, philosophies systems of government, literature, etc., all are by-products of the method and organization by which we produce what we need to survive.

Genevieve also points out quite correctly that some of these social issues are distractions from what is really going on in the structure of our political economy.

Being right, HeartinSF, rather than doing right, is the raison d'etre of religion -- I think. At least that's the sociology of it. Bush has been all about being right, too.

Anne, I always appreciate your frustration. It's what makes you a decent person.

Rick, the organizations you cited are (a) only notionally church-affiliated and (b) large enterprises that also deserve to be taxed. Their lavish quarters, salaried staff and advertising all indicates that there is a substantial amount of self-service going on in them that has nothing to do with poverty reduction. Eliminate poverty and they would lose their jobs.

Anonymous said...

The LDS religion is actually extremely effective at humanitarian aid. research fast offerings.

Cecilieaux said...

The Mormon church, anonymous, is most effect at tithing and squeezing its members out of their money.