Last night in a Democratic presidential debate Beto O’Rourke promised his administration would seek to withdraw tax deductible status from religious groups not approving same sex unions, amid applause and whoops.
So the federal government should punish religions not conforming to today’s secular preferences in Western society.
Of course, it is the chief purpose of nearly every religion to challenge the fashions and preferences of every age and culture. Most religions, certainly Christianity and Judaism, strive to be prophetic, which entails being contrarian and unpopular.
Our Constitution, and our broader Anglo-American political tradition, protects religious freedom and free speech, because challenge, critique, debate, and nonconformity are essential to a vibrant free society. Restricting the state’s authority over free thought and religious practice also recognizes that each person is an image bearer of God, and has intrinsic rights to think and act independently, without fear of coercion.
Withdrawing tax deductibility from religions disdained by cultural elites would only begin ongoing coercion against free conscience, in defiance of the very best of our political traditions. There eventually would be zoning restrictions, hate speech laws, nondiscrimination employment law, hiring restrictions against adherents of targeted religions, curtailment of religious schools, restrictions on religious media, challenges to parental custody based on religion. Some religions would have state sanction and others would not. Where would it end?
Beto and those who applaud presumably want to punish conservative Christians. But their war against independent religious belief would target Islam, black churches, immigrant religious groups and many other constituencies for which they claim to be champions. The only religions on the official approved list would be declining, all white liberal Mainline Protestant groups and several declining liberal Jewish groups.
In effect, the Episcopal Church, with its empty beautiful sanctuaries, would return as the official state religion, blessing whatever the state chooses.
What Beto and the likeminded don’t understand or at least dislike is that religions universally seek transcendent permanent truth, not the talking points of the day. Global religions have developed and sustained their teachings across millennia and cultures, so they don’t bend easily to contemporary demands.
In particular, all religions see in marriage, sex and family an organic trans-generational tie to creation and the Creator at odds with current Western autonomous individualism in which each person creates a self-fulfilling personal reality.
Setting aside the lofty and transcendent, there are practical implications to Beto’s dream. Curtailing and ultimately driving from American public life nearly all religion, would close hospitals, schools, clinics, therapies, and innumerable sites of humanitarian relief. It would further diminish civil society. Perhaps government could replace it all. Perhaps this statist vision is the aspiration for Beto et al.
This statist vision and dream of driving nearly all religion from public life of course will not be realized. It contravenes centuries of intrinsic American commitment to liberty and free speech. But it is a serious challenge, supported by millions, who feel threatened by religion’s claims to a permanent reality at odds with personal preference.
As with other challenges to liberty, this challenge to the free expression of religion will in the end hopefully renew our commitment to free conscience and human dignity. A great and decent people will never worship at the altar of the state.