Why I Believe In Fair Taxation Of Church Property

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Why I Believe In Fair Taxation Of Church Property  (1930) 
by Joseph McCabe
Little Blue Book No. 1502. (1930) [1]

A week or two ago I stood before the Cathedral of Notre Dame at Paris, enjoying once more both the superb skill of the builders and the joyous cynicism with which they had mingled piety and impiety in the sculpture. Paris always has surprises for me but the most singular was that a French woman of mature years, apparently normal intelligence, an fair education came to me and asked: "Can you tell me, sir, what church this is?" I had just been explaining to a friend how the large island in the Seine in which the cathedral stands was once Paris; how half of it had been occupied by the spacious palace and the soaring cathedral, and the citizens had Just tucked their dark little homes into such odd corners as God and the king did not require. Sixty years ago the French booted their last monarch across the frontier, and now, it seem some of them have so far forgotten religion that they have to ask foreigners the name of a church for which America would probably pay a billion dollars.

Few countries have advanced as rapidly as France, which is one of the least sentimental and most logical of nations, but we have all advanced so far that one-half of our life is anachronistic to the other half. The exemption of churches from taxation is one of the worst anachronisms. It meant originally that the church was a state within the state, having its own law and deciding itself when and in what measure it might, in times of pressure; contribute to the public treasury. When this arrogant claim was disallowed, church property still evaded taxation on the ground that it served a high public purpose, like, charitable or educational institutions, which were then entirely voluntary, and it ought therefore, to have at least this subsidy of an exemption from taxation. There was no need in those days to inquire very closely into the soundness of the public service. Practically the whole community used the churches and, if a tax were imposed on them, the community would have to pay it. The church was exempt on pretty much the same grounds as the civic hall. It was like transferring your money from one pocket to another. Now considerably less than half the adults of any Community use the churches, and the last argument for exempting them from taxation is quite discredited.

Rich And Empty Churches[edit]

Church property in the United States is said to be worth about four billion dollars, and it is increasing rapidly in value. Drive round the fringes of any growing town or City and see how eligible sites have been secured for the building of new churches; how old sites that have risen ten or twenty fold in value are quietly sold; how the clergy can hang on to city sites until the value is colossal, while any other concern doing so little business would have been driven out long ago by the fair incidence of taxation. In the inner ring of large cities there are churches with fifty or a hundred worshipers while business men pay appalling prices for the land all around them. And the majority of us are supinely protecting the business. Of the majority of church-users the great bulk are women and children, and of the genuinely religious male taxpayers the enormous majority live in the country or small towns. We do not much miss the taxes on their Little Bethels. The anachronism is that city property of immense value is used by only about a tenth of the taxpayers of this city, yet the nine-tenths lazily subsidize it by remitting taxation. Even business men seem never to reflect that in remitting, say, a million dollars in taxation on buildings which nine-tenths of them do not want they are paying out of their own pockets a million dollars a year to the people who do want them.

Sometimes they tell us with an air of sweet reasonableness that the churches are "doing good work" and that, after all, the individual misses only a few dollars a year by agreeing to the immunity. It is sheer mental laziness. If we taxed the churches, and they then appealed to these non-churchgoers who appreciate their good work to find the tax for them, probably none would contribute a dollar. There would be a speedy revaluation of the services of the churches. Take Paris. The total church-going population is only about one-tenth of the entire community, and it consists mainly of women and children. Now, no matter how much we may admire the French woman, she is more rigorously excluded from public life than woman is in any other advanced civilization. Yet these men, nineteen of twenty of whom are not in the slightest degree influenced by the churches, have, most particularly since they ceased to go to church, purified the city of the last traces of its ancient savagery. It is, proportionately, the law of the world. There are two sets of men whom we would like to see influenced, and we would not mind paying a few dollars for the influence. They are the dishonest hypocrites and the honest criminals. The churches flatly refuse to influence the first and are quite incapable of touching the second class.

Sweep Out Mental Rubbish[edit]

Amongst my many eccentric and utopian ideas there is one that calls for a sort of mental sanitary service in a modern city. I loathe the idea of compulsory education after the age of twenty, yet in some form we ought to have a public service that will sweep and dust our minds periodically and provide a very large incinerator for the rubbish. Even the most cleanly-minded of us occasionally. discover that we have for years harbored a piece of mental junk. There lies on my desk, as I am writing, a little work on the Stoics by that very distinguished Hellenist, well-known skeptic, and most nimble-minded and charming of men, Prof. Gilbert Murray, and I open it to see if I can find any nonsense. Here it is at once. Murray likens the Stoic "God' to a "Friend behind phenomena," and he Says that we all have a "yearning" for this and an "almost ineradicable instinctive convietton" of its existence. I doubt if one man in a hundred who got beyond what one might call the convalescent stage after recovering from religion has the least trace of such a yearning and conviction. Murray is no man in the street but a very distinguished scholar of particularly alert mind and acquaintance with men. One can imagine how easily less clear-headed men will let these illusions accumulate in their minds, especially in connection with religion.

We cannot, of course, get my intellectual sanitary service, and so those of us who feel impatient about it must do the sweating and dusting as we can. And one of the best and most promising opportunities ought to be a public discussion of the immunity of the churches from taxation. How many of us—I do hot mean by "us" the militant and vigilant folk who read the Haldeman-Julius Publications, but modern men generally—genuinely regard the black-coated gentleman we meet in the street as so valuable a person that we will pay his taxes for him? Very few, surely. Some of us, it is true, listen to the periodical Bolshevik scare and persuade ourselves that all chance of making a million dollars will disappear with the church steeples, but it is a poor fallacy. My Bolshevik friends, and they are numerous, are the last persons in the world to listen to sermons, and any stockbroker who sends a hundred dollars to the nearest church with the idea that he is protecting Wall Street ought to sit down and think a little. A Preacher in Fifth Avenue, where the danger of the spread of Bolshevism is not acute, can most eloquently vindicate our present economic order. But a preacher in a district where the workers show some inclination to listen to radicalism either does not open his mouth or he proves that Jesus was the forerunner of Lenin.

Private Institutions[edit]

We ask people only to use common sense. The churches are today private institutions in which certain people say prayers and sing hymns and listen to dissertations on sin. It is a free country, and even the Communist or the Fascist does not want to prevent them. But why in the name of all that is wonderful should the rest of us pay them some $200,000,000 a year for doing it? A moderate tax on church property would raise that, so we are meantime funding it ourselves. You may suggest that it is not very onerous for us individually, but that is not the issue. The burden we bear is a just charge of intellectual laziness, of docility to usurpers, of a confusion of thought which, if we generally tolerated it, would wreck our homes or businesses in six months. We smile at the ladies who put on an extra foot of frock because some hidden mandarins of fashion say that this is now "the thing." Most of us men are just as bad. If it is the fashion to exempt churches from taxation we acquiesce without even inquiring what the real motives or who the real dictators are.

To many of us, of course, a rigorous campaign for the taxation of church property would mean immeasurably more than a financial readjustment, just as the present immunity of the churches means to them immeasurably more than the two hundred million dollars at which the product of a tax is estimated. The immunity means that they have state-sanction, which is supposed to be the sanction of everybody except a few cranks, for their profession of rendering valuable services. A very long stride will be taken in the direction of rationalizing the country when we remove this public endorsement of the claims of the churches. I do not suggest that there will be a serious diminution of worshipers in a chapel when they are told from the pulpit that in future they have to find a new fund of a thousand dollars or so, but we shall meet them on more equal terms, as one body of citizens differing from another. The chief thing that prevents me from lapsing into that comfortable mental sleepiness to which a man of my age is entitled, is the stimulation of fighting the prosperity of humbugs, the way in which the clergy and the aristocracy and all sorts of people with improper privileges seem to smile at me. I dream occasionally, as I smoke my last four pipes at night, of forming a League of Youths, a Thundering Legion of young folk who will go out into the streets with me looking for lies to scotch, for usurpers to dethrone, for hypocrites to unmask, for injustices to set right…

Make This A Real Fight[edit]

Dreams, of course, I am always dreaming. But it seems that my energetic friend and colleague Haldeman-Julius is going to do something of the kind and to begin with this valuable campaign to rouse the nation to some sense of this absurd and anachronistic immunity of church property. Let me urge those many readers whom I have found in America not merely to support him but to make it a real and live campaign. Never mind the size and wealth of the churches, Never mind, the contrast between the forty million perfectly drilled and organized and doped churchgoers and the sad disorganization and scattering of the eighty million non- churchgoers. Talk about it. Make people read about it. Teach people the joy of fighting, of being a personality, of raising one's head above the stream. It is as good an issue as any to start with, and sooner or later the start has to be made. Get young folk to blot out of their Birthday Books that pernicious maxim: Great is Truth and it will prevail, Great is the average man—if you can persuade him to make a great nuisance of himself. A reader of my Little Blue Books wrote to tell me how he propped one against the cruet at his lunch-shop day after day, and how religious folk who recognize those mischievous little explosives at twenty yards' distance got the manager to ask him to go to some place of which I forget the name. That's the spirit. My milkman asked my housekeeper the other day on what subject I am writing at present. "On God," she said, "and he guesses he'll knock him off his perch." The good news spread in the dairy world. The girl at the circulating library …

In short, quite ordinary folk can, if they just know when to be quiet and when to be noisy, when to be Polite and when to curse, but to keep on doing whichever is advisable, help the world along. The work depends more and more on such folk. Societies and leagues and associations either prosper and fatally degenerate, like some on Which I have wasted decades, or reach too small a number. I suggest that readers of the Haldeman-Julius Publications try the experiment of making this a live campaign. Do not expect to convert Mr. Hoover in the first month. That is not the Point. The idea is that here is a chance of rousing great numbers of people to a sense of one foolish anachronism that we tolerate in connection with religion, and it will reverberate in the mind and make people perceive a dozen others. Get out the figures, if you can, for your own town. Look up the churches with hundred-thousand-dollar sites and a hundred worshippers. let the press know that there are live men and women reading it as well as Rip Van Winkles. Make editors realize that in the majority of towns today the majority of readers do not go to church and do not really care a cent about the work of the churches. it might load to the disappearance of those Saturday and Sunday features that linger from the days when America was a Christian country, to a bolder note about encroachments on our liberties, to real news about the thought-currents of the modern world. Editors know quite well that the bulk of people are not seriously interested today in church work, at least in any town that is more than a mile in diameter, but they have to listen to the noisy folk. Let them have a noise. Blessed are the peace-makers for of such is the kingdom of heaven. Let them have it. Say rather: Blessed are the fight-makers, for they shall possess the earth.

A Campaign Of Sanity[edit]

Seriously, a lively, rousing, country-wide discussion, the sort of discussion that makes the editor of a daily call for a symposium and the editor of a weekly or monthly wire off for the opinion on the matter of Babe Ruth, Clara Bow, and Calvin Coolidge, would be a good opening for a new campaign on behalf of sanity. The pretext that we want to tax the house of God is hardly like to be raised. It might provoke the Catholic to tell the Protestant, and vice versa, what precisely he thinks of his preposterous claim that God is in his church. The only argument that can plausibly be raised against taxation is that the Churches do so much good that civilization depends upon their exertions. Have Your machine-guns ready for that. It is just the sort of plea we should like them to set up. A good broadside of facts from history and about the relation of modern progress and decay of religion, would open the eyes of large bodies of readers whom we cannot ordinarily lure into reading truthful statements. I wish I were in it, but a mere foreigner could be bluffed into silence—especially such a small and modest foreigner—and here in England the organizations that ought to start a fight have dwindled into mutual admiration societies and refuges for homeless mystics.

Many will, no doubt, have recourse to the plausible cry that we are stirring up sectarian strife. Do they mean that only political strife is to be permitted in a prosperous community? Or do they mean that dervishes shall be encouraged to roam the country with frantic denunciations of science, and professors encouraged to encourage them by prostituting their learning, and the rest of us hold our tongues? Or do they mean that the only subject on which people cannot behave themselves when they begin to dispute about it is religion? We people who seriously hold that religion has nothing to do with the progress or maintenance of civilization are very numerous today. But no one talked of sectarian bitterness and civic strife when, quite recently, we were, apropos of the imaginary atrocities in Russia, denounced violently from Boston to San Francisco. Certainly we should smile if anybody suggests that we must not mention a tax on churches for fear of stirring up sectarian strife. On the contrary, we should see such sectarian amity as has never before been seen on this planet. We should probably see the Archbishop of Baltimore arm in arm with the Fundamentalist leader, Bishop Manning linked with Aimee, leading a great procession along Michigan Boulevard, and calling for the lightning of the Lord upon these ruffianly people who want to make them pay their own taxes.

That is all that it amounts to. That particular ten million dollars that the churches of the city would yield if they were taxed is paid at present by the citizens, most of whom profit neither directly nor indirectly in the work of the churches. The threat might even drive them into making themselves useful. They might cease to talk for a time about our wills and have a look at our crimes. They might discover that it is not entirely inconsistent with the principles of the Christian Church that its ministers should unite to rid a city of its gunmen and dishonest officials instead of talking picturesquely about them in the pulpit. I see an endless prospect of good results. … But I see most clearly of all that this is a transparently just and sound plea, one that could unite millions of men and women, one that can enlist the sympathies of practical people, yet one that would be an excellent beginning of teaching a nation to think seriously on the new conditions of our age.

Our Complete Program Against Clericalism[edit]

  1. We demand the taxation of all Church property.
  2. We demand that church lobbying be resisted by free men as one of the major evils that threaten the principles of secular freedom, human rights and realistic Progress in government.
  3. We demand that the Bible be kept out of the public schools and that the public schools shall not join in any scheme of religious propaganda.
  4. We demand the complete rejection of the principle of Christian morality—religious dogma and doctrine—in the making of our laws, with special reference to the religiously inspired intolerance of our laws concerning sex and censorship.
  5. We demand the repeal of all anti-evolution laws and the vigilant prevention of all attempts by clericalism to dictate, even though under the treacherous guise of "democracy," the course of teaching in our state schools and universities.
  6. We demand the repeal of blue Sunday laws, and the absolute rejection by government of the dogma that this day is sacred or that it is to be dominated by preachers and pious zealots.
  7. We demand the repeal of all blasphemy laws and all laws prohibiting Atheists from testifying in court or from holding public office.
  8. We demand that government shall cease the employment of chaplains in the national congress, in the state legislature. and in state institutions.
  9. We demand that government shall strictly refuse financial aid to sectarian, religious institutions—whether schools, hospitals or whatnot—and that religion, in all its enterprises, shall pay its own way.
  10. We demand the ending of all favoritism to religion or recognition of religion by government—that is, we demand the complete secularization of government both in form and function.
This work is in the public domain in the United States because it was legally published within the United States (or the United Nations Headquarters in New York subject to Section 7 of the United States Headquarters Agreement) before 1964, and copyright was not renewed.
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Works published in 1930 would have had to renew their copyright in either 1957 or 1958, i.e. at least 27 years after it was first published / registered but not later than 31 December(31 December) in the 28th year. As it was not renewed, it entered the public domain on 1 January 1959(1 January 1959).