Monthly Archives: December 2012

Don’t Tax the Church

I saw this meme posted on Facebook recently:

Facebook Meme

Why should the churches be taxed? As a punishment to make them pay their fair share? Though the issue of churches and taxes is most commonly associated with the paying or not paying of property taxes, the popular sentiment on Facebook around this and other images I’ve seen shows an interest in punishing the church simply for being the church. It could be that those who Like this poster don’t know that churches are exempt from certain taxes, and may not know that churches are voluntary associations funded by voluntary contributions from individuals who also pay a portion of their income to the government in taxes. The latter is a non-voluntary contribution.

A common topic thrown around in the media lately is the need to raise taxes on the wealthy to pay for the ballooning scope of the federal government. The big red balloon needs more hot air, so why not target other groups that seem to have a good thing going? The cathedral in the image above certainly gives that impression, but must everything successful be taxed just for existing? The government certainly has no jurisdiction over the finances of the church, no matter which denomination or congregation. The same people who call for ever-increasing taxes might be the same that constantly complain of a lack of separation of church and state, on the grounds that they don’t want to be imposed upon by the church. Apparently imposing on the church is acceptable.

Churches vary significantly in their beliefs, liturgy and involvement in the community, but generally church members voluntarily contribute money as they wish to the local church affiliation of their choosing because that is where they want their money to go. Churches do help a lot of people outside the church, both domestically and internationally, but the church is not required to meet some sort of entitlement quota. That group of individuals can direct their money to whatever cause they choose and do so as a voluntary benefit to the community at various scales.

One condition for maintaining a tax exempt status is that the church must not forward a political agenda. Charitable organizations (religious or not) are said to provide a benefit to society and serve public purposes. If these organizations are taxed, they would not be able to provide those benefits and services due to the excessive financial burden. Government taxation itself can provide similar benefits and services, and does compete directly with charitable organizations. This can lead to churches falling behind in competition to provide services because voluntary contribution surely goes down as taxation goes up. With a tax, the government would be hitting the church on two sides.

Individuals financially support each other every day, in one way or another. And whether we choose to or not. Taxation is a transfer in the method by which benefits are provided to those in need. Whereas an individual might wish to choose to support a certain mission organization that digs wells in Africa, he may instead decide that because he had to pay a certain amount of taxes this year, that hardship gives him little choice over where his money goes as he decides instead to send the African well money to pay his rent. The tax money goes to fund whatever Congress thinks is a worthy recipient (sometimes this individual agrees with Congress, but often he does not). The result is that we do not control the fruits of our own labor and may be unable to help a group that has a special meaning to us because our money is first going to a cause we personally find inappropriate.

In addition to the right of the individual to direct his finances towards the cause of his choice, another strong reason not to tax the church is that America has a separation of church and state. We do not have an official religion (i.e. government religion). A tax on the church prohibits the free exercise of religion. You cannot have separation and taxation. There is a tension between government regulation and free speech from the pulpit, as a church leader who gives certain political opinions could cause his church to lose their tax exempt status. This can be seen by some as a violation of First Amendment rights, but if the government should stay out of the church, then the church should stay out of the government.

“Therefore render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” Matthew 22:21 (ESV).

Individuals should give charitably with a personal conscience rather than by forced taxation.

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Evil Man Killing Man

This has been a sad week of highly publicized murder. A man killed two people at a shopping mall near Portland, not many miles from where I live. Another man killed 26 teachers and children at an elementary school in Connecticut. Later that same day a man killed a woman at a casino on the Las Vegas strip. All three men then turned their weapons on themselves. Evil man killing man.

Though these criminals cannot be punished any further (they’re dead), they have reignited the debate over guns and who should have them. It’s a difficult debate because there is no common ground. Any attempt to blanket all of society under a single mandate cannot be accomplished without severe loss of individual liberty, but there is clearly too much violence. As we discuss our options as a collective nation, we should cautiously consider what Ben Franklin once said, “Those who would give up essential Liberty, to purchase a little temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety.”

Some yearn for a society where only the government and the criminals have guns, thereby relying on the government for protection from the criminals. Others demand that individuals have the right to protect themselves, both from the criminals and the government, and believe it is the individual’s responsibility to do so. An interesting analysis of shooting rampages shows that we’re safer with armed good guys nearby. But both sides claim various statistics support their position.

What we all really want is for people to stop killing each other. Even deeper than that, we want man to stop being so evil. But we tend to confront whatever is loudly making the most noise and ignore the silent roots of evil that lie beneath us. Maybe we’re basically good and the killers are made of something different, but I don’t think you and I are so far removed from some form of atrocity, and this is certainly not new.

According to the Bible we are all sinners, eternally separated from God; saved only by faith in the grace of Jesus Christ. That’s the Gospel. The first recorded human being to be born on earth was named Cain, the son of Adam and Eve. Unfortunately, Cain’s legacy is that he killed his brother Abel during a rage of jealousy. Murder was not a good start for humanity. Evil man killing man.

Man continued his evil ways and finally God had enough. “The Lord saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every intention of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually.” Genesis 6:5 (ESV). What followed was the great flood – God wiped man from the face of the earth. A lot has happened since then, but even though we were given a second chance, Man has continued to walk away from God, away from what is good.

It is not just individuals who continue to kill. The United States government is both indirectly and actively killing people around the world every year, in places they shouldn’t be. Most of the victims are in foreign lands, but even now American citizens themselves are targeted. We go to other countries all the time and bomb their people because their government doesn’t see things our way. This has been going on before and after 9/11. It’s no wonder individuals in our country have a tendency to be violent – our leaders have us continuously at war! Evil man killing man.

Congressman Ron Paul had repeatedly warned Congress that something like 9/11 would happen. A few days after the World Trade Center attacks, he reminded his colleagues that while we certainly need to punish those responsible for that horrific event, we should use caution not to bring war down on an entire group of people for the atrocity committed by certain individuals. They did not listen, and we found ourselves entangled in prolonged wars in both Iraq and Afghanistan, and other military actions since. One highly publicized day of murder (the attack on the towers) led to the deaths of many people who had nothing to do with it. The loss of both life and liberty was globally amplified.

Though evil is constantly engaged, often just below the surface, we are faced again with a highly publicized incident. Whenever there is a domestic shooting, we will be reminded by the media that something needs to be done to stop the killing, and the focus is more on the weapons rather than the evil man. All this should be studied, but with caution. We’d do well to show more interest in what our government is doing as the policeman of the world before we put our lives solely in their hands here at home.

Our hypocritical government must stop taking our lives in one hand and our liberties in the other.

Leaving Office Early

Republican South Carolina Senator Jim DeMint recently announced that he will be leaving Congress in January. He has served only two years of his second (six year) term, and will be taking a position as President of the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank. Having just been reelected in 2010, should he walk away from the responsibility bestowed by the voters?

You will remember another early-leaver (quitter?). Sarah Palin, Governor of Alaska and 2008 Republican Vice-Presidential candidate. She had barely cleared the snow from her desk in Juneau before she left office after only 2.5 years. She took a lot of heat for her inexperience while campaigning with John McCain. That feeling only increased when she abruptly left the highest office of the northern state to cash in on her fame by writing a book and joining the television political commentary circuit.

A bit closer to home, and a few years prior, we had a similar situation with current Portland Mayor-Elect, Charlie Hales (set to take office in January 2013). It was 2002 when he left his position as Portland City Commissioner with over a year and a half to go in his third term. He took a job with an engineering firm to promote street car transportation. While in office he was a champion of the streetcar, successfully bringing that form of rail transportation to downtown Portland. During the recent mayoral campaign, he also felt some heat for not sticking it out during his last stint in local politics. Unlike Palin, Hales was forgiven and voted back in.

Is leaving office early acceptable or not?

I suppose there are worse things one could do. Like stick around too long. The States and various jurisdictions have laws for replacing outgoing politicians, so the people are not really at much of a loss on representation. The bigger problem is the opposite problem: those politicians that just don’t seem to ever go away. Term limits are another subject entirely.

Michael Bloomberg, Mayor of New York City (2002-current), helped get the rules changed to increase the two-term limit to three-terms in time to let him run again. It’s worked out well for him so far, though many residents seem to wish they hadn’t allowed it. Current governors Jerry Brown (1975-1983!, 2011-current) of California and John Kitzhaber (1995-2003, 2011-current) of Oregon are serving their third terms, though non-consecutive. No rules were changed, and this is a fair move. But it seems like a sneaky maneuver.

Our problems with entrenched politicians pale in comparison to those in other countries, where the powerful maintain their position for many years. Vladimir Putin has manipulated Russian politics for sometime, having served as either Prime Minister or President or Prime Minister or President continuously since 1999. Fidel Castro was of course the leader of Cuba for over 52 years (and some dinosaurs).

We should respect the faithful completion of a full term, but I can appreciate the politician’s decision to leave office early. It’s his life, and he shouldn’t feel entrapped in a position he no longer feels is a good situation. Those who leave seem to have a pretty good gig waiting for them, and they know that they’ll most likely not be welcomed back. We probably won’t see Jim DeMint or Sarah Palin in an elected position anytime soon, though we’ll continue to hear from them. Charlie Hales is playing small ball in local politics, so he can get away with more.

It’s the other guys we have to worry about, and it’s our own fault for voting them back in. Again and again.

Portland’s Plastic Bag Ban

The Portland City Council, led by outgoing Mayor Sam Adams, recently increased its regulation on the use of plastic bags within city limits. Not everyone thinks it’s a good idea, as we’ll now have to head north to Vancouver Washington if we want to keep a plastic bag full of marijuana on our door knob (now legal!). The original plastic bag ban in Portland was established in 2011 and only targeted the largest retail stores. Now all stores, regardless of size, as well as all restaurants and farmers markets have been given notice. The full scope of the intended regulation goes into effect October 2013.

Today the Oregonian reported that state legislators are seeking to push for a statewide ban on the bag. While some cities with similar bans require a fee to use paper bags, Portland graciously allows stores to choose whether or not to implement a fee on paper bag usage. Other stores offer a discount for bringing in your own reusable bag. The proposed state-wide legislation would, “require retailers to charge 5 cents for a paper bag.” (A bag tax).

Portlanders will be using fewer plastic bags than in years past, and this is a good thing. We need to reduce our reliance on non-renewable resources, and we need to see less plastic blowing down our streets. Paper is a better alternative to plastic. We can grow more trees, but plastic bags can be difficult to recycle.

But how might we relieve ourselves of plastic bag waste without government regulation of private business practices?

Would individuals choose to the use paper or cloth bags rather than plastic, if given the choice? Many do it every day with the choice as it stands. I propose that the burden be shared between the stores and the consumers, and the government should stay out of it. Many stores offer reusable bags for sale at a reasonable price, but continue to offer plastic bags as the default option. People use them because they are available and they’re cheap.

These are individual choices that we all need to make. We should allow space in civil society for positive choices made by individuals rather than government mandates on consumer purchases. Businesses can choose to charge for bags without being forced. Shoppers can choose to bring a bag or use paper.

Commissioner Dan Saltzman believes “Portlanders will rise to the challenge.” I say, “What challenge? There is no choice!”

Encourage alternatives and educate! Why should I care what type of bag I use if it doesn’t matter because the choice was already made by the government? We’re not making decisions to meet a challenge if there is no choice. Some think their neighbors are too dumb to make the right decision themselves, and so they must be forced to fall in line. Have we tried hard enough at the friendly art of persuasion? Can we provide another incentive to stop using plastic bags besides the force of law? Some people are simply unaware and ignorant, and would make a wiser choice if they had more information. By taking away the power of choice, government is perpetuating ignorance.

At least the plastic bag ban craze is happening at the local and state level. Check out this map. The last thing we need is a federal law which regulates how I transport my six-pack of Oregon micro-brew from the corner store to my home.