Bill Maher recently called for a tax on religion, and he could be right. But it’s not entirely clear how he believes he’s right.
The host of HBO’s Real Time with Bill Maher closed a recent show declaring, “If we levy taxes – sin taxes, they call them – on things that are bad to get people to stop doing them, why in heaven’s name don’t we tax religion?”
Maher, who is almost as well known for his outspoken atheism as he is for his comedic chops, went on to say, “You want to raise the tax on tobacco so kids don’t get cancer? Okay, but let’s put one on Sunday school so they don’t get stupid.”
If you take him at his word, Maher is out to protect society’s innocent victims from the violence, intolerance, and ignorance of religious beliefs. To be sure, both history books and contemporary media are filled with horrific stories of the victims of religious violence and intolerance. From Christian pogroms of the Middle Ages to the terror attacks of ISIS this year, from the church’s treatment of women throughout history to the church-driven law’s treatment of transgender persons in North Carolina and Mississippi last month, it’s all-too-easy to mock religion for the sake of an easy, albeit uncomfortable laugh, and to use that laugh track as the backdrop for a call to tax religions.
But that’s not why societies should tax religions. Beyond taxes imposed across the board to pay for common infrastructure, taxes can be used to discourage activities that threaten the common good. Carbon taxes are one example.
But even in the examples Maher cites or alludes to, religions aren’t a threat to the social order. More often they are and have been, in fact, a supporter. After all, in the Middle Ages the church and state marched hand-in-hand to persecute Jews. ISIS claims that it wants to set up a state power. The misogyny of religious groups throughout history has served patriarchal social orders quite well, and there’s a direct line from the bathroom to the voting booth tying together conservative evangelicals and many Republican politicians these days.
Those deep ties between religion and state are no reason, from the point of view of the state, to impose taxes on religions. Religions founded on what might be called a theology of respectability nurture obedient adherents to the status quo of the society of which they are a part. It’s easy to understand why the state supports them with tax advantages.
Sure, the adherents of such religious convictions might believe silly things about the origin of species, but that’s not taking a bite out of the bottom line of the corporate state. They might even have tendencies toward violent repression of minorities, but as long as those minorities continue to serve the economic and political interests of the powerful then a little controlled violence is just the cost of keeping order. Religions that preach personal piety and encourage respectable behavior don’t threaten the social order. In fact, they support it.
But that’s not the only theology available to the church or mosque or synagogue. As Brittney Cooper notes in a recent issue of The Christian Century focused on the Black Lives Matter movement, “the movement has issued a clarion call to the church […] to affirm a theology of resistance rather than a theology of respectability. This movement demands reckoning with who Jesus is. Is Jesus only a savior come to deliver us from punishment for personal sin? Or is Jesus a savior who joins with us in the work to end racism, patriarchy, homophobia, and transphobia?”
A theology of resistance threatens power and stability. Societies should tax religions not to protect members of the society, but to protect the existing social order. Using the power of the IRS, the government could weaken the grip that prophets have on the imaginations of people who might be inspired to embrace a vision of a future otherwise.
Preachers following the Revised Common Lectionary through this Eastertide are in the midst of a brief sojourn through Revelation. The Roman emperor did not confine John of Patmos to that Greek island because he feared that the gospel would make children stupid. He exiled John because he feared that the gospel would make Christians rebel against the authority of Rome.
Likewise, J. Edgar Hoover did not spy on the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. because the FBI director feared that King’s proclamation of the gospel would make black folks ignorant. Hoover harassed King because he feared that the gospel proclamation would make black folks rebel against white supremacy and call the capitalist order into question.
That’s a sin against the state. That’s cause for taxation. Maybe Maher was completely right after all. Sin taxes all around!
David Ensign is pastor of the Clarendon Presbyterian Church in Arlington, Virginia. He has a PhD from DePaul University and worked for ten years as a policy analyst and writer for the Councail of State Governments.