Recently a federal judge in Wisconsin ruled, in a suit filed by the Freedom from Religion Foundation, that clergy person’s tax-exempt housing is unconstitutional. You can read more about it here.
The reason why clergy have tax-exempt housing in the first place is baffling to me. It’s not necessary.
True, it’s a nice perk in a job where the burn-out rate is almost on par with air traffic controllers.
But they don’t get tax-free housing. Hell, I don’t even think they get free unlimited plane flights…and they help land the things!
It’s not necessary. In fact, I think it’s a problem.
Because if you look at the marriage between the clergy tax-free housing status and the government that granted it, you’ll find that this all arose in the 1920’s at a time when modern American exceptionalism was merging with revived religious fervor. And you know the trajectory: revivals, the end of the Third Great Awakening bleeding into two World Wars and then a Fourth Great Awakening, the marriage of American cultural values and “Christian values.”
The church became the backbone of a social structure where everyone lived in little pink houses (for you and me), waved the flags that stood near the crosses next to the altars, and believed that God’s protection was over the USA.
At least, that’s the pretty picture painted by many.
Lost in the shadow of this false utopia that many look back on with fond affection is a series of systems that held racism iron-locked, held fear of the “other” as a value, and held crippling poverty as something you shy away from looking at (remember Robert Kennedy’s national tour?).
I think it is no accident that the “social gospel” of the Third Great Awakening was largely stifled in the 20’s-30’s and fell out of influence as we tumbled into the World Wars as now religious structures, who had been given a hand-out by Uncle Sam, began focusing on the individual rather than society.
Enter the Fourth Great Awakening with altar calls and personal commitments to Christ and civic duty…
What happens when Caesar sends you a gift? You become hesitant to critique Caesar. You begin to scratch political backs.
The systems of the Great Society became largely solidified as religious and civic powers walked in lock-step. Why is it, do you think, that Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote his prophetic letter to white pastors from that jail cell?
Their silence was deafening!
And all the while they were taking their tax breaks from a system that didn’t find it important that people of all races vote.
I’m happy to give up my tax-free housing allowance. I hope other clergy are, too. I don’t think I can take personal money from a system that continues to cut SNAP benefits, continues to feed fat insurance companies even in medical care reform, that continues to fight wars at considerable expense but refuses to fight poverty with any like measure.
I am not an advocate for being against things simply to be against something. But there is much in our world that does not exhibit righteousness, “right-relationship,” and I must be free to speak against those ills. Let’s give tax breaks to people that really are persecuted.
Perhaps this move will free clergy up to advocate for such a position.