Are American Christians persecuted? Rob Boston, author of Taking Liberties: Why Religious Freedom Doesn’t Give You The Right To Tell Other People What To Do , says NO! Here is an excerpt of an excerpt that appeared in the March 2014 Church & State:
Certain words should not be tossed around lightly. Persecution is one of those words.
Religious Right leaders and their followers often claim that they are being persecuted in the United States. They should watch their words carefully. Their claims are offensive; they don’t know the first thing about persecution.
One doesn’t have to look far to find examples of real religious persecution in the world. In some countries, people can be imprisoned, beaten, or even killed because of what they believe. Certain religious groups are illegal and denied the right to meet. This is real persecution. By contrast, being offended because a clerk in a discount store said “Happy Holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas” pales. Only the most confused mind would equate the two.
Far from being persecuted, houses of worship and the religious denominations that sponsor them enjoy great liberty in America. Their activities are subjected to very little government regulation. They are often exempt from laws that other groups must follow. The government bends over backward to avoid interfering in the internal matters of religious groups and does so only in the most extreme cases.
What the Religious Right labels “persecution” is something else entirely: it is the natural pushback that occurs when any one sectarian group goes too far in trying to control the lives of others. Americans are more than happy to allow religious organizations to tend to their own matters and make their own decisions about internal governance. When those religious groups overstep their bounds and demand that people who don’t even subscribe to their beliefs follow their rigid theology, that is another matter entirely.
Before I delve into this a little more, it would be helpful to step back and take a look at the state of religious liberty in the United States today. Far from being persecuted, I would assert that religion’s position is one of extreme privilege.
Consider the following points:
- Religious groups enjoy complete tax exemption, a very powerful and sought-after benefit.
- Unlike secular nonprofit groups, houses of worship are not required to apply for tax-exempt status. They receive it by mere dint of their existence. Houses of worship are assumed to be tax exempt as soon as they form. This exemption is rarely examined again and is revoked only in cases of extreme fraud (such as someone claiming that the entity he or she has formed is a church when it’s really a for-profit business).
- Houses of worship are free from the mandatory reporting obligations that are imposed on secular nonprofit groups. For example, secular groups that are tax-exempt must fill out a detailed financial form and submit it to the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) every year. This document, called a Form 990, must be made available for public inspection. Houses of worship and ministries are not required to fill out and submit these forms.
- Religious entities are not required to report their wealth to any government agency. The question often comes up about how much money houses of worship raise every year or what the value of the land they hold is. There is no way of knowing this because they are not required to tell anyone.
- The IRS has the power to audit individuals and secular groups at the merest suspicion of wrongdoing or financial irregularities. Houses of worship, by contrast, are very difficult for the IRS to audit. This is so because Congress passed a special law governing church audits that requires the IRS to show heightened scrutiny before initiating such procedures. In addition, church audits must be approved by highly placed IRS officials.
- Religious groups enjoy a loud and robust public voice. They own television and radio stations all over the country (all tax exempt, by the way). They own publishing arms, and they maintain various outreach sites on the Internet. The ability of religious groups to proselytize and spread their theology is limited only by the imaginations of their leaders.
- Across the country, religious groups own a network of hospitals, secondary schools, colleges, social-service agencies, and other entities that often enjoy a cozy relationship with the government. Many of these institutions are subsidized directly with tax funds—even though they may promote religion. In recent years, religious groups that sponsor charitable services have seen themselves open to a host of new taxpayer assistance through the so-called faith-based initiative.
- Religious groups are often exempt from laws that secular organizations must follow. A house of worship or a ministry can fire employees at will if those workers violate (or are merely suspected or accused of violating) some tenet of the faith. A religious school, for example, could fire a woman who becomes pregnant out of wedlock. A corporation or a secular nonprofit would not be able to do this.
- In many cases, religious groups are freed from following even basic laws designed to promote health, safety, and general welfare. Houses of worship are routinely exempted from laws designed to improve access to facilities for those with disabilities, for example. In some states, daycare centers and other facilities sponsored by religious groups are wholly exempt from routine inspection laws.
- Many religious groups engage in extensive lobbying on Capitol Hill and in the state capitals. Under federal law, there is virtually no regulation of their lobbying activities. Federal law exempts from oversight “a church, its integrated auxiliary, or a convention or association of churches that is exempt from filing a Federal income tax return.” This means that, unlike other groups, religious organizations are not required to report the money they spend attempting to influence legislation or to register their lobbyists. In rare cases, some states have tried to impose minimal regulations, such as public financial-disclosure reports, on houses of worship. The religious groups often fight such laws and call them an infringement of their religious-liberty rights.
- Many legislators are quick to placate religious groups and the clergy. The results of their lobbying campaigns are often successful. In the 1990s, when some religious groups began to complain about experiencing difficulties with zoning issues and the ability to build houses of worship where they pleased, Congress was quick to pass a special law called the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act. This law essentially trumps local zoning regulations with a federal fiat—even though, for many years, zoning had been considered a matter best handled by local officials.
- Religious groups are often treated with special deference in cases of suspected law breaking. Anyone who doubts this need not look beyond the experience of the Roman Catholic Church during the pedophilia scandal. A secular corporation that engaged in such a massive cover-up and acts of deception would have found its top leaders behind bars. Yet in that scandal, only a handful of relatively low-level clergy were held accountable.
I have created this list not necessarily to criticize or call for changing these policies (although some of them are overdue for scrutiny) but to make the point that the leaders of religious organizations have very little reason to complain. Their position is an exalted one. They are well regarded by lawmakers, and their institutions are not only tax supported in some cases but are also beyond the reach of secular law. What they are experiencing is not persecution; it is preferential status.
Why, then, is there so much complaining from the Religious Right? (And it does come primarily from religious conservatives. Mainline and moderate clergy tend to understand their position of privilege and appreciate it.) Why do we hear so many cries about persecution?
Primarily we hear this because, despite their cushy position in society, religious groups do not get everything they want. In the case of ultraconservative religious groups, some of what they want is unrealistic or would require a complete reordering of society and perhaps a different constitution. In other words, our nation is not the theocracy that many in the Religious Right would prefer. When they attempt to make our society more theocratic, plenty of Americans resist. Our refusal to roll over and submit to them is, to their mind, a form of persecution…