Like other authoritarians, right-wing Christians often prefer to minimize transparency in order to avoid accountability. Those who have considerable power within the social hierarchies prescribed by conservative Christianity can often evade accountability on a variety of fronts. The success of the Catholic Church and the Southern Baptist Convention at hiding and minimizing sexual abuse scandals over generations provides an obvious illustration, and to the extent that these churches are implementing reforms and safeguards now, they’re only doing so because of intense, sustained public pressure generated by brave survivors who’ve spoken out and refused to back down.
Another obvious example is the use of dark money by Christian Right megadonors. The megadonors themselves often like to keep a low profile, and the beneficiaries of their largesse sometimes engage in deceptions of their own, attempting to obscure their ideology and goals in misleading outreach campaigns, whether on behalf of a faux-hip PR campaign for Jesus or on behalf of radical anti-abortion crisis pregnancy centers.
It’s bad enough that megadonors can use donor-advised funds to cover their tracks in funding extremist initiatives. It’s worse when, as an explosive recent report by ProPublica lays out, major right-wing Christian lobbying organizations can easily get the IRS to recognize them as “churches.” While these power players dedicated to pushing a theocratic agenda on all Americans already had 501(c)(3) tax exempt status as “charities,” they at least had to file annual 990 forms, making some of the information about their finances public. IRS-designated churches don’t even have to do that, which means they can be as opaque as they like, all without paying Uncle Sam a dime out of their massive revenues.
Beginning under Trump and continuing under Biden, organizations like the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, Liberty Counsel, and the American Family Association have lined up to be granted church status, describing themselves as “associations of churches”—a designation that really only makes sense for denominations with member churches, which they are not.
The latest lobby to join the club that we know about is the Family Research Council, the “family friendly” outfit that briefly employed Josh Duggar before his child molestation scandal broke. FRC is known for its staunch anti-abortion and anti-LGBTQ stances, as well as its annual far-right Pray Vote Stand Summit (previously called the Values Voter Summit). FRC’s longtime head Tony Perkins was influential in shaping discriminatory Trump Administration policies that harmed the LGBTQ community.
According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, FRC is an anti-LGBTQ hate group with a history of “working against abortion and stem cell research, [and] fighting pornography and LGBTQ equality,” and an organization that “often makes false claims about the LGBTQ community based on discredited research and junk science.” This type of hateful advocacy contributes to the anti-LGBTQ moral panic currently underway in which authoritarian Christians, claiming that queer people are “groomers,” frequently engage in direct intimidation and harassment that’s likely to escalate into physical violence.
According to the IRS, however, FRC is an “association of churches.” This despite the fact that FRC has no member churches, holds no public church services, and performs no baptisms.
The IRS’s approach to tax exempt designations for religious institutions has frankly been broken for a very long time. Even so, up until now I’ve not been one to join in the call to #TaxTheChurches, as the occasionally trending Twitter hashtag puts it. I considered this rhetoric to be “unserious,” and simply a nonstarter for a meaningful discussion of policy reform. But I’m ready to join the chorus now.
If FRC can have “church” status while exercising major influence on the government in a way that is directly harmful to citizens who are members of marginalized groups—women and queer folks in particular—then the entire American approach to nonprofit status needs to be overhauled root and branch. Unless and until that’s possible, church status shouldn’t grant tax exemption or freedom from government oversight of church financials.
To be sure, there is approximately zero likelihood of the U.S. government imposing tax requirements on churches, and even if it did, the new revenues extracted probably wouldn’t be massive. The impact would also be greater on smaller churches—including those that do some real good in the world—than on megachurches and lobbies like FRC, which, like major corporations, have the means to employ the sharpest financial minds to find ways to limit their tax liability.
But sometimes the likelihood of a demand being realized isn’t a compelling reason not to make the demand, and sometimes the exposure of injustice is a better criterion for a demand’s “seriousness” than the chances that it will ever be met. I think that’s the case here, since there’s clearly nothing serious about the IRS’s processes for granting “church” status and enforcing its rules about political advocacy for nonprofits of various legal designations—or, more precisely, failing to enforce them.
Calls for fundamental structural reform are helpful—probably even necessary—to start conversations about social issues in which the status quo is unacceptable. Calls for justice can galvanize activists, advocates, and the public, even if, as I noted earlier, the demands made in popular slogans are unlikely to be met. Is it practicable to abolish the police or make deep cuts to their budgets? Maybe not.
But as long as American police departments serve primarily to uphold white supremacy, justice demands that they be defunded, their functions outsourced to more justice-oriented organizations. We can hope that highlighting their role in structural injustice will eventually lead to major changes in the criminal justice system. (To be clear, shifting some police functions to social workers who are trauma-informed, aware of neurodivergence and common mental health issues, and trained in de-escalation techniques seems entirely realistic to me, if only we can find the political will to do it.)
By the same token, if powerful hate lobbies are going to be classified as churches, justice demands that churches should be taxed and subject to reasonable oversight. By rallying around a slogan like “tax the churches,” the hope is to put those with power and influence over federal policy on notice that “we the people” have had enough of being walked all over by the Christian Right.
Ideally, this would shift the national conversation in a way that eventually helps make possible tax and nonprofit reform in which the criteria used to classify an organization as a charity, a church, or a social welfare organization are clear and reasonable, and the rules are strictly and fairly enforced—even on powerful Christian organizations like FRC and local hotbeds of extremist activism such as “The Altar,” a church in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho where far right-wingers organize. Until such time as that possibility is actually on the table, I’m with the #TaxTheChurches crowd.