Strengthening Constitutional Self-Government

No Left Turns

Religion and politics in Canada

My friend John von Heyking had an editorial in today’s Calgary Herald. Responding to a recent call by Canadian gay activists to revoke the tax-exempt status of churches that oppose gay marriage (also discussed here), John offers the following arguments:

[Gay activist Kevin] Bourassa’s argument implies that any kind of political statement is partisan. His argument inflates what counts as “political” to the point that any statement about culture is necessarily political. This leads to a radically secularist and statist view restricting churches to tend to their own communities, like marrying their own members and perhaps running a soup-kitchen. But they are prohibited from engaging and criticizing the overall culture, which common sense tells us affects the way people think of marriage and contributes to the need for soup-kitchens.

His argument is radically secularist because it seeks to restrict religious voices, except his own, from participating in public debate.

Mr. Bourassa’s argument is also statist, though it comes on the wings of a libertarianism that seeks to liberate individuals, and on the wings of equality because it views tax exemptions as special pleading. It’s statist because, by collapsing all of culture into politics, it gives the state a license to dominate culture, instead of letting culture develop from autonomous sources and communities. Society needs robust autonomous communities because individuals acting alone are too weak to secure their rights.

His argument is also statist because it removes the ability of organizations to express pre-political rights that enable all citizens to express our consent to government. It also removes their right to manage for themselves the often conflicting moral claims that their religious affiliations make on their political affiliations.

While John makes his argument for a Canadian audience, it certainly applies in spades south of the border as well. If liberty is connected with pluralism, and if churches are among the principal sources of pluralism, then they must be protected above all when they resist and criticize (bear witness against) the dominant culture. While their tax-exempt status may be a matter of legislative grace, it is an exemption that recognizes and respects their claims to transcend the "merely political." To punish or burden churches that conscientiously speak out is precisely to place limits on religious liberty. Such a measure would not be neutral as between religion and irreligion (at least a plausible, if not necessarily the most plausible reading of the First Amendment), but positively hostile to religion (which the First Amendment surely does not require). Not to put too fine a point on it, Mr. Bourassa’s proposal is totalitarian in intent. Let’s hope he doesn’t succeed and hope that his U.S. counterparts aren’t inspired (so to speak) to imitate him.

Discussions - 1 Comment

I am initially perplexed why putting such conditions on a subsidy would be "totalitarian." Religious liberty doesn’t require, surely, that religious organizations be free from normal taxation requirements? At least in Canada, as far as I understand it, tax-exempt status for religious groups is a statutory privilege not a constitutional right.

This being said, the proposal strikes me as arguably contrary to POLITICAL rather than religious freedom, namely the idea that the state should be providing financial incentives for groups to support the position of the government of the day on controversial issues. Maybe this is what Joseph has in mind by "totalitarian." It is totally different than for example making non-discrimination toward gays and lesbians in schools and workplaces (which are normally regulated spheres of activity) a condition of the subsidy; this would be a condition of conduct not belief or expression.



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