When the US Supreme Court ruled in 1983 that the IRS could revoke the tax-exempt status of Bob Jones University (BJU) over the school’s segregationist policies, Christianity Today joined many other Christian organizations in protest, warning that churches that bar women pastors or ministries that oppose abortion could be next.
“It is not time to take to the streets,” Kenneth Kantzer wrote in an editorial. “But Christians must reverse their tactics of the last 75 years and once again actively seek to penetrate our society and persuade men and women to espouse our basic biblical values. If we fail to do so, we shall bit by bit lose our precious heritage of freedom and eventually find ourselves a persecuted people.”
At least some CT readers disagreed. “The Supreme Court acted as [God’s] minister (Rom. 13) in striking down racial discrimination and partiality that have no place in the Body of Christ,” wrote John Teets. “As long as Jesus wants it, we will have tax deductions, and when he doesn’t, we will be the better for it.”
James Sennett agreed: “Where is it written that religious institutions have an inalienable right to tax exemption at all?” Cal Thomas, then with the Moral Majority, disagreed with CT from the other side of things. Christians, he said, should take to the streets to demand BJU’s tax exemption: “We have sought comfort rather than confrontation with the world, and that is the major reason the world does not respect or listen to us.”
As I was reading how support for BJU had divided white and black Christians, tax exemption was becoming an issue in the presidential primary debates. The candidate who proposed stripping groups that oppose same-sex marriage of tax exemption has dropped out. But the issue is not going away. How hard should we fight? Should we? As Kantzer wrote in ’83, “Tax exemption is not identical with religious freedom.” So what’s the calculus? How do we weigh the Lord’s “Let him have your cloak also” and “Render unto Caesar” against the likely closure of thousands of congregations, overseas miseries that aid groups will be less able to alleviate, and a deeper entanglement of church and state?
Paul Matzko, a historian, BJU graduate, contributor to The Gospel Coalition, and editor for the Cato Institute, is no advocate for government power. Still, you may not come away entirely convinced by his argument for sitting out the fight for tax exemption. That’s okay! The point is to think through what we fight for, at what cost, and how it helps us to better love God and neighbor. That’s one way to “reverse the tactics of the last 75 years and once again actively seek to penetrate our society and persuade men and women to espouse our basic biblical values.” If we fail to do so, “losing our precious heritage of freedom” won’t be the worst of it.
Ted Olsen (@TedOlsen) is editorial director of Christianity Today.
Have something to add about this? See something we missed? Share your feedback here.